Sunday, February 15, 2009

Workshop: Rendering a Created Language in English

I thought I'd pay attention today to an issue I sometimes call "the translation problem," which effectively is the issue of rendering a created language in English. After all, no matter how much work you put into creating a language, a culture, etc. the language that carries the story will be English. So in some manner, you have to find a way to give the flavor of your created language to your English.

This issue covers two of the items from my last post: dialogue, and voice. This is because both of them have directly to do with the content of the language you put down on the paper.

Let me start with a couple of examples from my own work.

The alien dialogue in "Let the Word Take Me" (Analog July/August 2008) was based on the principle that the Gariniki would speak only in oblique references to a set of canonical sacred stories. Some of you may be familiar with this language concept, which I first encountered in Star Trek: The Next Generation's fascinating episode entitled "Darmok."

What I did for the dialogue was design references without actually writing the underlying stories themselves. Examples include "Kridia's head-scales shone," "Rosbas drew strength from the sedi," "In the desert Herremi could not see her face." These were deliberately intended to be opaque. The linguist's son, David Linden, could understand most of them because he'd worked out correspondences between context and utterance along with his father for several years. So I could use his understanding to help the reader's understanding - of the dialogue.

The voice of Allayo's point of view was a different matter. Because culturally she knew of contexts in which the language was used productively (normally), she could think to herself in the language without using the oblique style - a good thing, or I wouldn't have been able to use her point of view at all. But if I tried to make her voice like the English I speak, that would not have worked either. So I looked for ways that her attitude toward language and the world could show up in the way that her voice came across. Since she considered all language sacred, I aimed for a tone that would suggest reverence - using words and meter (stress patterns) that would hint at Biblical verse or incantation. This also meant avoiding slang and contracted forms like "don't" "I'm" etc.

The language of the Aurrel in my forthcoming story, "Cold Words," depends on a distinction between high-status and low-status talk. The high-status talk I designed as the dialect spoken by a tundra-dwelling species of Aurrel, who used talk for coordination of their pack hunts. Thus I decided that they would begin by getting one another's attention on the run with an initial word that both announced the intent to speak and indicated the functional content of what would follow. The low-status dialect didn't use these same initial words, but had some of the same functional things - like submitting, or dominating, or asking for attention - simply mixed into the general talk.

This may all sound pretty complicated. Well in fact, seeing it done is much easier than trying to explain it. However, I did have a tought time at first making it readable in English. I had to make two attempts! Thank goodness for my critique group who basically said "Are you nuts?" and made me try again. However, the end result was both readable and distinctive once I introduced it properly early in the story. An example of the contrast between dialects might be as follows (where the word "belly" refers to a canine apology):

Low status:
"I belly to you, but I don't think so."

High status:
"Bel-belly: I don't think so."

Again, this is the dialogue. I could NOT do this comprehensibly in the character voice. The character voice was made distinctive in part by using first person present tense, in part by completely avoiding the present progressive tense "am __ing," and in part by keeping intense focus on the kinds of world metaphors that my character used. These metaphors were related to dominant and submissive relationships, hunting, animal behavior, etc. When possible I also tried to use a loping meter suggestive of running on the hunt.

These are my own examples, so they are extreme - but I'm hoping you can get some ideas from them. One of the things I tend not to do is use altered spelling to suggest pronunciation. However, this can be done well. Mike Flynn, author of The January Dancer, does it beautifully in his work. He not only alters spellings systematically, but backs them up with surrounding description that connects the spelling changes to the local dialects he is creating.

Before I finish this entry, I'll take a brief look at two of the language models in this workshop that might benefit most from a deliberate language-to-English representation strategy. One is wordjinn's partial psychic dialogue, and the other is David's underwater dialogue (pyraxis may also find this useful, but I don't know enough about rsakki at the moment).

In order to have two people speak to each other, you need to have linguistic content. That linguistic content is going to be most easily expressed in English words. So take the meaning of what one entity says to another, put it in words, and use that for the verbal dialogue. To give it a unique flavor, concentrate on giving unique color to the meanings expressed. So far you will be working free of obligation as to the precise sounds involved in the exchange.

Things like slang and contractions are responses to social and speaking conditions, and as such, they draw attention to the social and speaking conditions surrounding the dialogue in question. If your social context does not match that of a particular slang term, avoid it. Contractions are less distracting, but still, watch out for them if you're trying to create a formal impression with the communication.

Any created word that you insert into your interaction will instantly imply sounds in the pronunciation of the alien language. If that language is never ever pronounced in an air medium, the type of sounds that can be transmitted goes way down (indeed, most or all of our consonants would have no hope of being transmitted under those circumstances; this might be worth researching in more detail). If it is sometimes pronounced in an air medium, you can get away with saying that the word is not fully pronounced in that context, but implied, and the full word would be evoked in the speaker or hearer's mind.

If you have crucial components of communication that are not delivered verbally, then you need to decide what they are and how exactly they are transmitted. While color and scent languages could evolve to a level of sophistication, I have a hard time believing that they could be easily developed for the conversion of verbal material, which is why I'm advocating sign language for David. Sign languages already exist, and the primary time burden would be in learning the amount of material that these people wanted to preserve. It would be far easier to write with indelible ink on stone or another water-durable material to preserve records than to marshall a large population into memorizing cultural content in a newly learned language. Color or scent might be more effective for conveying mood, which I think would fit well with the discussion to this point. Wordjinn: with telepathy, you can presumably send words if you want, and thus those would have a soundlike representation. The harder trick is interweaving it with dialogue without ending up with something that reads like a script, because people will generally find this more difficult to follow. Also you'll probably want to have it represent the content, instead of having it look like an explanation of the content. So you might want to give some thought to how the djinn talk about their own telepathy. What do they call it? How do they refer to the keys, and what is the content of the keys? Etc. In our language, we have words that we use for opening communication, identifying ourselves, and asking permission for various things; I think these could be relatively easily adapted in a unique way to give the impression of the psychic content you're looking for. These are complex messages, and thus I think words are the best communicators for such content, but I think you can use words to gesture toward what is being expressed. Think of it almost as an English translation, and you'll find the content will become much easier to handle.

I hope this helps...


  1. I'm not sure yet whether the colour language will be something that the arcati have had for a long time, or something new the genetic engineers have added.

    If it's old, combine the colour and scent languages, and perhaps there is no need for verbal language at all (of course, that makes it hard for me to translate it into English, the reader to understand it, and the human explorers to decihper it).

    Although, as you say, colour and scent may be best for emotional content.

    Much to think on.

  2. Juliette,

    I'm still finding occurrences of OK which need to be replaced with all right; which has led me, somewhat impatiently, to the conclusion that I need a good substitute for OK. That is, while all right is certainly serviceable, something analogous to OK, especially in the speech of kids and young adults, would be better. Haven't come up with such a term yet, but the idea is stewing and brewing in the back regions.

    A second item that may actually be fully ontopic for a change: Here's a brief excerpt.

    We decided to enter Fairport harbor under sail, so it took a little more than the four hours I'd reckoned on. Still, we came into the busy and picturesque little harbor just after noon. The clerk, an Aboriginal named Ringo Treeplanter, who'd pulled the lunch shift was an old buddy of mine, as many harbor clerks in many harbors were. So, much of the half hour we spent with him in the small, coolly leaf dappled office was spent in chat.

    Sinclair spoke to him in the Aboriginal language, spoke with a fluency I wasn’t sure if I admired or envied. Treeplanter replied. Turning to me with a broad, delighted grin he said, "Your friend, Shepherd, has the heart of a Son of Vracally. He is a good man and will prove a good friend to you. Love him well." Sinclair gave a slight bow, looking mildly embarrassed.

    "I thank you for your words, Treeplanter," I answered, using the rather mannered, formal speech that seemed appropriate in response to such an endorsement. "I shall carry them in the heart of my memory and heed them well."

    Treeplanter nodded, satisfied. Switching to British he asked Sinclair, "So, what brings you to Falibana?"

    "Not a what, but a who," Sinclair answered, grinning mischievously. I glared at him, or tried to.

    Treeplanter laughed, a low, gravelly sound deep in his chest. "Ah," he said. "You too admire la belle Jocelyn?"

    "To know her is to admire her," Sinclair said gallantly.

    "That is true," Treeplanter said. "She is a fine young lady. Our friend Shepherd is most fortunate to have won her heart."

    I cleared my throat. "How are Sarah and the little ones?" I asked pointedly.

    Treeplanter’s black eyes gleamed with pleasure, lighting his copper colored face. "Sarah is very well, thank you. But, you would not recognize Huldah and Daniel. They are five years old now; bright as pearls and curious as magpies. And, the vocabulary of them! I think Sarah must have swallowed Van-Heusen’s Unabridged Dictionary and the whole series of the Encyclopedia Britannica when she was pregnant with them. Sometimes they ask us questions that, we not only can’t answer, but have never thought of asking. You must come see them. You too, Sinclair. Sarah would be delighted."

    We thanked him, saying we’d look in around teatime. Then Sinclair stopped at a cafĂ©, where he said he'd wait wile I went on to Jocelyn's. I squeezed his shoulder and passed on, along the harbor front boulevard. I turned up a steep transverse street, and then into Sea View Gardens.

  3. Current thoughts...

    The formal language is close-up and personal. It involves spoken words, colour changes and pheremones. Getting it all correct takes a lot of study and concentration.

    Informal language at close range is mostly spoken, although there would be some colour and scent. But nobody laughs if you "mispronounce" a word or two.

    At a distance, colour and some sign language is the main channel of communication, with perhaps some pheremones if the currents are right or the character loses control over there scent glands in times of stress.

    To render it in English, something will be said, or signed, or skinflashed, or what the scent says to another arcati will be explained.


  4. Well, here's the problem with getting behind. I was going to agree with you in your last post that language was probably most relevant in setting and plot, but I definitely face "the translation problem" which you identify as being about dialogue and voice, lol.

    Kei is my protagonist and, because of her singular upbringing, she is fluent in all the languages in play but misses a significant mistranslation in legal documents between Eyan and English. She misses it because the English terms are not ones she is that familiar, and the connotations, the outrage and disapproval are the same even though the terms don't refer to the same acts. This mistranslation is discovered by two characters who mainly speak Eyan and Terran respectively, although they both have limited Dalkan skills. I've found this to be a very challenging situation to represent in English.

    Which goes to show, I need more help than I even knew, lol.


  5. Catreona,

    That's an interesting exchange. Hard to judge as I have no idea of its relation to the main conflict; it seems mostly like local color. You might want to give a more thorough physical impression of your alien, as I have a hard time visualizing him as anything but generic humanoid at the moment. There are lots of opportunities there for revelations about each of the characters and their views of one another - that might be fun to explore. You might also want to give some attention to whether Treeplanter has an accent or other sign of dialect - you could convey this most simply with half a line of description at the start.

  6. David,

    By "up-close and personal" I'm assuming you mean that this language form is not intended for public speaking. I can see that someone might feel awkward speaking the formal language, maybe at a loss for the grace required or not knowing the most appropriate phrase. I have a harder time thinking that anyone would have difficulty because of "mispronunciation" as such. It's interesting to consider the possibility of the skinflashing as being old, but it would probably be a good idea to figure out some basic evolutionary reason why they'd have it. Was it initially for camouflage? For conveying mood? How, and for what reason, would that kind of communication become complex and symbolic? If you're wanting communication with humans, you're setting the humans a huge task with a color language, and you may need them to rely on translator machines or some such. Did you decide whether the arcati can still breathe air or not?

  7. K,

    What an interesting situation you've got there. I'm not sure that was quite what I meant by "translation," but it's definitely something to think about. I have a hard time grasping what it is you're striving for from this basic description.

  8. Juliette,

    It is just local color, at the moment, anyway. And, yes, Ringo is pretty much your average human(oid). But for his black hair and eyes and his coppery skin tone, he looks very much like Bronte and Charlie. I haven't entirely decided... perhaps indigenes are smaller than Settlers. In Chapter One, Charlie has an exchange with an acquaintence who is considerably shorter than himself, and though I don't state it in the text, it's in my mind that the acquaintence is also an indigene. Of course, charlie's no shrimp. At six' five" or possibly six' six", he's taller than most people. That would still put walter, the acquaintence, at about six feet. Bronte's more like six' four", and slight whereas Charlie has more bulk...

    All of which is merely to say that indigenes could be physically smaller than at least some settlers without being the size of hobbits or dwarves.

  9. Sorry, I think I confused the issue.

    The 'translation problem' of alien into English is not a problem when Kei is the POV character, because she speaks all the languages on the table well, and automatically translates them for the reader, identifying which language is being spoken when it's an issue. I hadn't felt that I had to represent that in any way.

    It becomes a problem when I have a different POV character who is not so skilled. So say I have Terran (human) and and Eyan (Alien) characters talking. If I'm using the human character (HC), and they're speaking human, then I could easily represent the alien character's difficulty with the language through grammar problems or dropped sounds or whatever, and that works because we all buy that 'human' is essentially English.

    So if my HC and my AC are speaking alien? I guess if the AC is my POV char than I could do the same thing, and hope the reader would just accept that, even though the 'broken english' on the page would be spoken by a character who in fact speaks better English. But I think that would work if you don't draw too much attention to it.

    So the stupid difficulty I've set for myself is that my HC and AC are speaking a third language, which is a second language for both of them. And as I put that here, well it just seems crazy stupid, but in my mind the negotiations that go along with not speaking the same language (and in fact speaking a language that's ill suited for the task at hand) are part of how the hitherto unrealized 'mistake' comes to life.

    But maybe I'm just making things too complicated.

  10. K,

    I think you're probably best off minimizing the amount of linguistic dissonance by mostly writing in plain English. That said, I think one great and simple way you could show the difference between languages is by giving them different politeness forms. You might want to give some thought to how people greet each other in Eyan/Dalkan. How does the capacity for empathy, or the broadcasting of empathy, affect what you say? Do these people ever make explicit reference to the other's ability, or their comfort, etc. when they greet one another? How would they open an interaction? If you can find distinct ways for them to do this, then they will coordinate with your language description and you won't actually have to change the quality of the entire language.

    One key thing to keep in mind here is that you're writing in Kei's point of view, and Kei is an Eyan, but you don't want people to feel her as foreign. You want them to align with her. One way to do this is NOT to make her language sound too far out of the ordinary. Give it some flavor, but keep it mostly plain English so people can feel comfortable inside her head and not always have to be reminded of her foreignness.

  11. Juliette,

    By "up close and personal", I'm trying to keep speech sounds that would not travel far underwater. So the vocal part of the formal language matches closely between air breathers and water breathers.

    The colour change can be both warning (flash bright to warn the herd a predator approaches) and camouflage (okay, the rest of the herd knows there's a predator, now hide yourself).

    By "mispronounce", I meant that emotions can sometimes overwhelm intended responses - so when a subordinate is forced to agree to your wishes, they might skinflash red anger for a moment, before they get themselves under control and turn submission white. Or they might vent the pheremones of fear rather than acquiescence.

    I'm thinking that the earliest water-arcati had to move from sea-mammal-style air breathing to true water breathers because surfacing to breathe put them at the mercy of their enemies in ships.