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The Fantasy Language Problem – Part Two

This is part two of Django Wexler’s guest post on fantasy languages. You can read part one here.

(Click or mouseover links for humorous footnotes.)

Django Wexler

Django Wexler

The preceding section is not intended to be an exhaustive list of troublesome terms, but rather to merely convey the scope of the problem. [#11] It should be obvious by now that there is no single ‘solution’ to this issue: some of the terms I’ve mentioned would make most readers sit up and blink, whereas others would pass unnoticed by any but the most pedantic. [#12] And I am hardly the first author to think hard about this problem, either. Many, many fantasy novels have been written over the years, and each one has its own slightly different approach. In my literary wanderings, I’ve encountered enough of them to establish a few broad categories.

1. Just don’t think about it. This is the simplest approach for the author, obviously. You just write as though you were writing a contemporary story, and don’t sweat the details. This works best if what you’re writing isn’t deadly-serious in tone to begin with. The danger, though, is that the occasional odd term will throw the reader, like a nail-head sticking out of an otherwise smooth floor. It depends, obviously, on the reader.

2. Offer an explanation. I think of this as the “translation” solution. The author maintains the fiction that the novel has been ‘translated’ from the language of the fictional world, and any odd terms are artifacts from the ‘translator’, rather than inherent to the fiction. Provided one can wrap one’s brain around it, this offers a pretty good solution, because it makes for a ready analogy to real life — reading a book translated from, say, Japanese, I would not object to the term ‘stoic’ on the grounds that the Stoics never existed in Japan, because I understand the translator is doing the best he can to render the meaning into contemporary English. On the other hand, depending on the world, the very notion of a translation may break the suspension of disbelief of the reader.

3. Elaborate fictional etymologies. This technique, not for the faint of heart, involves altering every term that rings false into a fantastic equivalent. It’s most applicable to proper names and events — at the Xorphon School of Logic, the Pythagorean Theorem becomes the Morloogian Theorem, Xeno’s Paradox becomes Wobble’s Paradox[#13], and so on. This works quite well as a throwaway gag or reference for the alert reader to catch and pat herself on the back, but if your story is set at the School of Logic it can quickly become a mess. Keeping track of dozens or hundreds of terms is hard enough for the author, let alone the reader!

4. Complete fictional language. The ultimate extent, of course. It may in fact be several fictional languages, since in most worlds they won’t speak just one. The tradeoff in verisimilitude gained versus effort expended here is so great that very few authors take this path unless they are the sort of people who enjoy creating fictional languages for their own sake.

None of these approaches are “best”, obviously, since it’s not clear what that would even mean. I’ve listed them in roughly increasing amount of work required on the part of the author, but since every author has a different affinity for that kind of work, and every target audience has a different sensitivity to it, those tradeoffs change in every situation. That said, it does seem to be one of those fairly common areas where a minority of the work produces the majority of the effect. Those authors I know of who have gone as far as 3 or 4 have generally had some explicit purpose in mind beyond simply the need for a realistic world in their novel. (Tolkien just enjoyed created fictional languages, for example. Neal Stephenson’s Anathem may be the clearest example of solution 3, and it is hard to imagine it being done in any other way, but an interest in the origins and derivations of words is a theme that runs through many of his books.)

Solution 2, while neatly explaining away any potential lapses, does not really apply to all possible scenarios. Not every fantasy world admits of the idea that a book would somehow be translated into English, and most novels are not presented in the form of in-universe books. Instead, a middle-of-the-road approach calls for a kind of implicit translation: while not calling the book out to the reader as being “translated” from an in-universe language, the author keeps the image of a translator in mind as a useful metaphor. The Scribe by RemtonA good translator strives to preserve the meaning and the feel of the translated material, without leaving any gaping holes an unwary reader may fall into. Unfortunately for the purists, this often means accepting some of the troublesome terms above, while rejecting others; “lock, stock, and barrel” might fail to pass muster [#14], but “spartan” could slip by with small ‘S’. Consider, again, the example of someone translating into English from a foreign (Earth) language: readers will accept some things as the price of translation, while they might balk at something too obviously idiomatic. Terms can be adjusted to keep the feel of the piece where it belongs, as long as the meaning is clear to the readers. [#15]

This metaphor of the translator leads neatly to that other great bugbear of fantasy writers: gratuitous invented terms. [#16] This may be one of the single most complained-about and parodied elements of fantasy literature[#17], but also one of the most beloved by both authors and fans. It can be very effective, when used correctly, and groan-worthy when deployed unnecessarily. What follows is a list of times when[#18] it is appropriate or inappropriate to use secondary-world-language terms, for the benefit of aspiring writers, but keeping the image of the translator in mind will keep you on the right track. A good translator might include a foreign word or two, if the word is important to the story and there isn’t a proper English equivalent, but she will not sprinkle them about merely for flavor!

So, when should you use invented terms?

– Sparingly. Readers have a very limited tolerance for this sort of thing, unless you are writing a very specific sort of book. (Again Anathem is the example that springs to mind.) Think of each invented term as imposing a cost on the reader, using up a limited store of patience before she throws the book across the room. Try not to annoy.

– For things that are very important. If you ration your invented terms carefully, it makes sense that you should reserve them for the most important descriptions. In particular, any invented term should be something that will be used repeatedly. If it’s mentioned once, and then brought up again much later, the reader will have forgotten what you were talking about.

– For things that are very unimportant. Somewhat paradoxically, another reasonable place to use invented terms is to describe items particular to a culture that are merely set dressing and not important to the story, such as food, drink, modes of dress, and so on. [#19] Tossing off a few odd words, particularly when context makes it clear what general category of thing you’re talking about, is reasonable. (For example: “Bob tossed back his glass of amber Gorundian vilmschass and pushed himself back from the bar.”) Do not overdo this, however, particularly for items that are usually referred to generically, such as “cheese” or “bread”. Stick to things with proper names, the fantasy equivalent of “Brie” or “marble rye”.

– For things that do not exist in the real world. Again, invented terms should be used sparingly, but a good place to spend one might be on a thing, concept, or force that has no direct analogue in real life. Magic is the obvious choice here. [#20] If something is merely different from its real-life counterpart, you can simply use the English term, unless the thing that term describes also exists and would create confusion.

– For things most people would not have heard of. If the English term for something is very obscure (specific types of swordsmanship, say, or the intricacies of castle architecture) you can probably invent a term. However, see the advice above on keeping this to a minimum, and note that it also applies to English words you have plucked from the depths of the thesaurus!

– If a word in a secondary-world language has very different connotations than its English equivalent. Be very, very careful with this one. Most of the time you can imply or even just state that the meaning is slightly different, and go on using the English term. If a term is absolutely central to your plot, however, it can be justifiable. To return to our translator metaphor, someone rendering a Japanese text into English might choose to leave the term sensei intact if the story were about students training in martial arts, but would probably translate the same word as ‘teacher’ in a story about kids in high school.

– If you are describing something foreign to the character whose point of view you are in. Using ‘foreign’ terms conveys a feeling of foreignness, obviously. One of the problems with using too many for a point-of-view character walking around in, say, his home town is that the setting shouldn’t feel foreign to him, even if it does to us. Ramping up the foreign descriptions when that character travels overseas to distant lands conveys some of how he feels. Again, however, this is best confined to either very important concepts or trivial details. [#21] Don’t overtax the readers.

Here are some clues that you shouldn’t be using an invented term:

– There’s a perfectly good English word that’s a synonym. Basic, universal human concepts, like “mother”, “red”, “sadness”, and so on are best left in English. [#22]

– You have just introduced another invented term. Give the readers some time to breathe.

– You are not planning to explain it, and context is insufficient. The reader will just be baffled. Either give some explanation, and reminders as required, or make sure that the term is sufficiently innocuous that the reader will mentally substitute “weird fantasy gibberish” and not damage the flow of the plot.

– You are discussing units, such as for time and distance. This is a tricky one, and purists might complain. For me, though, if you think of yourself as translating the rest of the text from an invented language into English, it makes no sense to leave units of distance and so on as their invented equivalents. And the cost in terms of confusing the heck out of readers can be high, especially with units of time. [#23]

Otherworld Atlas by Sam Wolfe ConnelleyAs in most “rules” related to writing, there are always exceptions, and exceptions to the exceptions. Rather than a hard-and-fast pronouncement, though, all that’s really necessary is an awareness of the problem, especially while editing. Don’t let it scare you into ultra-formality — the last thing we need is more fantasy with dull, stilted prose and Biblical dialogue. But paying just a bit more attention to the language in your story can help keep you from using strange, out-of-place terms that make the reader sit up and blink, on the one side, and too large a tongue-twisting glossary on the other. Unless you’ve explicitly chosen a particular model, just keep the idea of the real-world translator in mind, and you won’t go far wrong. [#24]


#11. Don’t even start thinking about wines and cheeses. Back

#12. You know who you are. Back

#13. Unless you believe the counter-Wobblist propaganda. Back

#14. “Pass muster” doesn’t work in cultures without organized armed forces! Back

#15. George R. R. Martin is particularly good at this, as well as at working around the problem in other ways. Did you notice that there are no named days, months, etc. in all of A Song of Ice and Fire (as of this writing), thus neatly eliding the problem of what to call them? Back

#16. This is the part of the essay where I become didactic. If the above has convinced you that I am talking nonsense, feel free to stop here and ignore my advice. Back

#17. Along with excessive apostrophes in proper names. Neal Stephenson has a brilliant riff on this in Reamde. Back

#18. In one man’s extremely humble opinion… Back

#19. Not that these things can’t be important to the story. But if they are, you should describe them properly! Back

#20. Magic seems to come in two basic flavors: incomprehensible foreign terms, or Significantly Capitalized Simple Terms, like The Force, The Power, The Weave, or The Flow. Sometimes (saidin/saidar vs. The One Power) both in the same book! Back

#21. Using it for trivial details can be a very effective contrast. At home, the character might eat mussel-bake, grass dumpling, and battered shrimp, while abroad he tastes ghintaol and nothyam. Back

#22. Unless your story introduces some reason why they are less than universal! Back

#23. Again, exceptions if it is important to the plot, such as errors introduced into a battle plan because two allies use incompatible measures or calendars. Back

#24. Until the book gets picked up by HBO for a TV series, and they want to do the foreign languages with subtitles. At that point, all bets are off. Back

– – –

Django’s novel The Thousand Names is due out this July from Del Rey (UK) and Roc Hardcover (US). You can learn more about the Shadow Campaigns series on Django’s website or follow him here on Twitter.

Title image by Sam Wolfe Connelley.

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13 Comments

  1. Dan J. says:

    . I think of this as the “translation” solution. … On the other hand, depending on the world, the very notion of a translation may break the suspension of disbelief of the reader.”

    What’s the alternative? That a secondary world independently evolved/invented the English language? That would shatter my suspension of disbelief into a million fragments.

  2. Dan — I think the distinction I’m trying to take is between “explicit” and “implicit” translation. All fantasy books (of this type) are at least implicitly translated, because as you point out they obviously don’t speak English in the fantasy world. Sometimes they have an EXPLICIT translation convention — for example, in Gene Wolfe’s “The Book of the New Sun”, there’s an intro with “translator’s notes”. It’s useful because it lets him explain why, in addition to English, there’s also Latin (“a dead language still used by scholars that I have rendered into Latin”) but calling attention to the fact that someone “translated” the book might be off-putting to some readers.

    • Dan J. says:

      Explicit versus implicit – that makes sense. The only thing I’d add is that even if the translation is implicit, as it is in the large majority of cases, it still addresses most of the issues of language having an inappropriate history. It doesn’t mean you can completely forget about the issues you raise. After all, if Sir Percival the Brave rode up on his charger, lifted his visor and said “Yo, dawg. What up?” I’d very likely throw the book across the room. If the author tried to justify that by saying “He was using slang common to the location and period, so I translated it to modern slang,” I would not be overly accepting of that explanation. But I’m also not going to worry about words like “spartan” or “stoic.” If you get that far down in the weeds, you also have to address the “not speaking English” issue to be consistent, and then translation, even if implicit, covers the problem to my way of thinking. Great discussion. Enjoyed the articles.

  3. […] second half of my post on The Fantasy Language Problem is […]

  4. Brian says:

    A great conclusion to the topic, Django! I enjoyed this just as much as I did the first installment. Thanks.

    One small point that I would add: it is crucial to consider the type of narration employed when deciding how to handle these troublesome words. A first-person narrator, for instance, born and raised in the invented world, should have a psychology and therefore a language that reflects that upbringing. “A Clockwork Orange” strikes me as an obvious and effective example here. Third-person narration might call for a different treatment. As you point out, the “translation solution” is, in many ways, the most elegant. In any case, the writer has to consider carefully the degree of what John Gardner refers to (in The Art of Fiction) as psychic distance: the greater the distance, the wider the degree of latitude in choice of vocabulary. (A nice summary of psychic distance here: http://emmadarwin.typepad.com/thisitchofwriting/psychic-distance-what-it-is-and-how-to-use-it.html)

    I recently wrote an essay on the difficulty of invented words that touches on some of the points here, but explores a few more of the epistemological issues. For those who are interested, it’s over here: http://bstaveley.wordpress.com/2013/03/19/redolent-of-plum-with-a-hint-of-urine-wine-snobs-david-hume-and-fantasy/

  5. Gru'ud says:

    The thing that has caused me the most trouble is the vast array of (esp. American) English words that are borrowed from other languages.

    I use an explicit translation mechanism, along with some notes for pronunciation of proper nouns etc.

    But even still, a simple word like sombrero, which in our minds conjures up an immediate image, would be completely uknown in the soure (secondary) tongue, and is simply not available for use.

    You’d be surprised how often this comes up, and especially how much it can complicate description.

  6. […] For me this is related to the fantasy language problem (which I’ve written about: Part One and Part Two) and the trade-offs are similar: familiarity versus suspension of disbelief, depth versus […]

  7. I never encountered this problem when writing my series, because it happens on an alternate Earth where English is the dominant language. If the characters are speaking some other language, like Japanese, I just noted it in the narration and moved on.

    I blame Tolkien for this. He was a philologist/linguist by profession, and so had the tools necessary to create invented languages for his fiction — only his fiction was intended to create a historical context for his invented languages.

  8. spacechampion says:

    Ironically, using terms for species like elf, dwarf, gnome, troll etc. should be no-nos too. If you want to eliminate words like hermetic, lunatic, etc. based on Greek gods, then the case for eliminating words based on imaginary creatures of folklore is even stronger.

    If the world is another planet with different geology, then why did evolution run the same way and produce horses, cows, chickens? But if it’s a created world (ie. god did it), and biology is the same… then why not language too?

    The middle ground might be that it is a parallel Earth, and all Earths in all universes of the multiverse are somehow connected, so geology and geography might be different, but biology is the same and we can have our fantasy farms boys milking the cows and feeding the chickens, knights riding horses, and lords hawking with a pet falcon.

  9. An excellent run-down of problems and solutions. I tend to go for your “middle of the road” approach (perhaps it should be defined as 1.5) though I set my limits at a slightly different point – I wouldn’t use spartan, but I would use laconic, which comes from exactly the same source.

    On your #17, although excessive apostrophes are by definition… well, excessive, too many people take that to mean that all apostrophes in fantasy names are just window-dressing. They’re not – in many RW languages they’re used to indicate a glottal stop.

  10. T.J.Garrett says:

    Great article. I never thought that hard about this, I just went on instinct. I feel a partial re-write coming on. Or at least the use of find/replace. Thanks.

  11. Chelle says:

    I would suggest looking at Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf’s ideas about linguistic relativity, which is the idea that language influences how a speaker views the world, and the speaker’s worldview influences how they use and develop language. (NOT linguistic determinism.) In my own story, for example, class, lineage, and where a person comes from are significant, and represented in an individual’s surname. So whenever I introduce a new character I add something like “who takes her last name from the hill upon which her family’s estate was built, an ancient word meaning ‘bloody battle’.” Or, sometimes it’s as simple as “who takes no last name.” I think it emphasizes how important a person’s origins are to that society, and gives the reader a little extra information about that character, and maybe even something that makes the name memorable.
    It’s not so much about injecting culture into the linguistic style of your writing, but the worldview of the character who’s point of view is being followed. If it’s an extremely religious character, would they say “God(s) be with you” instead of “goodbye”? Or would they be internally judging everyone they see? I think when you’re telling a story from a particular point of view, it’s important to represent that character’s worldview, and when you figure that out it might help some with figuring out what kind of language they might use.

  12. […] The Fantasy Language Problem – Part Two […]

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