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.

57 thoughts on “Writing While Furrin’

  1. Interesting. I do wonder if a completely foreign world better than the modern day of 3bp and odd upside down world

    1. Well, 3BP at least has a plausible world (and thus we could suspend our disbelief). It was probably the translation issues that caused me to rate it below the others, but it is perfectly acceptable science fiction (and I have no problem with other people, with other tastes, awarding it).
      Upside down world – not science fiction, not fantasy. Completely unbelievable; you’re barely through page one before you want to pitch it out the window (and wish it really would soar off into space).

      1. Oh I know. I had issues with 3bp but enjoyed. Upside down was a no vote (if it would not have aided the chords would have no awarded it and Letters just for probity. I remember it as stilted and blocky so was unsure if a translation issue.

  2. I’m even afraid to try translating the novel I wrote into the Spanish I grew up with – I left home and Mexico at 19, and I’m probably not up to it. It’s a very grownup book, and my Spanish, while fine for family conversations, is probably going to get my sisters giggling (though maybe they’ll help, too).

    NOT for the faint of heart. And some ideas will not sit well: Mexico is much more traditional that the States.

  3. I took an international business course in college. One thing that stuck with me was the instructor (who’d done quite a few major deals in South America) saying “ALWAYS make sure you have a native translator that has done this for a long time! That applies to negotiations in London just as much as in Buenos Aires!”

  4. Thinking of how the microculture (if you can call it a “culture”) in NYC has changed…

    “Little Fuzzy” would have been returned to H. Beam Piper as ashes in a plastic bag these days (a damnthing and a harpy killed in the first few pages – and they were always hunting for zebralope).

    I recall one passage in a letter from RAH (resident in Colorado) to his agent Lurton Blassingame (in NYC), in which Lurton was asked to correct any errors in a hunting sequence for RAH – as he was not a hunter, and Lurton was…

  5. Alas — I, like Winston Churchill am too much of a duiffer to successfully learn another language fluently, although I did come somewhat adept in German. The one language I speak fluently, I speak marvelously …

    But as I have often read, being a translator of a literary work – getting the meaning, the sense, and the literary idiom of it – is almost as much a gift as being a writer is in the first place. YMMV.

  6. Not directly related to your point, but related to poetry translation.

    Almost all poetry relies on the sound of the words (rhyme, cadence, alliteration, etc.). This makes it nearly impossible to translate without changing the meaning. For example,

    “Gil Galad was an elven king
    Of him the harpers sadly sing”

    became in Hebrew (literal back translation mine)

    “Gil Galad ruled the sons of Lilith,
    The lute-player played about him”.

    To preserve the rhyme.

    AFAIK, the only exception is ancient Semitic poetry, which relied on parallelism:

    “Blessed be the man who did not walk in the counsel of the wicked,
    And on the road of sins didn’t stand,
    And where the mockers sit, sat not.” (Psalm 1, my literal translation)

    It’s almost as if Somebody knew that some poetry written by somebody from that general time and area would become meaningful to significant chunks of the human race.

    1. I had an English professor who defined poetry as: “that which is lost in translation.”

  7. OK, the first thing I thought of when I saw the post title: a cat or rabbit at a keyboard shedding hair like mad. (I came home from work and found that MomRed had [inadvertently] deoderized my cat. The cat likes the smell of the stuff and rolled in it. So I now have a floral-scented calico. I need a vacation.)

      1. He’s free to take the idea and run with it. If the scent sticks to Athena T. C. much longer, he can have the cat to go with it.

  8. This isn’t about “translation” per say but more about “different cultures”.

    I grew up with the concept of “being born again” when you accepted Christ.

    When Jimmy Carter talked about being a Born-Again Christian, the News Media talked as if they had never heard of this idea.

    So how many of us “know” things that other people would be surprised at, even among “Born-In-The US” Americans. [Smile]

  9. When I learned that English was not your first language, I understood some of the more unusual word choices and sentence structures in Darkship Thieves. “Ray” where a North American would say “beam”, things like that. I found it quite instructive.

      1. That was something I had a hard time figuring out about Doc Smith. He used a lot of British speak in his Lensman books. At the time (I think I started reading them at 9), I had no idea of the differences between the two.

        1. I read a YA series in middle school that had kids exploring (in England, somewhere) with “torches”, which I thought was cool, if somewhat impractical. Imagine my disappointment when I learned the truth.

          I read the first three Harry Potter books in the British editions. There are differences. That’s also when I learned what a “pitch” is.

      2. …and from your descriptions of what you read when you were young, you read a lot of American English novels with that sort of phrasing. The language has shifted enough that even I notice it when reading 1940s-1950s books.

  10. Among the earliest books I was amazed by were Stanislaw Lem’s. I think the very first was Memoirs Found in a Bathtub, and then there was The Cyberiad and The Futurological Congress. As a youngster, I didn’t pay much attention to the indicia and didn’t realize they were translated. Especially in Cyberiad, some of the stories play directly off of language. They are still among my favorite books, and I when I look at them I wonder what gets changed in translation.

  11. On the other hand, I was always aware that The Three Musketeers was a translation, because the translator made it part of the book, if I’m reading it right.

  12. So much is lost even if the words are accurately translated. Consider the cultures of the middle-east, and the expression “Don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” (Used by Jesus in reference to giving alms, but widely used elsewhere since, and perhaps before that.)

    So, what about “Don’t let the gauche hand know what the adroit hand is doing”? or “Don’t let your sinister hand know what your dexterous hand is doing”, or maybe more loosely “Don’t allow the hand that feeds others’ mouths to be confused with the hand that wipes your own ass!”

    In the same chapter there is a Greek word that for centuries was only found in one biblical verse. From the roots it clearly referred to a specific type of payment. In English, therefore, it was rendered as “reward”. That is, “I say unto you, they already have their reward.” Fairly recently trade records in merchant Greek have been found and translated showing the word refers to a documented payment for trade goods. In English, a “remittance” And the word previously translated as “received” is used in a trade context rather like English or American traders would use the words “gave a receipt for”. The vernacular of the teaching then is “I tell you, they’ve already receipted that remittance! (They say the deal isn’t over until the paperwork has been filed, but I tell you THAT whole deal is LONG over and TOTALLY DONE!)”

    The vehicle is sound but the tenor is missing and the tone is just flat.

  13. It isn’t just language; it’s also culture, right down to individual household cultures within the same general one.

    I grew up in a schizoid household, in that my stepfather was Eastern European, and my Mom was quintessential white-bread, small-town WASP. Observation taught me early that cultural differences are bone-deep, and essentially ineradicable.

    My Mom expected rational, reasoned discussion of family decisions; my stepfather felt that unless she was smacking him upside the head with a frying pan, she really didn’t care about whatever issue that was under discussion. She never figured that out, and was too well-bred to actually do such a thing, anyway, and he was constantly blindsided by “Well, I didn’t think you really cared…”. She did care; she just wasn’t being a screaming harpy about it. Which, I gather, was what he expected–Reasoned, polite discussion wasn’t something that featured in his world, growing up.

    You get this same sort of thing in families where one partner is used to passionate, argumentative discussions about everything from what to eat for dinner to what color a woman’s hair should be, while the other partner is completely unused to a raised voice within the household. Translating terms between these sorts of domestic polar extremes is probably as fraught as wading through any diplomatic negotiation where the parties don’t speak each others languages at all. Hell, it is probably far worse–When you both speak the same language, but weight each term differently and assign different meanings and values to the same terms… Watch out. Domestic bliss jist ain’t happenin’ , folks. Extrapolate that out to the wider world, and it is no wonder we’re often at each others throats for really stupid reasons.

    1. Dan occasionally still thinks I’m “yelling at him” when I’m just mildly amused/excited. First time he heard my family’s table talk he thought we were all arguing, until we started laughing. He was ready to lock up the knives.

    2. My husband’s grandmother (who mostly raised him) was deaf and his parents *enjoyed* fighting. The first few years of our marriage had a lot of fights where he was genuinely hurt that I thought he was mad at me and I was terrified because he was yelling. Now he’s slowly losing his hearing and is amused when I try and get his attention by yelling “Oy, dumbass!”

  14. Some years ago, a friend asked me to help a stained glass artist who was putting together a book about their pieces. About a hundred pieces, with a short phrase or title for each one, all in Japanese. But they wanted to make an English version. So, about… say 300 to 500 words?

    It took all afternoon to translate those hundred phrases.

    Each one was a poetic, folktale, or other reference. Tied in with the stained glass art piece that they had made!

    What I ended up doing was asking her to tell me what she was trying to say, and then I suggested one or more English phrases that I thought had the same resonance, often tying into old folktales, songs, plays, and whatever from my cultural background.

    The artist was thrilled with the result. But I can tell you that there was little or no “literal translation” involved. This is one of the cases where I know darn well that trying to stick to the words and nothing but the words would have been wrong. She wanted emotional resonance, and that’s what I tried to provide, even though it’s way outside the normal translation route.

    1. I did that once for a Spanish assignment. I wrote a song and then did a translation that was based off the story I wanted to tell rather than the literal words. (Unfortunately, the only “native” speaker I knew was an engineer, so he had no sense of poetry in him. I suspect the final result was more “competent” than “poetic.”)

  15. My brother learns to speak new languages as a hobby and turned that into a job working with international students at the college he graduated from. I have some customers at work who are very happy to speak to me slowly and clearly in Spanish so I can figure out what they’re saying and respond back in my very badly pronounced high school Spanish. However, my brother sends me anything he writes in any language to make sure he got the tenses and verbs correct because I can pick up the written language faster than he can.

    Where he knows the words, I understand the reference. He *gets* language because he *gets* people. I *get* words as long as I can see them.

    That’s part of what takes me so long when I read anything that’s been translated. If I can tell where the translator made a substitution, I’ll go search out the original context and research why they made that particular substitution.

    It also makes it hard to relate to people at work sometimes. I tend to ruin the jokes by explaining why the punchline doesn’t work or why, exactly, a certain custom existed 50 or 60 years ago but not today.

    1. Interesting. I learned languages because it was among the choices the stupid system AND my parents allowed me to take. They neither come easily nor pleasantly to me. Except English. English was love at first sight, like I was just remembering something I’d forgotten. My brother OTOH can pick up a language in two weeks, speak it like a native and write poetry in it. So… given the same stupid system and the same parents he was pushed into engineering (I WANTED engineering) where he was miserable and retired at fifty to listen to old music and rescue cats and putter…

      1. We were both shoved towards Engineering but we neither of us had the temperament for it. He got his degree in Accounting and Finance with an emphasis on sports and uses it to manage his investments and pester me about how I should be doing the books for my business.

  16. I am SO relieved that the title is not about what my first impression of it was….

    My father, who was in computers for the government back when they filled rooms, told me a story about early translation programs, English to Russian and back. That’s how they tested them, to make sure what came out was what had gone in. It didn’t always work that way, but it shows how idiom and such figures into translation, and why trying to translate your book by feeding it through Google Translate will fail.

    His example was the phrase “Out of sight out of mind” which after two trips through the machine came back as “Invisible idiot.”

  17. So do you think opening the novel with Lucifer sitting at his desk doing paperwork would turn some micro-cultures off?

      1. The first in the series is written and published–The Image of the Invisible. But I’m sure our takes are quite different. You have to agree, it’s an interesting concept.

    1. Gotta make him sympathetic, “look, I may be considered evil incarnate, but I hate doing taxes just like everybody else. Oh, you thought I ran the IRS? Hah! If only.”

      1. The story captured my imagination because i wonder what could cause an angel who stands in the presence of Absolute Perfection to look away.
        What would have to go through Lucifer’s head to turn him into Satan/
        And believe me, it was hard to make the guy a “sympathatic character.” In the back of my mind, i kept remembering, “Hey, this is the devil I’m writing about.” 🙂

  18. Translating a work of fiction is often a matter of trying to accurately re-write it in a new language. (I’m glad I never had to do more than extract facts and translate news.) I’ve had interesting comments on things like Twilight from friends in Europe who didn’t understand where the objections to the writing itself were until they’d read it in English. (There were some interesting discussions on good spots and bad spots that followed, but they were a rabbit trail.) The translators had smoothed away some of the rough spots when they translated it, completely accidentally.

  19. The problem is that sometimes you can’t change the references. For example, Bible quotes. (And hooboy is it fun when the author is quoting a variant version. People do not like it.)

  20. I’m not sure there are any “safe” references. Here’s a quote, which I found ridiculous enough to save as “unnecessary parenthetical of the day”:

    Asteroids that surround the L4 and L5 points are called Trojans in honor of the asteroids Agamemnon, Achilles and Hector (all characters in the story of the siege of Troy).

  21. I remember studying classic Greek in college, and taking a class in Koine’ Greek (New Testament). It was interesting the nuance that was left out of some verses. The funniest was when Paul was talking about the circumcision party and said “I wish they would cut themselves off” My bible teachers would say he was talking about cutting themselves off from the church. But it could also (and more properly) be translated as “I wish they would cut their own things off”.

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