Thursday, November 29, 2007

Interesting Question about Writing

Edwin made a comment about the snippet of the fantasy novel I posted that was thought-provoking, so I thought I'd share it.

Essentially, his comment was that he was pulled out of the story by the use of Indonesian terms in Djani's practice session with Guru Bruj: Keris, djuru, Guru, etc. For him, they didn't work in a fantasy world.

It was a fair comment.

My response was that he was a very specialized audience, and that the number of folks like him in the U.S. wouldn't fill up a high school auditorium -- 99.9% of readers who might chance to read the novel, when and if it gets published, won't know those terms, and so using them won't matter. They will think I made them up. And since foreign cultures on Earth have all manner of interesting material most outlanders don't know, I get a chance to use the knowledge. Many Indonesians do believe their black steel blades are magic, and there are books written on the patterns in the metal, the length and width and curvature of the keris, and what magicks those combinations can effect.

Outside of handful of silat players and knife collectors, (and people who read my stuff) how many people outside Indonesia know this?

Even some of those who do know I didn't make it all up won't object -- they'll be tickled, because they will be in on the secret ...

I tend to do this kind of thing to amuse myself when I write. Use a word or term that means something in a language most readers won't know. Spetsdod, say, or Teras Kasi. Sometimes my translations are a bit iffy, but those who know the language can usually make out what I meant, and they get the joke.

I pointed out that the matador novels I wrote had a fair number of terms taken from swahili, and that I wasn't worried overmuch when I wrote those that I'd get flak from anybody.

Tiel, who knows that language, did point out some of the inexact terminlogy I'd used in a draft of the most recent matador book, and I fixed that -- only to have my editor use an earlier draft that didn't incorporate the changes. Shit happens; even so, I haven't gotten one fan letter or email taking me to task for my bad swahili. Might be that, like Spanish from Cuba doesn't use exactly the same terms as Spanish from Mexico or Spain, Swahili from Mozambique is not exactly like that spoken in Kenya or Mayotte.

Often for me, it's the sound, the tone, of the language for which I am looking, rather than any precision in meaning. The swahili term tumbo la kuhara shows up somewhere in one of my books. I like the way it sounds when spoken aloud. What does it mean in English?

Diarrhea ...

One writes for a certain audience, and mine is largely people for whom English is a first, and generally, only language. There is a suspension of disbelief that is basic to reading any fantasy novel set on another planet -- that the locals will speak something that uses mostly terran language. If I have my fantasy race using "guns," it's hardly likely that they'd have come up with that precise word to describe such weapons. Even here on Earth, there are many words for such a tool, most languages have their own -- fusil, Gewehr, fucile, arma de fuego, bossa, biks ... and I could use one of those instead. Or make up my own language entirely, and use it now and then for flavor.

Flavor in fantasy or science fiction is like idiomatic dialog -- too much spoils the broth. It's always a part of the process to figure out the correct amount. Kipling has some English soldiers speak who are almost impossible to understand, the language is so thickly accented. If you are an American who has never seen British television, keeping up with some of the actors who have accents other than RP (received pronounciation) or posh, can be difficult.

Better, as a writer, I think, to suggest than to overwhelm.

As a fantasy writer, you have to project Earth onto your world to a large degree. They might ride therlupes instead of horses, but your aliens have to be, on some level, people to whom a human reader can relate. If you create a truly alien species that behaves in ways, well, truly alien to the way we do? Keeping a reader's interest will be a difficult chore.

So I'm leaving the silat terms in, because I want to evoke in my Jalimatrans people who are akin to the Javanese; just as my Stahlrogians are more or less patterned on Germans; and my Isbaani are pretty much Arabic.


Tiel Aisha Ansari said...

"I haven't gotten one fan letter or email taking me to task for my bad swahili"

Just me yelling at you isn't enough? :)

Steve Perry said...

Certainly not -- you just have that one-country experience and so long ago you don't remember it right anyhow.

Aside from which, if it isn't in writing, it doesn't count ...

Christopher Wayne said...

What I like about your books is the way to mix in terms that are not English but by the content one is able to determine what they mean.

Brad said...

Using familiar language/words is a good idea. As you said, your readers can feel like theyu're in on the joke. It also gives them a reference to gain some familiarity with your characters.

As for the mistakes in a langauge, I would think (in the case of the Matador novels) that the language of that time would have adapted and changed over the centuries to where it would be at least recognizible, yet changed. make sense?

Steve Perry said...

Yep. The theory is, if I use a word you don't know, you should be able to get the sense of what it means from context. Or it should be relatively unimportant for the general flow of the story, so that you don't need to know exactly what it means.

Over a few hundred years, languages do change, and I could use that excuse, but pretty much, I swiped the idea of using a foreign language to get a consistency of tone to names and such from Frank Herbert, who did it in Dune. Frank got much of that off a map of the Middle East ...

Gonna steal, might as well swipe from the masters.

I've also used Esperanto, which tends to mess people up because it sounds almost familiar, but isn't quite Italian, English, or Latin, which it tends to borrow the most from.

"Li farbis la pordon bruna?" was one I used to say when I got sales call on the phone. Stopped 'em cold.

Means, "He painted the door brown ..."