Writing While Furrin’
So on my blog about a week ago there was an argument over 3 BP. I didn’t care for it, but I confess I’m not enthusiastic about hard sf unless it’s exceptionally well written and has great characters.it has a higher bar to clear. Yes, guys, I confess I paged over the Heinlein engineering equations plus diagrams. Yes, son and husband think I’m nuts for this.
But the conversation went into its being a translation and how it might affect the enjoyment of the book.
Someone came in very heated on how it was terrible we were impugning the translation.
This is when I have to explain some things about being a trans-national writer or a translator. And it’s something you guys can, probably apply to “just” being a writer, which I’ll explain at the end.
First translation is an immensely difficult job. Even translating something as “simple” as tax documents, which was my job, at one time, for a multinational corporation is headache inducing, because you find them using words that IN ENGLISH fall between our normal “fill in” categories.
But if you translate something like novels or poetry, another layer is added. It’s actually impossible to FULLY translate a work of art. Take for instance the American habit of dropping in show-references. For instance, let’s say that someone coming home and finding a mess says “Lucy you have some x-plaining to do.”
In the Portuguese translation of the work, I might have to slot in a similar referent that brings a similar response. (No, I have no clue what just now. When I was a kid the references were to fairytales or classical allusions. Now I doubt it.)
The problem is to do that, and at the same time to keep the original, because you don’t want to write your version of the book, you want to change only what absolutely needed.
I’m not talking (merely) of bad translation. For instance “he said heatedly” often got translated to Portuguese as “com calor” which might have been an expression (?) around my grandma’s time, but which in my growing-up mind translated to “and he was hot.” For the longest time I wondered why people kept getting hot in the middle of conversations or what that had to do with the plot. Turns out, of course, it didn’t. (This reminds me of my brother coming in on a roommate trying to growl a word which in Portuguese can’t be growled. Again, a translation error.) I’m talking of deciding how much to “betray” the work in the new language. You’re going to betray it. In my first day of Techniques of Translation, in college, the teacher wrote across the blackboard “Traducao e traicao” (the cs have cedillas) Which means Translation is Betrayal. I can’t attempt translation without seeing that in my mind. You can’t avoid it. The only question is HOW MUCH will you betray. (And the reason I insisted the boys read The Three Musketeers in French.)
But beyond the translation and word choice, there’s a whole other field. Different cultures have different expectations of works. What one considers side-splittingly funny the other considers annoying or even offensive.
And there are more subtle differences: the pacing of a work, the language what is considered a happy ending.
For someone like me who transitioned between languages and cultures, it was the culture-crossing that was the hardest. When I was published, after 15 years here, I still had a tendency to be a bit slow, a bit internalized and a lot “sad” in my story telling, all of which are markings of Portuguese literature (which I can discern even in translation.)
In an art form that is supposed to mimic the voice behind the eyes, cultural … what Heinlein would call canalization shows itself in what your character notices, what your character worries about, what your character even thinks, and definitely what moves the plot.
Some people complained about the Ancillary (can’t remember if Justice or Sword) character worrying about plates at a totally inappropriate time. I think that would be invisible to the author, because she’s an American woman of a certain class and time.
Which brings us to the next point: you must be aware of your own inner dialogue and how you see things. Oh, not to make them conform to the SJW perspective, which is what they’d tel you, but simply to make them bridge the distance between your mind and other people’s. For instance, if you grew up in a culture where bullfights are common, starting your book with a bull sacrifice might make perfect sense. It was five years before I realized that alone probably got me kicked out of further reading. That’s cultural, but suppose you are a person born and raised in say Appalachia and that hunting is a part of life? Start your novel with hunting on another planet, and you might run into NYC editors who never hunted and who think animals are sort of humans in fuzzy suits, and you’ll be rejected out of hand. (If you’re indie this isn’t a consideration.)
Almost all of us, America being what it is, are part of some micro culture whose inner workings would seem alien to mainstream. If you write about it (and all of us do, sooner or later) you have to be aware of how it’s perceived by the public at large, and how its details would be understood.
Because if you don’t, you’re exposing yourself to being misinterpreted and perhaps rejected or worse.
All of writing is translation or your thoughts and dreams into other minds. And all translation is betrayal so it can be properly perceived by the other mind.
Remember that. Act accordingly.