In Translation

A while ago, I got into a conversation with a friend of mine about whether or not he should use a commonly used term as a name for a certain magical phenomenon in his fantasy novel or if he should call it by a word he made up just for that book. It’s not a new conversation, especially for fantasy and science fiction writers. I’ve had that conversation a few times and I still find the argument a little odd. I mean, why use a made word when someone’s already come up with a word that works just fine?

His argument was that since his POV characters live on a different world, they¬†don’t actually speak or think in English (the language the novel is written in), and so the made up word would be more correct.

It got me thinking. If that one word has to be in another language because the character doesn’t know English, why is the rest of the novel not written in this other language? Why bother with English at all?

The best example of this is when I heard people complain that a TV show set in ancient Rome used modern curse words. The complaint was that those words hadn’t existed in Rome at that time, so they shouldn’t be used in the show. To which I often responded that, if you really want to get technical, they were all speaking Latin, and Latin doesn’t use articles (such as the or a). Therefore, if we’re getting rid of words that didn’t exist at the time, we’d have to chuck those a well. Now do you really want to watch a show or read a book that doesn’t ever use the word the?

Me neither.

The way I’ve come to think of it is like this — every work of fiction where the characters are based in a time or place other than where the writer lives is a translation. It’s sort of taken for granted that those characters wouldn’t really know the writer’s native language, but since none of us are J.R. Tolkien, we take the other language (whether real or imagined) and turn it into English for the benefit of our readers. Our goal is to make the story easily comprehensible to anyone who picks the book up. And when you’re translating text, you don’t just leave the odd word untranslated to prove that the point of view was originally in a different language.

I mean, why force your reader to slog through dialect and odd terms when they don’t have to? Sure, a few bits of dialect can give the text a little color and texture. You may even run into the occasional term that just won’t translate.

But if you decide you just have to have that made up term, it will require context and explanation for the reader to understand what you’re talking about. When you’ve already got enough to explain with world-building and character development and plot points, this seems like effort you could put to better use. Why make things harder for yourself by having to explain one term in a believable fashion, without slowing down the story, when you could easily have just used a common word that people will understand in an instant?

Not that there aren’t writers out there who are gifted at slipping in the odd dialect and crazy, made-up word that just zings. If you’re one of those people…well, I’m insanely jealous. You are a rare breed. But as for the rest of us, it’s better to err on the side of the easily understandable.

So, I ask you, when you find yourself wanting to use that cleverly created magical lexicon you’ve come up with, or just feel the need to toss in a made-up term, to make sure you really need it. Ask yourself why a normal, everyday word can’t do the job, and make sure you really want to put in the time and effort it will take to make the reader understand what you’re talking about (and no, creating a dictionary at the back of the book ala Frank Herbert doesn’t count).

Please, be kind to your readers. Don’t make them work any harder than they have to. Treat the text like you would a translation and make it easy to understand so they can focus on what’s really important-your fantastic masterpiece of a story.

3 responses on “In Translation

  1. Brandon M Lindsay

    Ditto. While some authors can pull off the plethora of made-up words, it doesn’t generally add anything to the story, and can often interfere with it, since it necessarily forces the reader to stop and think about what that word means. If they stop too many times, they may stop for good.

    My approach to solving this issue is having the characters in my epic fantasy series just speak English. No translation required.

    I’ve heard another author rant about this (I wish I could remember who, alas), and they basically said if it looks like a rabbit, sounds like a rabbit, smells like a rabbit, and acts like a rabbit, you don’t need to call it a derthnorb. Just call it a rabbit. I think that is a very enlightened approach.

    A book I’m currently reading has characters who speak various dialects. One of dialects includes the word “murther.” Which I can only assume means “murder.” Absolutely unnecessary, and a prime example of how word invention can go awry.

    Great post, Leigh.

  2. Jon

    One thing to be careful of is using loan-words and/or historical/geographical contextualized words.

    You’d run into the same problem having French Silk Pie in a fantasy world without a France.

    I once read a fantasy story that took place on a fantasy planet with no connection to Earth, yet a character is described as wearing the most beautiful of Senegalese silk. Sorry, no Senegal, no Senegalese silk. As a reader, I might not even know about the quality of silk from Senegal, so they could have easily substituted a country from the fantasy world. The end result is the same: the author wouldn’t have mentioned the silk’s origins other than to say it’s really good or really bad (contextually, it meant really good).


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