Linguistics and SFF: Stormdancer and the Translation Convention

13 Jul

Back for Part 2 of my linguistic analysis of Stormdancer by Jay Kristoff.  Last time, I talked about Stormdancer and the Japanese Language.  In this post, I”m going to address the issues Kristoff had with something called the translation convention.  The translation convention is an idea in SFF that when a story is set somewhere else than Earth in an English speaking country, the characters in their own reality are not speaking English, and the story is merely being “translated” into English from whatever language it’s really written in.

There are two main versions of the convention:

1.  The book itself is just an English translation of the original.

2.  The dialogue in the book and the characters’ thoughts are in translation; the general prose is not.

For the purposes of this post, we will make the second assumption, since the use of scattered Japanese makes a strong argument that the characters in the novel have Japanese as a native language.

Now, in order to adhere to this convention, the author must treat dialogue and interior monologue as if it were written in the language.  For example, if a character thinks about the words they are speaking–or would like to speak, in many cases–the description of those words must treat them as they exist in the native language of the characters, not in English or whatever language the novel is actually written in.  No language is a complete word for word cypher for any other, so things such as syllable counts or word counts are going to be different, as is the shaping of the sounds of the word in the mouth.

Kristoff provides us with several examples–or mistakes–of this type to analyze:

1.  Goodreads user Cyna points out several of these mistakes.  First, the word “impure” in this sentence:

“‘Impure.’ Yukiko whispered the word […] It was such a simple thing; two syllables, the press of her lips together, one on another, tongue rolling over her teeth.”

As Cyna notes, the Japanese for “impure” is “fuketsu”.  Now, that’s almost irrelevant here, since in neither word is there any sort of “tongue rolling”.  But if we do consider it, then we realize that the Japanese word would have three syllables, not two, and there is no “press of her lips together”.  Such a sound is called a “bilabial”.  In the English we have both the nasal bilabial stop /m/, and the oral bilabial stop /p/.  Neither of these are in Japanese.  The closest we come is /f/, which in English is a labiodental fricative, meaning that the bottom teeth approach the upper lip.

The prime reason I’m citing this is because it violates our translation convention in that it discusses (and inaccurately) the English word “impure” which is not what Yukiko would be using, which should be Japanese.

2.  The second example citied by Cyna is “arashi no ko”, literally translatable as “storm child” or “child of storm(s)”.  The griffin “Buruu” asks her what it means.  Now, since it’s pure Japanese, he ought to know, or how else have they been understanding each other all this time?  It’s nice of Kristoff to give use a translation, but it could have been done much more simply, and without violating the translation convention.

3.  Cyna’s thrd example is this passage:

‘”I lo-”
She kissed him, stood on her tiptoes and threw her arms around his neck and crushed her lips to his before he could finish the sentence. She didn’t want to listen to those three awful words, feel them open her up to the bone and see what the lies had done to her insides.’

The words obviously being “I love you.”  However, that’s English, not Japanese as she should be speaking.  Japanese has several ways to say “I love you.”  “Aishiteru”, which is considered very strong and rarely used.  “Suki desu”, or more commonly “suki”, which literally translates to “Like [something].”  Or, if you want to push it to three words, “Kimi ga suki [desu].”  Kristoff gets lucky here, since you could argue he meant the last example, although his use of Japanese previous suggests it was un-intentional.  Here we consider something interesting: a set-phrase.  This is a phrase with a culturally legislated and rigidly formed phrase, generally with a ritual meaning.  They’re generally used for greetings or apologies or any other very common act of speech.  IN English, the culturally weighted phrase is the three-word “I love you.”   You can see it in the extremely common mention of “those three little words”, which even Kristoff references in the scene.  In Japanese, especially the anime-style register that Kristoff is drawing his material from, the set phrase is not “kimi ga suki”, or “anata ga suki”.  Kristoff is clearly referring to the English set phrase.  So again, he breaks the convention.

There are some other examples, I’m sure.

The reason I wrote a whole post focusing on the translation convention of SFF is that it highlights the mindset behind this mis-use of language.  It’s not intentional, or aimed at helping readers.  It’s just ignorance, and it makes you wonder what’s the point of the other language.  Is it just for cheap exoticism?  Is the author just ignorant?  They’re certainly not achieving the goal of immersing the reader in another culture, or another mindset.  There are so many wonderful ways we can use language in fiction, and I include the ever popular entertainment in this.  When you write a book about another culture and another language, there needs to be more there than just making things seem foreign, especially considering anyone with a basic idea of how Japanese language and culture works (and the number of those people is growing, due to the spread of Japanese soft power propagated by manga and JDramas and all of that) isn’t going to find this book foreign but rather fake.

Next time on Linguistics and SFF: Shadow and Bone and the Russian Language


Posted by on July 13, 2013 in Cultural Appropriation, Linguistics


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