TT: Brain Snake Therapy

ALAN: OK! Time to see if we can tame last week’s brain snakes. Tell me more about your thoughts.

Feet Up, Eyes Closed

JANE (putting her feet up on the couch and closing her eyes):  Thanks, Alan.  I really appreciate your willingness to talk to me.  These things keep me up at night.

Puns or word plays are one area where, when I’m writing a story that involves created languages (conlangs, for those of you who are coming late to this discussion), I find myself getting snarled up in the coils of brains snakes.

I know that word play provides a real challenge for “real life” translators as well.  This is because not only is there a play on words, the play on words isn’t just a matter of sound but a matter of cultural context.  Without both, you don’t have a good joke.

ALAN: That’s the difference between idiom and literalism, of course. I have an example from real life, but I’m sure that exactly the same difficulty arises in made up languages.

In both American and British English, someone who falls for a prank on 1st of April is an April Fool. But in France, that person is a Poisson D’Avril – literally an April Fish. But anyone translating that phrase into English would, I hope, always choose the idiomatic version. A literal translation would simply puzzle anyone who came across it…

JANE: I agree.  In the case of April Fish versus April Fool, a literal translation would make no sense at all.

When I’m writing, if I can’t resist a clever bit of phrasing, I’ll let myself provide the word play and hope my readers understand that I’m more or less “translating.”  However, many more times, I’ll just re-write and, sorrowfully, eliminate the word play.

Another area where working in a conlang becomes difficult is when a translation is very culturally specific.  These happen even between types of English.  For example, the breed of dog I’d call a German Shepherd, you’d call an Alsatian.

ALAN: That’s another good example of “two nations separated by a common language”, as the saying goes. You and I originally started these Tangents so that we could talk about the kinds of linguistic and cultural differences that separated us. It has taken us a long time to explore that topic and we definitely haven’t finished with it yet. We still keep finding things that astonish us both.

JANE: Absolutely!  If people knew the number of times I need to ask you what an idiomatic expression means…  But I tangent off.  Back to my German Shepherd (your Alsatian).

What would a translation device do in this case?  Certainly the babel fish wouldn’t have an issue, but what about a mechanical translation device or a spell that provides not a telepathic “save” but an actual sound?

What sound would the Universal Translator pick?  Would it assess the number of American English speakers versus the number of British English speakers and choose based on that?  Would each person hear a slightly different translation in his or her earbud?

ALAN: If I had to choose, I’d choose the latter. At least that way I’d hear something I had a good chance of understanding. The first choice has the potential to flummox me with unfamiliar “English” constructions.

JANE: But if there isn’t an earbud, then that’s not going to work.  What if the translation is coming over a conference call or because the Big Evil Alien is making demands over the ship-to-ship communicator?

Ah, but English to English or even Earth Language to Earth Language is a relatively easy problem.  What do you do when a translation would involve creatures, concepts, or actions that don’t have a “match” in one of the cultures involved?

Let’s say we’re on an alien planet.  I’m talking through a mechanical translator to Noram the Alien.  I say, “I’m looking for my dog.  He’s a German Shepherd.”  Well, Noram has never seen a dog, a German, or a shepherd.

ALAN: But does Noram have the concept of “animal companion”? If “he” does, then perhaps analogies can be drawn that would get the idea across, albeit perhaps somewhat crudely. Only if no analogies exist would we probably see the communication completely break down.

JANE: Even if Noram has the concept of an animal companion, the opportunities for communication chaos are vast.  Even “looking for” could be problematic, since it involves vision.  What if Noram doesn’t have eyes but “sees” via tentacles that perceive radiation wave lengths?  What if Noram is from an asexual race and the concept of “he” or “she” isn’t in its/hier concept range?

Noram might hear: “I am seeking my BZZZZ.  BZZZ.  BZZZ. BZZZ.”

Or the translator might attempt description: “I am [visually] seeking my quadrupedal semi-intelligent omnivorous but primarily carnivorous companion creature.  It provides one half of the necessary sexual equation to reproduce its species.  Its species is associated with one small geographic region of the planet of origin [see map] and was originally bred to guard and guide other creatures.”

There’s just SO much to language, to communication, to conlanging that there are times I’m not surprised that many writers never stray from our world, our culture, and, well, just write vampire romance novels.

ALAN: Or they could take the path of least resistance and make the aliens just like us both linguistically and culturally, except of course that the aliens have green skin or lumpy foreheads.

JANE: (hums the classic Star Trek theme).

ALAN: (patiently continuing):  However, assuming that there is some common ground, some degree of communication is always possible.

My dog Jake communicates primarily by smell, but despite that he and I can still exchange ideas, some of them quite complex. He definitely hears “BZZZZ.  BZZZ.  BZZZ. BZZZ.” when I speak, and I hear variations on “WOOF” when he speaks. But nevertheless we understand each other. He can tell me when he needs to go outside and when he needs to come back in. He can tell me when he really, really wants a treat.  He will happily play tug-o-war with a rope if I suggest it.

But I agree that he will never understand that I don’t want to walk in that particular direction because it’s damp and my boots leak. He understands neither boots (except as things that are nice to chew) nor leaks.

JANE: I absolutely, positively agree with you that it’s possible to communicate with aliens.  I do so daily with my cats, guinea pigs, and husband (actually, I’m sure he feels the same about communicating with me).

The difficulty is how does a writer get these complex communications issues across while keeping the story moving?  How does the writer preserve the plot and not get bogged down in what is essentially a detail of setting?

ALAN:  BZZZZ.  BZZZ.  WOOF. WOOF.

JANE: MEOW!

ALAN: I couldn’t have said it better myself.

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4 Responses to “TT: Brain Snake Therapy”

  1. James M. Six Says:

    In a tanget on your tangent about how to translate, there are also expletives which simply don’t translate. “Farscape” did a fair job of that with its made up words that all the aliens used (including Crichton, after he learned them) but which the translator microbes (babelfish) never translated. It was very useful in getting around TV censors and amusing when you realize just how much the folks on Moya were cursing. Where I think even the babelfish might have difficulty is the combination of an expletive with a regular noun, because of the usually unwritten rules about how those are constructed, as per the article mentioned here:

  2. Paul Says:

    Snakes. Why’d it have to be snakes?

  3. James M. Six Says:

    Synchronicity. Tor’s website just put up an article about conlangs in fiction: http://www.tor.com/2017/08/10/five-books-with-fictional-languages-that-could-be-real/

    • janelindskold Says:

      I saw that… I bet they copied! (Not really, but I couldn’t resist.)

      I hope you told them Alan and I had done our series. We’d love to share our thoughts with a different audience.

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