Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Narrative forms, translation issues, and more

Recently I listened to a lengthy interview by "The Skiffy and Fanty Show" of my friend and former co-worker, Sabrina Vourvoulias. It was an interesting and wide-ranging conversation, and I'll definitely be checking back on that podcast.

The interview was sparked by her recent publication of "Ink," a near-future dystopia that explores some foreboding implications of immigration-law trends. I haven't had a chance to read the book yet, but that wasn't a problem, because the interview talked far less about the plot than about inspiration, the craft of writing, forms of writing, translation, and other issues.

One thing Sabrina talked about was different forms of writing. She compared poetry to jazz, and journalism to folksy ballads, in which direct simplicity is a virtue. One of the interviewers suggested symphonies for comparison to fiction, and she agreed because of how symphonies -- and fiction -- draw on many different threads, and weave them together. She expanded on that, talking about the inclusivity of fiction,  how it can encompass other forms of writing.

That made me think of "Dracula," which comprised diary entries, letters, news clippings, and telegrams, and "World War Z," which is cast as a collection of oral histories about the zombie apocalypse. There are many other examples of this in fiction, and all this is a reminder that there are many other options besides first- or third-person character narratives, or even epics that switch perspectives among multiple characters.

I was also very interested in the segment about translation, and thinking in different languages. My dad took a course in Greek this year and was struck by the difficulty -- some words just don't have direct equivalents, and sometimes words have multiple meanings in one language, and the translator just has to choose one of those meanings instead of being able to find an equivalent that embraces the ambiguity.

Many of C.J. Cherryh's books deal with conflicts between different mindsets, but her Foreigner series deals specifically with a human translator who basically ends up by default as the ambassador, because misunderstandings are so dangerous...

Here and now on Earth, of course, it's very easy to think of examples of dangerous mistranslations between members of the same human species. It's not necessarily just that words don't correspond, but that ways of thinking, as reflected in and fostered by language structure, can be so different. I could write a whole essay just about that, so I'll stop here, but I'd love to see some comments! 


  1. "[S]ome words just don't have direct equivalents, and sometimes words have multiple meanings in one language"

    For some reason this made me think of John McWhorter. He has a long but fascinating book on languages -- really everything about them -- and I've listened to the audio version, read by him. Or perhaps it was a lecture series. If you're not familiar with his stuff, it's probably worth your attention.

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