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[GUEST POST] Arianne “Tex” Thompson (MEDICINE FOR THE DEAD) Discusses Language Barriers in SFF

texArianne “Tex” Thompson is a ‘rural fantasy’ author, writing instructor, and comma placement specialist. A relentless fantasy enthusiast dual-wielding a bachelor’s degree in history and a master’s in literature, Tex has channeled her interests into an epic fantasy Western series, which kicked off in 2014 with the release of ONE NIGHT IN SIXES and its sequel, MEDICINE FOR THE DEAD. In addition to writing cowboys-and-fishmen fantasy, she is an active member of SFWA, and currently serves as editor for the DFW Writers Conference. Find her online at and on Twitter as @tex_maam!

Lost in Translation: Language Barriers in SFF

by Arianne “Tex” Thompson

“Meanwhile, the poor Babel fish, by effectively removing all barriers to communication between different races and cultures, has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation.”
-The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

It’s something of a classic rule of SFF: if you’re taking a trip to fantasyland, you will almost-invariably be provided with a handy-dandy Babelfish, Universal Translator, or TARDIS, which will translate everything for you, instantly, perfectly, and on the spot. Naturally, these things are as reasonable as they are improbable (as the Guide might say, infinitely so): they’re just handy little plot devices that allow the writer to do away with all that pesky translation business and get on with telling the story. Nothing wrong with that.

But a vast quantity of speculative fiction is written at one of two extremes: either language barriers have been completely dissolved, as above, or else they’re so impenetrable that no understanding is possible. (Comes in useful when bug-eyed aliens just need some killing.) Either way, the result is the same: the heroes don’t have to make an effort to learn a new language.

And yet, as we’ve seen, language-learning offers a wealth of speculative fiction storytelling opportunities, as seen in classics like Star Trek: The Next Generation’s “Darmok and Jalad” episode, Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, and the shoulda-been-a-classic box-office bomb, Enemy Mine. Through strange worlds and alien characters, these stories center on one of the most crucial parts of the human condition: the struggle to communicate with people profoundly unlike us.

Here again, though, it’s almost an all-or-nothing proposition: either there’s no need for translation, or else it drives the entire plot. Strange as it sounds, one of the happiest mediums I’ve seen is Star Wars. Yes, there is a shared language. No, not everyone has the education or anatomy to speak it. Yes, it’s sometimes plot-relevant. No, it isn’t the focus of the story. And what do you do to help overcome the language barrier? Why, just what we do here in the real world: bring a translator!

And even though C3PO was 95% comic relief, I wish, wish, wish we got more interpreter characters in SFF – because they are an absolute goldmine of narrative opportunities. Take my agency-sibling Dan Bensen’s novel, New Frontiers. It’s basically Men in Black with an Oglaf twist. Our hero, Harry Downs, is an ‘exo-erotic diplomat’ who has intimate encounters with aliens in order to get inside information for the human government. (Which is a real feat, because his clients aren’t Star Trek nose-putty aliens: they’re giant python-slugs, eyeless buffalo-squids, and coral Christmas trees carried around by carpets of sentient cockroaches.) Harry is assisted by his dauntless Bulgarian translator-buddy, Plamen – and to terrific narrative effect. Anytime you have to rely on a third party to tell you what’s going on, the gap in your own understanding invites you to fill it with curiosity, empathy, or fear:

Whatever’s happening to Bubba, I can see it. The orderly hexagon pattern of the protective wall is dissolving, mutating into erratic clumps and ribbons. Clots of bugs whirl erratically, swing around the hive body, and smash against each other with a sound like hail on mud. Little alien bugs splatter across the walls and floor.

“I think he’s…yes,” says Plamen. “Yes, I can confirm he’s screaming.”

But as much as an interpreter’s presence can add to a story, they can up the humor and drama quotient even further by their sudden absence – because as we all know, Google Translate is no kind of substitute:

“No applied to path of mental recursion. Proof that semantic-spaces of ‘sex’ and ‘companionship’ are non-contiguous when extended in the time-dimension. But attention condenses around the peak in the power landscape. Sex occurs in rich abundance at these coordinates.”

In other words: “Don’t be churlish; there are plenty of other women who’ll want to bone an alien mandarin.” Junior has improved his translation software, or perhaps he just has more resources devoted to it now, but he’s still almost incomprehensible.

I can’t even tell you how much I love this. Like, it’s one thing to say that Klingons think in terms of honor and Ferengi think in terms of money, but it adds a fantastic layer of richness and believability to show the linguistic structure of an alien’s thoughts. In the above examples, the beezles (coral-roach-aliens) communicate by intricate movements of the insects in their swarms – so their language is all about spatial relationships.

And the thing is, you don’t even need to get deep into linguistics to use a translator for nifty dramatic potential. It works beautifully without ever having to conjugate a verb. In Medicine for the Dead, my main character, Elim, has been accused of murder, and is being taken to trial by two of the dead man’s relatives. He doesn’t understand their language, so they’ve brought a translator to interpret for him. During the journey, the party is robbed, and only escapes death when the translator, Hakai, says something to the robbers that persuades them to leave. Afterward, Hakai tells his bosses that what he said was:

Don’t be too hasty for revenge. This slave here shouldn’t be killed. These two will try to fool you, but he is really quite valuable, and they want to take him home to Atali’Krah to be sold. Take him and let us go on our way, so that they will have to go home to the children of Marhuk plagued by shame.

But Elim has overheard the whole thing, and what Hakai actually said was:

Don’t be too hasty. I can get you better revenge. This slave has already killed one of their most valuable men, and these two have been fooled into taking him home to Atali’Krah. Sell our goods, but let us go on our way: we will take him to infect the children of Marhuk in their own home, and begin a new plague.

So now we have Elim, realizing that there are terrible plots afoot – but the only person he can tell is the same treacherous translator who’s apparently planning to use him as some kind of unwitting Typhoid Mary. Now what? Does he try to warn his captors, even though they’re taking him to his very-probable execution? Could he learn how to communicate with them, even if he wanted to, and would they believe him, even if he did?

There are plenty of other examples out there, but you get the point. A world where everyone speaks the same language sounds great on paper, but it leaves a ton of dramatic potential lying on the table – and it can carry unfortunate implications. “In my fantasyland, the only people who don’t speak my language are monsters.”

By contrast, stories that utilize linguistic differences, even in small, subtle degrees, offer worlds of enticing ways to make the strange seem stranger and the mysteries more mysterious. More importantly, they can serve to humanize the other, and us by proxy. If there’s any greater purpose for speculative fiction, I don’t know what it is. And if YOU know of other great stories featuring translators and translation, please recommend them in the comments!

4 Comments on [GUEST POST] Arianne “Tex” Thompson (MEDICINE FOR THE DEAD) Discusses Language Barriers in SFF

  1. Paul Weimer (@PrinceJvstin) // April 3, 2015 at 7:45 am //

    Stargate SG-1 is an excellent example of the writers not caring much about language barriers. I guess they figured it would take too much time each episode for Daniel to learn to speak (like in the movie), so everyone just spoke American English. No translators of any kind.

    • Yeah, I think that TV shows tend to have more limitations in that regard. It seems like people are more patient with subtitles in movies – or maybe it’s just that movies can do more liberal time-jumping, so we can fast-forward through the language-learning process in the space of a montage sequence. Deep thoughts, regardless! (And thanks so much for tweeting this – you make me look GOOD!)

  2. Nice essay. It’s not just language, but culture too. I liked Looking through Lace by Ruth Nestvold. Language is central here, but it’s a great story. Also, A Woman of the Iron People by Eleanor Arnason is about an anthropologist who knows nothing about the local culture and has to learn on the ground. And then there’s CJ Cherryh’s Foreigner books. They, um, speak for themselves.

    • Hey, thanks so much for the recommendations – I’ve been meaning to start in on CJ Cherryh’s books, and Looking Through Lace looks FABULOUS. Danger, action, and xenolinguistic intrigue – I’m sold!

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