[wolfrunners] Re: Languages & SF/F (fwd)
|From:||Yoon Ha Lee <yl112@...>|
|Date:||Wednesday, August 23, 2000, 11:52|
Another writer's perspective.
---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Sun, 20 Aug 2000 15:11:09 -0700
From: Deep Kimchee <kimchee@...>
Subject: [wolfrunners] Re: Languages & SF/F
On 19-Aug-00, email@example.com wrote:
> Message: 3
> Date: Sat, 19 Aug 2000 02:14:45 EDT
> From: CFVici@aol.com
> Subject: Re: Languages & SF/F
> I think I have a pretty good background in languages myself (two years
> each Latin, Spanish, and French). However, Americans on the whole are
> generally ignorant/intolerant of other languages. I'm talking here about
> *real* modern foreign languages. If we (generic) hold real languages in
> this sort of "contempt", it is reasoned, then extrapolated or concocted
> ones can only annoy us (generic) more. It may not even BE true in
> practice, but if the publishers PERCEIVE it true and act accordingly, the
> effect is the same. SFF writers are limited by "the market".
> I felt this very acutely when I was at the Writer's Conference and the
> editor that had the first ten pages of my manuscript had a problem with
> nearly every word I made up. How is "Botlop" a difficult name for a
> character? Does anyone really stumble over reading it like they can't
> figure it out? What could be easier than two syllables with simple short
> vowel sounds and unambiguous consonants? It doesn't seem hard to pronounce
> or remember to me.
Not at all. The sound of it may or may not have had the right connotations
for the character (I don't know what the character was supposed to be like,
so I can't say), but that's quite a separate issue from how easy it is to
read. And I agree, you can't get much easier than "Botlop!"
> The same editor also called me to task for giving made-up names to my
> flora and fauna. It's like she wanted everything on my made-up world to be
> just like Earth. "If a koopchuk is 'somewhat like' a mule, why not just
> call it a mule?" GRRR! Because it *isn't* a mule!
> Anyway, I think this editor's idea was--- and this is my way of thinking
> on your question-- that the average American reader (translation: book
> buying CUSTOMER) doesn't want to be much distracted by having to "stumble"
> over language. They want the story and nothing but the story. Heaven
> forbid readers should have to use their brains too much!
When you're reading something that is set entirely on another world, the
usual presumption is that they do *all* their thinking/speaking in their
own language, what we're reading is a translation. I find it very jarring
when everything is "translated" into English except the names of animals.
As if animals are the only "untranslateables" that exist in one culture,
but not in another! If everything the aliens/otherworlders think, say, do,
feel, and encounter can be expressed in English, *except* for the names of
their animals (and possibly plants), that implies that their concepts,
values, and worldview have closer analogues in the culture of
English-speakers than their animals and plants do. Now what the heck kind
of an alien culture is that, where their concepts, values, and worldview
are just like ours, and only their animals and plants are significantly
I think this is one of those cases where "less is more." If coined words
are used sparingly and only in cases where there is nothing that has even
remotely the equivalent cultural significance in the English-speaking
world, that's a cue to me as a reader that here is something vitally
important in terms of understanding how this world differs from ours.
(Example: "kemmer" in *The Left Hand of Darkness.*) But if coined words pop
out all over on every page, they lose their importance as indicators of
really significant, distinguishing differences and just turn into
If I picked up a book written in English but set in France, that was
liberally sprinkled with French nouns such as vin, chien, rue, chateau,
etc. on very page, I wouldn't think "Oh good, here's an author with a deep
understanding of French culture!" I would think, "Oh god, here's an author
with a superficial knowledge of French culture, trying to show off how much
they know!" (Of course, somebody else might have a completely different
reaction, and think what a wonderful French flavor it gives to the book.
Chacun a son gout.)
Or if I pick up a fantasy book that is basically written in English but
liberally sprinkled with coined words on every page, I don't think "Oh
good, here's an author who has deeply thought out the world the story takes
place in" -- I think "Oh god, here's yet another author who has only
thought out their world on a very superficial level, dressing it up and
trying to make it seem 'exotic' in order to impress me."
That may not be true in every case, of course. But I've read enough bad SF
and fantasy stories that poured all of their ingenuity into coining words
and tweaking species and fiddling with decor, but otherwise showed no
imagination or originality whatsoever, that now if I come across a story
that has 37 coined words on the first page, I'm highly unlikely to finish
it. Once bitten, twice shy, and all that.
Now, I don't claim to know "the market" or to speak for all readers.
Probably there are plenty who think that liberal use of coined words gives a
story a wonderfully otherwordly flavor. :D But I just wanted to point out
that stupidity and xenophobia aren't the *only* reasons why a reader might
be lukewarm towards coined words. Those may indeed have been your
*editor's* reasons (and if he/she was rude or contemptuous, that is
inexcusable), but they aren't the only reasons.
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