This article on translation in fiction is part of the Science in Sci-fi, Fact in Fantasy blog series. Each week, we tackle one of the scientific or technological concepts pervasive in sci-fi (space travel, genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, etc.) with input from an expert. Please join the mailing list to be notified every time new content is posted.
The Expert: Marie Brennan
Marie Brennan is a World Fantasy Award-nominated fantasy novelist with a background in anthropology and folklore. She doesn’t speak any language fluently apart from English, but she’s dabbled in Spanish, Latin, Japanese, Irish Gaelic, Old Norse, Finnish, and Navajo. You can find her at her website Swan Tower, on Twitter, or exploring worldbuilding on Patreon.
Translating Inscriptions in Fiction
We’ve all seen it in the movies. A plucky band of explorers finds an inscription in a forgotten ruin or on a strange artifact. The closest thing the band has to a linguist, archaeologist, or (in a pinch) historian will push their glasses up their nose, peer at it, and then read out a nice, coherent, grammatical English sentence, decorated with a few pauses to remind you that they’re having to think about it real hard.
This . . . is really not how translation works.
It’s fine on the rare occasions when the person doing the translation happens to be working with a well-preserved text in a language they speak and read fluently. But most of the time, the linguist/archaeologist/historian is ranging much further outside their comfort zone, to a “related” language (because we all know that speaking Spanish lets you read French with 100% fluency, right?) or, in a worst-case scenario, a completely unrelated language that just happens to be from the same continent.
The Myth of Quick Translation
Possibly the most egregious offender I’ve ever seen is the movie Alien vs. Predator. I’m fine with buying into the basic premise, ridiculous as it is: a motley band of specialists find themselves exploring an ancient and mysterious pyramid buried in the ice of Antarctica. But when they find a panel of carved stone (and brush it clear of cobwebs, because we all know ancient pyramids need cobwebs, even when they’re buried under a mile of ice), the following dialogue ensues between two archaeologists recruited from a dig in Mexico:
Thomas: I recognize the Egyptian.
Sebastian: The second symbol is Aztec. Pre-Conquest era. The third is Cambodian.
And then they proceed to read what it says.
There are so many flaws in this, I barely even know where to begin. It might make some vague amount of sense if the panel was a trilingual, like the Rosetta Stone: the same text written in Egyptian, Nahuatl (the Aztec language), and Khmer (the main Cambodian language), so that our intrepid archaeologists were only reading the one they actually knew.
But there are two problems with that: first, the Aztecs didn’t have a full writing system, capable of representing complete and grammatically complex sentences. Second, the archaeologists speak of individual symbols, not whole blocks of text. And the image doesn’t show us three different writing systems; it shows one, which has the overall blocky shape of Mayan writing — a different script entirely (but one that, unlike Aztec, is a full writing system).
So a couple of archaeologists who work in Mexico are able to read a mashup of three wildly unrelated languages in the space of a couple of seconds. There’s also a later scene where the main archaeologist shines his flashlight over a whole room filled with writing on the floor and walls and ceiling, declares “the hieroglyphs are a little difficult to make out,” and then casually infodumps the entire backstory of the Aliens and Predators for his companion — because if he couldn’t deliver the Cliff Notes translation of an entire room on sight, how would anyone ever know what was going on?
The Reality of Translation
In reality, translation works more like this. It’s full of stops and starts, uncertainties and bits you skip in the hope that the next bit will clarify the part that’s baffling you. There are verbs with conflicting glosses, differences of dialect, idioms you don’t recognize, abbreviations that leave out half the word, scribal errors that turn a whole phrase into gibberish.
You mistake the future first person passive indicative for the present first person passive subjunctive and think that numquam vincar means “may I never be conquered” instead of “I will never be conquered.” Many writing systems lack vowels, or punctuation, or even spaces between the words — which means that you have to dissect the text into its constituent parts before you can even begin figuring out what it means.
Some languages make this harder than others. English relies heavily on word order to make sense of a sentence, but in a highly inflected language, where words change form depending on how they’re being used, you can rearrange them in all kinds of ways for aesthetic effect. Though I’ve failed to track down the piece in question, I have a memory of translating a poem in Latin class that started with a verb . . . whose subject was buried down in the second stanza. Translating something like that is more akin to assembling a jigsaw puzzle than following the yellow brick road.
Or take Japanese, whose aesthetics tend to prioritize allusion and indirection. In a Japanese poem, it’s entirely possible the subject isn’t there at all. You have to infer it from the surrounding context — which might include a different poem written four hundred years earlier, because the one you’re translating is quoting that previous work, and the intended audience of literati was expected to recognize the quote and fill in the subject accordingly. Can you imagine translating an ancient curse only to discover the writers of the curse assumed you understood the oblique mythological reference that tells you what action will unleash the demon?
What’s Lost in Translation: Nuance
It gets worse when the language in front of you isn’t the one you really speak. My experience with Latin and Spanish means I can figure out some French, and the spread of the Chinese writing system means you get a degree of mutual written intelligibility between unrelated Asian languages, but the finer points fall away: verb tenses, prepositions, all the little linking bits that tell you how the big blocks of meaning fit together. That sentence has something about opening a door — is it saying that I should do it, or that I should absolutely not do it? Are the aliens bringing a gift, or are we the gift being given to the aliens? In the types of story where translation is important, these distinctions tend to matter rather a lot.
Mind you, having slagged on Alien vs. Predator for its characters’ magical ability to translate an Egyptian/Nahuatl/Khmer mashup, I do have to give them props for this exchange:
Thomas: “You may . . . choose . . . to enter.” <pause> “Those who choose may enter.”
Sebastian: It’s not “choose.” It’s “chosen.” “Only the chosen ones may enter.”
This comes closer to the reality of translation than most examples (including the rest of that movie). Thomas shows uncertainty about the subject of the verb, switching from “you” to “those who,” and also the verbs themselves, relocating the English modal “may” from the choosing to the entering. Sebastian corrects one of those to a perfect passive participle and adds the limiter “only.” The core elements remain the same throughout, but the specifics of meaning shift pretty radically before they arrive at a final translation.
Writing Translation Accurately
The best way to accurately represent the process of translation in a story is to have actually done some yourself. If you’ve studied a foreign language, you know what types of errors you’ve made with that language — mistaking one word for a near-homophone, forgetting to pay attention to verb tense, modifiers placed in a different order than you’re accustomed to — and you can incorporate those into the scene to create a sense of realism.
If you’re monolingual, then it’s time to do some research and talk to a person with the appropriate experience. University departments can be great for this, if you’re writing about a real-world language, but even if the language is invented, using something real as your foundation will ground the moment in concrete detail.
English is an SVO language — subject followed by verb followed by object — so anyone translating an SOV language might initially read out the inscription in a very awkward order, then rearrange it to sound more like proper English.
Or just give your characters a universal translator. They might thank you for it.
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