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...