Say it again, louder
We always keep things that work perfectly. That is why despite all this progressive nonsense, all people everywhere, young and old, conservative or left-wing, still deal with uncomprehending foreigners in the same, time-honored fashion.
They say the same thing again, only louder and slowly.
No, really, they must be doing it because it works.
Of course they just don’t have it completely right. Like socialism… despite failing every time – it would work if did it right. Barbara’s Grandmother (whose home language was English, but, typical of South African rural land-owners of her time and place, had grown up with farm workers who didn’t speak English) actually had the perfect answer (which I am sure would transfer perfectly as a method of making socialism work the next time). When confronted with Italians or Frenchmen looking at her in puzzlement as she said it again, louder, in English… she would then do the same again, but in Zulu.
This OF COURSE worked perfectly. Zulu, which has even less in common with French or Italian (like nothing, barring a few loanwords… via English or Afrikaans) would naturally be more intelligible. I am sure you can see how well that would work for socialism, next time.
It’s nearly as brilliant as the ‘sounds like’ method of comprehending foreign languages. The delightful tale of the non-Zulu speaking lady-of-the-house walking around her pride-and-joy garden with the new gardener, instructing him on what needed weeding and what didn’t. Communication was not going well, even with the best will in the world and increasing the volume, saying it slower. Finally, the puzzled gardener looking at something that plainly was inedible and terrible grazing – full of thorns and no recognizable fruit (AKA ‘A rose’) asked her if he should ‘Khipha* lo?’ * (pronounced, more-or-less ‘keepa’)
Well, it sounded right, and so the lady was able to go around her cherished garden, telling the earnest young gardener just what to ‘keepa’.
As you can imagine this exercise in ‘sounds like’ worked out very happily. It’s the kind of thing that I can highly recommend with dealing with incomprehensible foreigners. Especially heavily armed policemen or suspicious looking customs officers. I’m sure it will work just as well as this did!
So what the hades does this all have to do with the business end of this blog: writing… I mean besides giving you some choice examples of why babelfish might start more and bloodier wars, but at least keeps the volume and repetitions down?
Well, those of you who have been asked to critique in writers’ groups may possibly already have worked this one out – because there is always at least one of these in any writers’ group. It is our natural way of dealing with puzzlement (or total incomprehension) from the reader of our prose. It’s natural… and about as useful as panic, which is also instinctive and natural. That is to say, it may, occasionally solve the problem (running, screaming or hiding are often the logical thing to do, even if they are also normally not inspired by logic) – but can also make the mess you’re in MUCH worse, or do nothing for it.
If the reader doesn’t ‘get’ what you’re trying to say (or achieve)… it’s not that they’re stupid, and that repeating it louder and louder (a typical feature of most SJW message fiction. Trust me on this: I’m not going to suddenly ‘get it’ if you say it louder for the 200th time in a book. If I thought it nonsense the first time my opinion is not changed by endless identical repetition. ) Of course you can always try saying it Zulu instead. It may make more sense to a few readers – but generally speaking this not a winning formula.
So what is? (And I speak here with experience, and with limited skill at getting myself out of this mess). Firstly (and this is hard) try and speak the ‘language’ of the audience you’re writing for. There is more to that than merely ‘English or French or Zulu’. Even within a linguistic group we’re a massively fractured audience – both in what the reader understands and knows and what the author understands and knows. To take an extreme example – Two mathematicians would have a reasonable chance of following the other when talking about Math – or in fact if one talked about Gender Studies to the other (I can imagine the conversation right now. “So you see dude, they say there’s like 23 Genders.” “Uh. Like xx = xy-y+x…” ‘More like add another 21 axes…’). Two Gender Studies students would probably understand each other (one hopes) if the one was pontificating about their subject… or some bizarre reason about Math. But we’d rapidly be into louder and repeat if we had Gender Studies student talking about her subject to Math student – and vice versa. It could move into the ‘khipha’ zone if either the Gender Studies student was trying to talk Math to the Math student or vice versa. (The mental images of this lot beg for story, don’t you think?)
It’s seldom quite that extreme – ok, I take that back, thinking about it. Put it this way, it’s more likely to genuinely popular and successful if the target audience understand it. So if your target audience for instance are modern NY metrosexuals – the typical NYC editor for example — and you’re writing a high fantasy and you too are a NYC resident to whom horses and agriculture are as alien as Klingons, you’re golden. Of course when your book gets out into rural middle-of-nowhere, they’ll laugh at you. If you’re someone who has mucked out stables and tried to grow and raise your own food…
You’re left with a problem if this is important to your sales. Seriously, because our experience varies so much, and there is a natural tendency to write about what you do know (it’s good advice, often given – but it has this weakness) this is a widespread problem. When someone test reading your work – or you’ve given it to a crit group and you start getting ‘I don’t get this’ – to what to you seems plain and clear English, there is a reasonable possibility you could be dealing with this. Saying the same thing, slower and louder… isn’t going to help.
You could toss it.
You could realize it’s just not for this audience.
Or you could fall back on redoing it… not louder, but with suitable mime. Yes, I mean exactly what I say there. Mime is action ‘show’ often filling in or replacing speech. And, of course it crosses language barriers quite effectively. Ok it can sometimes get your roses dug up or you arrested because you really didn’t know that gesture meant that to a different culture… but as general principal, if the reader doesn’t get it – that’s where you should go. Show at least some of what you’re trying to say. The reader will often extrapolate from there.
It’s that, or say it loudly, in Zulu, and hope that works.