Hackeysack, Boozeomancy, and Virtual Languages

Hobbits don’t speak English.

We read their speech in English, sure, but the language in which Bilbo et. al. talk Longbottom Leaf bears little relationship to English as spoken in Tolkien’s day, let alone ours. We read a representation of that speech in English—that’s to say, a translation. And though I wouldn’t put it past Tolkien to have a detailed grammar of Western Common salted away in his papers, he wrote his manuscripts for the most part in English. So we have pipeweed and second cousins twice removed on the mother’s side, and birthday parties and country gentlemen turning the ripe old age of eleventy-one.

Translation, done right, is brilliant and difficult, but when done even a little wrong it can break the meaning and cultural associations of the source text. My favorite example: there’s an old Chinese sport / pastime that features prominently in Ming Dynasty fiction, which most modern translations render as “football.” Now, think about Ming Dynasty football. Have a vision in your head of what that would look like? Does it feature Ming Dynasty Pele or Peyton Manning?

Yeah, well, you’re both wrong. The term translated “Football” here refers to a game in which folks stand in a circle and attempt to pass a leather ball from one to another without using their hands. We’re talking, basically, about hackeysack as played by 15th-century Chinese gentlemen. I don’t know why American translators shrink from calling a hackeysack a hackeysack—except maybe that (a) it stinks of modernity (in much the same reason you can’t name a character in historical fiction about 11th century England “Tiffany” even though people back then were named Tiffany), and (b) it summons up weird cultural associations, mostly of skinny dreadlocked barefoot prep school boys kicking the sack with weed smoke heavy on the air and Widespread Panic playing in the background. (I guess that might be Mumford & Sons these days? I AM NOT COOL.) Now, I think those cultural associations are informative and interesting, but I’m not a professional translator and apparently there’s been a consensus of translation—but the consensus means uninformed readers of translations that describe the sport as “football” will have a picture of what’s happening in the story that’s as vivid as it is incorrect.

Language is weird. And it gets weirder in subcreated or “secondary world” fantasy, in which, ostensibly, neither English nor any of the hundreds of tongues it’s mugged for grammar and vocabulary exist. Do you like your secondary-world steampunk gentlemen to wear purple ascots? Then you’d better take care that your world has a Royal Ascot Club, because that’s where the word comes from. Anyone ever eat a sandwich? Where does that word come from? What do your characters drink? Wine comes from the French, rivverrun roundabout from Latin. Whiskey springs from a Gaelic source word, lager is German, vodka’s Russian, aqua vitae is Latin rendering of the meaning of the Gaelic, aquavit has similar origins but refers to something else entirely.

And of course, the physical correlates of all these linguistic artifacts have their own cultural significance! The ascot has the social connotations it does because of accidents of history—and the same’s true of spats, the necktie, golf, swing music, slam poetry, minstrels, druids, scotch, pinstripes, sagging pants, the zoot suit, the miniskirt, blue jeans, sequins. We could try to shuffle the significance of these symbols, but it’s rare to pull this off without utterly confusing the reader. We could try to invent new symbols whole cloth, but that way lies three-page descriptions of the significance of various characters’ modes of dress. Which is great if that’s the kind of book you want to write! But it’s a particular kind of book, meant for a particular audience.

The closer we get to a modern setting, the more we have to deal with modern words and concepts and frameworks: Dumpster’s a brand name, as are Kleenex and Xerox and Polaroid. Jazz is jazz because history. It’s easy to claim we see these things as complex and contingent because the modern world is complex and contingent, but I wonder if, say, 14th century France didn’t seem every bit as complex and contingent to people who lived there. There probably would be fewer brand names, sure, but it’s not as if fashion and prejudice are original to the 20th century.

There are many ways to deal with this in writing fantasy, and they’re all right when used well. One’s to use new language for old stuff with old connotations. That’s cool, but occasionally confusing. One’s to use new language for new stuff with new connotations. That works too, though it’s so easy to mess up by creating a world that’s too simple and too complex at once. (Readers may not be amused if, once they learn the seventeen new words you’ve asked them to, they realize your culture is a stripped-down analogue of Western European medieval feudalism. Then again, they may! Certain writers can make drying paint interesting. If you can get away with this, I doff hat and ascot alike.) One’s to use old language for old stuff with new connotations, a nice trick—one of my favorite examples that works is the position-swap of haute and rest stop cuisine in Samuel R Delany’s Babel-17, in which coq au vin is simple spacer fare, while burgers with French fries and ketchup are the height of elegance. It works because it’s funny, but even such a sharp writer as Delany has to spend half a scene in a very tight book highlighting the change. Another path is just to use existing words for existing stuff with existing connotations where it works, because readers know what a suit is, and they know what a cocktail is, and you can waste a disgusting amount of time trying to explain that a Fantasy Dark & Stormy is, you know, a Dark & Stormy—time that would be better spent building character, developing conflict, accelerating tempo, deepening tension.

I do a bit of all the above, and certainly there are other methods; the final one I listed is a favorite when I’m feeling cheeky or want to cheat in a slip of smooth exposition-free characterization, but it has weaknesses. Sometimes a Gin Mule will just throw people out of a story. And I don’t mean by, you know, a mule made of gin. Though that would be theoretically possible in a fantasy novel that contained, say, boozeomancers.

Hm. Boozeomancers. (*Makes note.*)

Anyway! To my mind this is one of the core fascinations of writing secondary-world fantasy: the creation of a working language and system of social connotations distinct from our own yet within our own, a sort of linguistic virtual machine. Tolkien walked these lines very well. He knew just when his characters should say “Namarie,” and when “I ain’t been dropping no eaves, sir, honest!” Sometimes the challenge feels an awe-inspiring. Sometimes it feels like kickboxing in a straightjacket: inherently limiting and on its face pointlessly difficult. But if you can pull it off, you’ll look so damn cool.

5 Responses to “Hackeysack, Boozeomancy, and Virtual Languages”

  1. fadeaccompli

    Part of what drives me batty about these kinds of decisions–both making them and seeing the ones other people make–is that when a reader gets thrown out of the story by the chosen word depends so much on who the reader is. One person will quibble at vulcanized rubber if you don’t have Roman gods, but not even notice the ascot thing–or vice versa. (And I refuse to give up my sandwiches, dammit.) So there isn’t really a solution, just deciding where to draw the line for yourself.

    I admit I go with a pretty freewheeling handwave of “translation convention!” on these things. But football in the Ming Dynasty? That would throw me right out.

    • max

      Sandwiches forever! Absolutely agreed on the relativity of these kinds of distractions. I tend to accept things like this with a grin and a shrug of the shoulders—there doesn’t need to be any explanation for the piano player playing Hey Jude in The Gunslinger, for me. But yes, the football thing is weird. Sensible, in that it’s a literal translation of the characters for “foot” and “ball”, but sensibly weird.

  2. Marshall Ryan Maresca

    I once sent myself into the spiral of “Does the word ‘parliament’ make sense to use if there aren’t any French to give us “parlez” as a root? And from there it was nothing but madness.

  3. Jared

    Was the Crack of the World in TPD a nod to the real world? Where “iron ruled and men flew without magic”? That’s how I write my secondary world fiction, with one step in, or something left over from, the real world. Dark Tower was a big inspiration for that kind of thing, so I’m always looking for more examples.

    I remember in the second Kingkiller book, one of the characters mentions how the word “vintage” comes from their country of Vintas. Little touches like that go a long way toward pulling it off, I think.


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