The matter of the express train

Consider the following list:

  • a Stradivarius violin
  • a German Shepherd (dog)
  • E chord
  • second
  • mile
  • sword

It’s nothing unusual if you read a fantasy story, a story in a world of its own, a world different from ours, and come across a mention of a sword. Swords are simple things.

How about a mention of some location being “a mile away”? Miles are a unit of our world, but not a very high-profile one. They’re basic: originally from mille passuum, Latin for a thousand paces. Almost no-one would say using the word “mile” in a different, imaginary world would be cheating, not any more than “sword” would be — all (s)words have their origins!

How about a second, then? That’s one of our units too, and one so precise it was unknown (or so I assume) to the medievals of our world. Saying that farmer Wergloof of some secondary world “waited five seconds, and then sprang” would thus be a double implausibility — first, it’s a word our equivalent farmer wouldn’t know, and it’s a word alien to Wergloof’s world anyway. (It would be a bit more plausible if it wasn’t Wergloof counting the time, but some shadowy narrator. Or Wergloof could “wait five heartbeats”, or “count to five”, or so on.)

You can probably see where I am going here.

The list above is so constructed that each step up demands a bit bigger intrusion of our world into the secondary world of the story. Miles and seconds are both necessary and not overly intrusive; saying that brave hunter Yeesh came, his two giant German Shepherds in tow — well, that’s a bit jarring. There’s no Germany in the Higher Planes of Pa-toom. Or, worse still, “the sound of harper Harpmeister’s new instrument in the high halls of Zik-Zak rivalled that of a fine Stradivarius violin; everyone was crying by the time he stopped”.

I would be crying, too, if I ever read that somewhere.

This problem is, incidentally, something that Tolkien talked of in the introductions and appendices to the Lord of the Rings: his conceit that the book is translated “from the Red Book of Westmarch”. This explains the notorious reference to something with a sound “like an express train” — something even more out-of-place than a Stradivarius violin would be! — since an English narrator of that time could be expected to use references familiar to him.

Tolkien didn’t stop there — he “translated” the Common Language of the westlands into English, and as that second-world language was posited to be related to the more archaic language of Rohan, he made up the place-names (like Edoras) and people-names (like Eowyn) of Rohan as actual, realistic names in our English’s ancestor, Old English! That’s consistency — and also crazy mad troublesome unless that’s what you do for your living, like Tolkien did.

The Rings’ appendices have a few words on mapping Elvish and Hobbit-ish month names to those of our own — and that’s a good example of the other side of this problem, since while an express train is a disorienting intrusion from our side, saying that “it was Ivanneth turning to Narbeleth” would be just the opposite — a disorienting intrusion from the other side. (And you have to have, in a mightily useful coincidence, a world where time is counted with something like twelve subdivisions of a year!)

That’s the problem: you can make a different world, a secondary world, but (unless you are brilliant or insane) you can’t tell your stories without the languages of our world. (I have a terrible feeling that Tolkien, if immortal, would have eventually produced “the Quenta Silmarillion, as receiv’d from Valinor to Numenor, prefented in its original Quenya, with diverfe notes in Sindarin” — and if there was such a thing, I would buy it.) And even if you allow the narrator to use the words of our world, sooner or later some character has to speak and mention units of distance or time — and will it be Ivanneth or September?

How much is enough but not too much? What do you translate? Do you have the sound of express trains or the tumult of the fall of Beleriand? Which language of those in the secondary world do you translate as English? Do you translate the place names — do you use just Rivendell (which is English) or Imladris (which is in-world Sindarin)? Or do you do a Tolkien and pretend that Rivendell (English) is used to correspond to Karningul (Westron), while Imladris (Sindarin) is not translated? How about personal names — do you want your reader to spend one hundred pages thinking that Ama is a woman, even if in High Glompian -a is a male suffix, just the opposite to what is common round here; or do you use our-world names: Ambrose (Greek for “immortal”), Christopher (Greek for “bearing Christ inside”; try explaining that in a different world!), Ragnar, Peter, Joey, Bob? (Warning: Apoplexy follows if I see a serious fantasy with something named “Joey” or “Bob” in it.) Is it fine to steal names from obscure our-world sources, like the Forgotten Realms with its goddess Mielikki, an actual, real Finnish old-age forest goddess, and Kiputytto, a weird vowel away from Kiputyttö, Finnish for Pain-Girl? Or how about doing like Robert Jordan, whose Wheel of Time has trolloc-monster clans with vaguely familiar names like “Dhai’mon” and “Dha’vol”, echoing demon and devil? (Or “Bhan’sheen”!) Is it worth the hassle to have a week of eight days (Discworld does), or do you have some other unit, like “span”, whose length a lazy reader like me can never remember — and how on earth do you refer to an E chord without a two-page footnote if you have an original system of musical scales? Mercury and antimony are easy, since they’re just “new” labels for existing things, but chords are a purely theoretical structure, which could just as well be (I suppose) vastly different! What about wordplay — do you trust the reader to reckon that a witty pun in English is just substituted for one in the original Common Speech (like Baranduin/Brandywine and Branda-nin/Bralda-him in Tolkien; see the appendices)? Where’s the balance between window-dressing and a floundering reader, or the one between a diverse vocabulary (anchored deep in our world) and weak, sketchy, general verbiage (which is “world-neutral”)? How much do you change things for a good “translation”?

Don’t ask me for answers.

Since most fantasy-writers don’t (and thank the empty heavens for that!) foreword their works with “this was translated from the Dread Brass Tube-Cylinders of P’nath; any inconsistencies of style are the result of adapting the diverse idioms of High Tofuan to English; place-names in other languages are left untranslated”, this problem of (pretending) mapping the words of a secondary world into those of our own remains, implicit and harmless to the reader unless some choice of words makes her wonder who’s telling the tale.

It’s not a problem unless you tend to get drawn into these things; as should be clear from the above, I tend to.

And thus, consequently, the writer has to be careful, and most probably keep the tale bereft of German Shepherds. Or invent a “new” breed — a Doitsi Shepherd dog? — and spend a few sentences describing a hound by another name. (“O German Shepherd dog, wherefore art thou a German Shepherd dog? That which we call a German Shepherd dog by any other word would do as well — okay, enough mangling Shakespeare.”)

It must be interesting to write long, long novels with an added difficulty like that, thinking which language out there is the one translated as English, and whether seven-day weeks and twelve-month years (or, in a more fundamental difference, 365-day years!) are a bit much. It’s like translating a book from a different language, except this language is supposed to be spoken in a world absolutely divorced from our own.

(These observations were sparked by a reference to an E chord in the Name of the Wind, an immensely readable and hugely admirable book by Patrick Rothfuss, whose writing is like honey to my ears, except less likely to make me go “Eww! A towel! Quick! I’ve got fricking honey in my ears!” His blog is good too, but in a different way: the book is big and mythic, the blog is “Muppet? Thanks a lot Rothfuss, now I got a quart of milk in my sinuses!” funny.)

(One more note: Yes, I know the titular express train was a bit of a leftover from the mode Tolkien told the Hobbit, a children’s book, in, before sobering up a few hundred pages into the Lord of the Rings and out of the Shire. But as I know very little about kiddie lit, I can’t offer any insights about that specific point.)

One Response to “The matter of the express train”

  1. Edwin Says:

    I just heard that expression “like an express train” on the book tape I am listening to and immediately knew that it did not fit. Thanks for pointing this out.

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