kaigou: Roy Mustang, pondering mid-read. (1 pondering)
[personal profile] kaigou
Last week Aliette de Bodard posted A Few Thoughts on Other Cultures and Diversity in SFF over at tor.com. It's been open on my rss reader since, as I've re-read and contemplated. Among her many good pieces of advice, she had this bit to say:

I have lost count of how many narratives on China featured ... over-formality between members of the same family (because everyone knows that Chinese is a formal language! Guess what. Most communications within the family are brutally simple, because the respect is already implicit in the relationship itself); use of broken English (because all immigrants/foreigners speak bad English!)...

Between trying to learn new work-stuff as fast as I can (with go-live date looming large and only just now behind me, yay), and doing lots more research on economics, monetary systems, the beginnings of international trade, the transition from debt-bondage to outright slavery, and so on... I've been letting the next book(s) simmer. The story's taking mental shape, but I keep coming back to this point from de Bodard.

I've posted before about how English-language authors will represent the speakers of another language. Unlike Ludlum (see link), I have read authors who use broken-English to indicate when a character is speaking an unfamiliar/unlearned language. That doesn't bother me, so long as the character speaks fluently in their own language (albeit translated into English as well, for the sake of the book). The tl;dr of Ludlum is that he didn't do this; his non-white characters speak in broken English even when they're supposedly speaking their native tongue.

Thus, my preliminary hypothesis: do not have 'broken speaking' for any characters speaking their native tongue. Broken speaking should only indicate when someone is speaking an unfamiliar or new language (and, as the character learns, the broken-ness should slowly fade). Okay. Onward.

Meanwhile, I'd also kept open a review of KJ Charles' The Magpie Lord. What kept tweaking me was a comment that asked, "Does the dialogue have a period/Victorian feel to it?" And the reply: "Dialogue does have a period feel IMO. Whether it is exactly Victorian, close imitation, or not an imitation, I really can’t say. There is plenty of dialogue in the sample ... so I am sure it will give you a sufficient feel."

I've seen criticisms leveled at fantasy works in the past, that the language is "too modern" in some way, like that the author uses anachronistic words/phrases or current slang. So-called modern obscenities set critics off, too. This last bit both amuses me and annoys me, since the two most common (shit and fuck) are both positively ancient. Both have Germanic origins and were in use in one form or another in Old English, with written examples dating back to around the 1200's. For fantasy works set in that nebulous pseudo-medieval European landscape, a person could just as well have said "fuck" as "zounds".

Outside grimdark-styled fantasy, where it's all violence, cussing, sex, and all of it as brutal and dirty as possible, the preference seems to be for a kind of highfaluting language that -- like the commenter to that review -- should 'feel' period-appropriate. Setting aside the eyebrow-raising notion that a fantasy work must be 'period-appropriate' to a period that never even existed (let alone whether it'd be in a language/dialect modern eyes could read), several things bug me about this.

First is that no one ever thinks of their language as archaic. Frex, from Wikipedia's entry on the middle ages, "Medieval writers divided history into periods ... and considered their time to be the last before the end of the world. When referring to their own times, they spoke of them as being 'modern'." (Hence the phrase "middle ages" -- the time between the beginning of the world, and its end.)

I remember reading about Joss Whedon's skillful play with the English language, especially noting the way Whedon takes adjectives and treats them like nouns, or takes nouns and mangles them into verbs, where he's not stretching a word to incorporate new meanings altogether. Ones that immediately come to mind are "have a happy" or "have the sad" -- it's using an adjective as a noun, and of course the now-ubiquitous "shiny". Whedon falls down in a lot of ways imo, but his ear for spoken language is unparalleled in our generation.

I would not be surprised if ten years from now, plenty of people are using "shiny" and haven't a clue where it came from, just as we use a hell of a lot of seemingly-common words and phrases either first coined by Shakespeare, or first popularized. I'm quite certain that, humans being human, there were plenty of people going about on an overcast morning in March of 1598 making comments about the 'dawn' (and not the 'dawning'), because this was the hip new word to use. Plus, their parents probably thought it a slangy way to talk, and pissing off your unhip parents is just a happy by-product. Why am I convinced? Because I saw the same thing happening when Whedon, four hundred years later, played with the language the same way.

That digression has a purpose, which is that at any given time in our history -- of which every language and every time has linguistic players of its own -- we were using hip new slang terms and considering ourselves the very latest models. We might look back at what we heard or said as children and wince (because "groovy"? not meant for the ages, at least I hope not), but at the time, it was the thing. Modern, and all that.

So whether I'm reading The Black Arrow or Kushiel's Dart, the effect is the same; the language used is distinctly and intentionally archaic. While I've never met anyone who's lauded Stevenson or Scott (ie Ivanhoe) for their beautifully dense archaic way with words, I have read reviews that laud Carey's approach. Personally, I found it kind of stilted at times, and it never quite exactly sank into the background enough for me. It was just formalized enough that I was always aware I was reading, and that made the story too much of a slog to put up with a sequel, let alone six or however many.

Which brings me back around to de Bodard, especially that part about "over-formality between members of the same family". Or, I'd say, any over-formality at all (excepting the times/places where anyone would be explicitly formal, like in speaking in court or before the emperor). Formality is one thing, but we're talking about over-formality. It's not easy to translate, granted, since English, like any language, has its own ways of expressing formality. In some English dialects, it's both polite and expected to say, "if you could, put that on the table, please." Meanwhile, my Swedish step-mother translates directly from the Swedish with what a Swede hears as a perfectly courteous request: "put that on the table". In my dialect of English, that's positively rude. Or you could go all literal, where your Japanese character wouldn't simply say "thank you"; she'd say "I have a poisonous feeling" (aka "I just realized this means I'm horribly in debt to you now").

Emphasizing with over-formality creates a distance between the reader (and the reader's modern, everyday dialect) and the story. In some cases this seems pretentious -- which is how I read Carey's version -- and in some cases it feels like a kind of mockery. Like, look how oddly these people talk, that they can't just say "you're welcome," but instead say, "the guest's pleasure." What a bizarre and roundabout way of putting it. Ohhh, we readers are apparently supposed to conclude: they must not be speaking English, because if they were, they'd just say it plainly.

Like I mentioned in my comments about Bourne Ultimatum, this kind of twist only works if you've got an English-speaker in the room who notices such literalities. In the US, we say "it's raining cats and dogs," while in France I was taught to say, "it's raining figs and pears". Every time I heard that idiom, I tripped over it and took it literally before reminding myself it was just a thing one said. We never notice idioms unless called out by someone who doesn't know them. I'm thinking of earlier this week, when I described two coworkers as "thick as thieves" and a third coworker was utterly baffled. I know what it means, but it didn't occur to me that one might say, "how could thieves be thick? and thick in what way?" until someone tripped over my words.

Revised hypothesis: if excessively crude/broken English is othering, so also is using overly-formal and marginally-literal language. Both call attention to the fact that the dialogue (and possibly also the narration) is at a distance from the reader (and the reader's modern dialect) and the text. At heart, the message is "the people/places you're reading about are Not Like You."

And then we get into the issue of 'exotic' as a descriptor of stories (not just SFF) set in a place or time not our own -- and I'd go so far as to say this label only gets applied when the majority of the cast (or the locations) are non-white. I can't recall anyone calling Star Trek or Star Wars 'exotic', although you'd think the distance in time and place certainly set them as far removed from our twenty-first-century everyday as you could get. Nope, I've only ever seen 'exotic' applied to non-Western cultures and peoples: Asia, Central Asia, the Middle East. (It'd take a whole 'nother post to address the fact that Africa, South America, and the Australian Bush are more likely to get 'primitive' than 'exotic', even if they're just as distant from the Western everyday as any of the other places.)

The word itself might be innocuous in some ways. Exotic: 'belonging to another country,' from Greek exotikos, 'from the outside'. It's meant unusual, strange, alien, outlandish as far back as the 17th century (as annotated by the Online Etymology Dictionary). Still, it's a word I've grown to detest. It holds within it the idea that in declaring a there, one is defining a mutual (with the reader) a here. I do not want to write something exotic. I do not want to be saying, here are characters that are Not Like You. What should make characters notable is not their difference from the reader, because that way lies not even seeing the characters as sharing our humanity. That is not okay.

What's the best way to make a work non-exotic? I'm not sure, but I do think it lies in the language, both the style (the formality level) as well as what gets the attention. As de Bodard comments, "if you geek out on durian in your food descriptions, that’s a bit like your French characters geeking out on strawberries..." It's rendering something everyday into something so, well, exotic: unusual, strange, alien, outlandish.

CP's comment was that if part of my story plays with an analogue of late-medieval Japan, then throwing around modern obscenities like fuck and shit may not be anachronistic, but they're still ill-fitting. Japanese doesn't really have unprintable words like we do in English; it's one of many languages where it's not the words themselves but stringing together those specific words in that specific order and suddenly "cousin", "jump", "paintbrush", and "toaster" become highly offensive and something you'd never say around your parents unless you like the taste of soap. Or whatever, but you get the idea.

To me, this doesn't work if it's left on its own in the text -- that is, when the POV is a native speaker. It'd be like me noticing every idiom I use. I don't; I toss around "thick as thieves" and "tarbaby" and "you're welcome" without a second thought. Like most native speakers, I hear what I meant and miss what I said.

After all, English focuses on specific 'dirty' words, to make even the most innocent phrase into something inappropriate just requires adding one of those dirty words; the delivery can be anything from amused to gravely serious and the phrase itself, on its own, remains one that'd get censored by a family newspaper. Compare that to taking "cousin", "jump", "paintbrush", and "toaster" and making it offensively obscene (but without any 'dirty' words), you'd have to lean hard on the tone/delivery and probably a boatload of insinuation. Which you can do, don't get me wrong, but it's not something people tend to do unless they're trying hard to be clever and imply the very words they're leaving out.

With the exception of the too-clever character, and considering all the other elements of my hypothesis, this style of coarse language is still a form of distancing. Frankly, I'd find it as awkward as I find soldier or sailor speech that isn't peppered with insults, obscenities, and whatever other coarse or rude commentary that fits. Sure, soldiers and sailors may clean up their language in the presence of a commanding officer (much as we do at work when the director comes by), but the rest of the time we can be pretty liberal with our wordage.

Plus, there's a part of me that dislikes that roundabout approach (again, outside the random character trying to be witty). Maybe that's an English-language bias (because I do have access to specific words that are traditionally considered off-limits in polite company), but if you're going to say fuck, say fuck. Using a euphemism when there's a perfectly good word already is just cowardly. I don't mean on the part of the character (which might well apply), but on the part of the writer. It's like fading to black before the characters take their clothes off. If the language is part of the characterization (as much as the sex or the violence), then show it. Euphemisms are the verbal form of telling. The author's tittering behind their hands that oooh, the character said a dirty word instead of just, y'know, saying the damn dirty word.

Of course, the punchline here is that (at least as pertains to myself) I'm talking about a story set in a place that isn't even our world. I guess you could say alt-history to some degree, but I didn't use the historical names, I've changed the map significantly, and the only language in the text that isn't made up is English. (I've done my best to avoid too-recent loan-words for which the shine hasn't quite worn off, like schadenfreude or katana.) Anyway, this isn't our world or our cultures, so I'm not convinced that language X must 'sound like' Japanese (as it would to English ears, which I guess equates to 'literal translation' for most people), compared to language Y. Then we're just back to the distancing effect of using English in a style that creates a clear distance between the reader's everyday and the text's tone.

The only place I think such distancing both works and is outright required by a text is when the POV is a non-native speaker. In that case, it'd make sense that the dialogue might sound just a bit 'off', the way French sounded to me until I learned to think in it. Like CP observed, though, this would require a light touch; the story might start with that awkwardness but it'd need to fade as the POV character gains in fluency. I don't mean broken-English, either, that's only for the character who's speaking in a non-native language. Native speakers must always sound, well, native, even if their idioms or constructions are unfamiliar or unusual -- but that oddness must disappear when it's their POV running the show.

All elements of the hypothesis mixed in, I think the bottom line is that I'd rather risk readers being dissatisfied with the too-modern language, the everyday-ness, than please the readers who want that exotic distance while I alienate the readers for whom durian, or bowing, or whatever are not foreign, outlandish, or strange. I may've filed off the Southeast Asian serial numbers and changed the names to protect the guilty, but the fact remains that I'm not setting a story in the usual Medieval milieu. Yet all these unfamiliar-to-Western-reader details would be so everyday as to be unquestioned, by the characters in the story -- none of whom, I might add, are a Western POV. There's culture confusion because the characters come from various cultures, but it's a confusion completely external to that usual European Middle Ages fantasy.

To come back down to details, I guess this means some thinking about the narration of each POV. Although if you're among the draft readers, you can probably already guess who gets the blunt and unadorned narration, versus the poetic and somewhat formal narration, versus the simple yet excruciatingly-detailed narration -- and the to-be-added POV that's straightforward yet notices every girl who walks past. And for those of you waiting patiently for the 3rd part of the story, the new POV character who (I'm thinking) will have a narration that's reasonably simple yet dialogue that's just a little stilted. Maybe most readers will miss it, but I think there's a skill to learn in the subtle contrast of how we narrate versus what we say out loud.

But I'm going to use English cuss words, and I'm not going on for two pages about durian fruit. If it's not new to the character narrating, it's just one more of the everyday.
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kaigou: this is what I do, darling (Default)
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"When you make the finding yourself— even if you're the last person on Earth to see the light— you'll never forget it." —Carl Sagan

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