Fair warning: This week, we’re talking about Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone. I doubt there will be any spoiler-y stuff, but if you haven’t yet read it, proceed with caution.
For some time now, I’ve been thinking about the incorporation of languages in fantasy novels. As I make my way through Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi, it seems like now is the best time to put those thoughts down on screen. I talked in last week’s post a little bit about language and trying to determine important words to include within your work.
I didn’t, however, have much space to explain why people might want to go through all that effort to create some form of language in the first place, which will help with my discussion just a little bit further on. What is so entrancing about world-building as a whole is how much can change, culturally, with just a few adjustments to the setting. Consider Tolkien’s two human empires: Rohan and Gondor. They both are pretty close to each other on the map, they both seem to be on the same level of development, and so forth, but Rohan is set out on the open fields where horses end up being a massive part of their culture. Gondor, on the other hand, is next to the mountains. Worse, they are really close to the evil Mordor, which means they have to focus on defending their borders from the darkness that resides there. Simply comparing the architecture of the two capitals shows just how different they really are.
The same thing goes for languages. The vocabulary is going to change greatly depending on what’s important to them. The Inuits allegedly have fifty words for “snow,” whereas English only has a few (snow, sleet, hail. Are there others? I don’t believe so.) Obviously, with that kind of climate, you want to be as precise as possible about what kind of snow you’re about to get. For us, it’s not quite as important. At least, comparatively.
If you know anything about translations, this whole vocabulary discrepancy is part of what makes the whole job so hard. But it makes the writing of fantasy novels really fun. This is where everything begins to tie back to the book I’m reading now. Theoretically, each new fictional setting involves characters speaking in a language that is not English. That’s why the names likely do not sound English, and why you italicize any word that is not in the English dictionary — because it’s considered a non-English word. Obviously, however, we don’t want to write the story in their native tongue. That would require a rather large vocabulary of a made-up language, and even so, no one would be able to read it but you.
Sometimes, an author will add extra words from their characters’ native tongues to add a little bit of extra flare, or to give readers a sort of sense of what kind of place that place is. However, doing so risks alienating the readers, because they might see an italicized word and think it’s something that only exists in that fictional world, when really you’re describing something that could have easily been translated into English.
I haven’t gotten far into Children of Blood and Bone just yet, but there’s something I find a little off-putting about the narration. (Not to say that the story is subpar; I haven’t gotten that far in yet. My goal is simply to discuss one aspect of the narrative that may or may not aide in the writing of future novels.) Firstly, the first chapter has a handful of words that I could guess the meaning of but had too few cues to know if my guesses were correct. The trouble was that my definitions seemed to be ones that could have easily been “translated” into English, rather than written in the native language of the fictional world.
The second is that, oddly enough, as I got a few more chapters in, I kept running into words that felt oddly familiar, but had clearly deviated from their source material. There were creatures such as lionaires that sounded like they were what you would imagine they’d be — a lion of some sort — but I think had horns or something? And then one of the characters mention Britauns and two other old countries that looked like they could have been referencing Spain and Portugal, and it makes me wonder if I’m making connections where there shouldn’t be any, if perhaps Tomi Adeyemi grew a bit lazy with the naming of her countries and animals (which is, admittedly, forgivable if you look at the immersiveness of pretty much everything else in her fantasy world), or if perhaps the naming hints that the series takes place on Earth, after some apocalypse or another.
Either way, my main point is this: when I see an italicized word in a story, ideally, it’s only left “untranslated” because there was no direct way to translate it without losing that word’s meaning. A rough estimation of a definition will likely be required, but the italicization of the fantasy word then implies that it’s not an exact definition. Obviously, phrases like spells or maybe even poems would be logical exclusions, because for those, part of the music is in the phrasing itself, and to translate it to English could sound less powerful than the fantasy language.
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Do you prefer reading books with a lot of fictional words included? I know that some people feel that this adds a certain atmosphere to a book. Or do you prefer reading books where only the “difficult to translate” words remain in their native language?
Personally, I feel that, a lot of the time, the fewer words you leave untranslated, the better. It gives those untranslated words more power, more weight, because they’re words that are just out of reach of the English language. But I may be alone in that belief.