Today on The Tattooed Book Geek I am pleased to be taking part in the blog tour for Turning Darkness into Light by Marie Brennan with a guest post courtesy of the author.
My thanks to Julia Bradley for the tour invite, Titan Books and Marie Brennan for writing the fascinating guest post.
Turning darkness into Light.
- Paperback: 432 pages
- Publisher: Titan Books (UK) (20 Aug. 2019)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1789092515
- ISBN-13: 978-1789092516
- Amazon UK / Amazon US
A brand-new adventure set in the hugely popular A Natural History of Dragons universe – a delightful Victorian-esque fantasy.
As the renowned granddaughter of Isabella Camherst (Lady Trent, of the riveting and daring Draconic adventure memoirs) Audrey Camherst has always known she, too, would want to make her scholarly mark upon a chosen field of study.
When Lord Gleinleigh recruits Audrey to decipher a series of ancient tablets holding the secrets of the ancient Draconean civilization, she has no idea that her research will plunge her into an intricate conspiracy, one meant to incite rebellion and invoke war. Alongside dearest childhood friend and fellow archeologist Kudshayn, she must find proof of the conspiracy before it’s too late.
Guest Post: The Perils and Pleasures of Translation.
You’ve probably all seen this scene in a movie. The intrepid explorers or adventurers come across an inscription in a mysterious ruin or a scrap of text from a book or a scroll. The Designated Nerd wipes away the cobwebs, pushes their glasses up their nose, and after a brief pause, haltingly reads out a coherent English translation.
It really doesn’t work that way.
If you’re thoroughly fluent in both tongues, sure. Interpreters can do amazing things real-time. But these scenes usually involve dead languages no one speaks anymore, which are wholly unrelated to English and probably written in a different script. Sometimes the language in question is completely unrelated to the Designated Nerd’s area of expertise: the group brought along a Chinese specialist, but when the writing turns out to be Egyptian, having a degree in archaeology magically makes you fluent in Ancient Words. (If the story you’re in is Alien vs. Predator, you manage to be fluent in Egyptian, “Aztec,” and “Cambodian” all within the same inscription.)
Translation of this kind is a much slower and more uncertain process, with lots of stops and starts, backtracking and revision. Which movies don’t generally have time for, unless they’re Arrival — but that’s a shame, because the challenges of translation are far more interesting than those scenes would have you believe.
For starters, you have the problem of preservation. Ancient texts are rarely intact; the stone has eroded or been broken, the ink has faded, or the papyrus has partially crumbled away. The resulting gaps are called “lacunae,” and they make translation difficult because you lose context for the rest of the words. Consider that sentence you just read, and the pronoun “they” — what is it referring to? If you lost the part of the sentence that talks about gaps, you might not be sure. Not a big deal in this instance, but in other cases you might be left wondering what thing the inscription is saying you absolutely should not do, or how a character in a myth suddenly died.
Also, take a look at the handwriting of the people you know. Now ask yourself how easy it would be to read that if you weren’t fluent in English, or even in the Latin alphabet. When I read a collection of documents written by Queen Elizabeth I for the novel Midnight Never Come, the book noted that even people who specialize in her history can be uncertain whether a given letter is lowercase n or u. My research for the sequel, In Ashes Lie, was stymied in places by my complete inability to read the style known as secretary hand. The study of old handwriting is a big enough deal that it has its own name, paleography. And it applies just as much to cuneiform, hieroglyphs, and oracle bone script as it does to English from a few centuries ago.
Once you get past actually deciphering what exists of the text, you wade into the wilds of grammar. I once mis-translated a Latin phrase because I mistook the first person future passive indicative for the first person present passive subjunctive, rendering it as “may I never be conquered” rather than “I will never be conquered” — the verb is the same in either case, but context makes a difference. Latin is also notorious for messing with word order for poetic effect, such that a line may go AdjectiveTwo NounOne NounTwo AdjectiveOne. You have to untangle the knot before you can render it in coherent English order.
Speaking of poetic effect, Japanese verse likes to just leave stuff out entirely — like the subject of the poem. The reader is expected to infer it from the conventions of the genre, or from the circumstances in which the poem was composed, or the ambiguity is itself part of the poem’s aesthetics, allowing for different mutually plausible interpretations. Japanese poetry also makes heavy use of homophones or variant Chinese characters to add layers of meaning within a single word, such than an English translator has no hope but to gloss three lines with a paragraph of explanatory footnotes.
Many languages make use of allusion to other stories or historical incidents. Did those other texts survive? If not, good luck figuring out what meaning is suppose to attach to that name mentioned in passing. Or maybe it isn’t even an allusion; it’s just a piece of vocabulary that we don’t understand at all. If you studied a language in school, you had a dictionary that told you what all the words meant, and you just had to figure out the best way to render the whole in English. But with ancient languages, we have to build those dictionaries one painstaking piece at a time, and there are often a lot of pieces missing. The only way to figure out what a new word means is from context, and sometimes there isn’t enough to make it clear.
I only show glimpses of this process in my most recent novel, Turning Darkness Into Light, because there’s a lot of stuff going on in addition to the translation of an ancient mythological epic. (Politics! Riots! Unfortunate encounters with old flames!) But when I started planning the story, I made a list of challenges that could create difficulties for my characters: lacunae at crucial points, words of unknown meaning, grammatically impenetrable sentences, and more. Because I based the writing system and general nature of the language on Akkadian, I contacted several people who work with cuneiform texts to find out how rapidly a specialist can create a passable translation, given a source of particular length. Then I had to build the rest of my plot around that pace, because while there are many other things happening in the novel, the epic is the story’s spine: it’s the reason the whole plot is happening.
The result is unlike anything I’ve ever written before, a carefully-assembled jigsaw puzzle built from many different documents and clues. Which, in a way, makes it like the translation process itself — and every bit as much fun, at least if you’re a nerd like me.
About Marie Brennan.
photograph (credit Perry Reichanadter) and bio are taken from the author website
Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for material. She most recently misapplied her professors’ hard work to Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. The first book of that series, A Natural History of Dragons, was a finalist for the World Fantasy Award and won the Prix Imaginales for Best Translated Novel; the final volume, Within the Sanctuary of Wings, won RT Reviewers’ Choice Award for Best Fantasy Novel. She is also the author of the Doppelganger duology of Warrior and Witch, the urban fantasies Lies and Prophecy and Chains and Memory, the Onyx Court historical fantasy series, the Varekai novellas, and nearly sixty short stories, as well as the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides. For more information, visit www.swantower.com, @swan_tower, or her Patreon at www.patreon.com/swan_tower.
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