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The Fictional Linguistic Dilemma [Jun. 15th, 2007|12:49 am]
So, a question for y'all what read SF:

We have a (human) character from a fairly ordinary background who gets dragged off to strange and interesting places. Logically, the (also human) people in the strange and interesting places would not speak the same language. But these characters need to be able to communicate -- have conversations, even -- because otherwise it's all very boring.

Which of the following solutions to this problem do you find acceptable?

Ignore It: Just avoid the question entirely. Everyone speaks 'English' and language is simply never mentioned.
Gloss Over It: Acknowledge briefly how strange it is that everyone speaks 'English', but provide no explanation.
Translator Microbes: Describe a whatchamajigger that solves the problem, but don't explain how it works.
Babel Fish: The whatchamajigger is explained in a hand-wavy way, then we move on.
Universal Translator: Whatchamajigger with explanation; how it works is sometimes plot-relevant.
Fast Learning: Invoke technobabble to let characters absorb new languages very quickly.
The Low-Tech Way: Characters learn new languages through conveniently-available months of intensive study.
Other: some exciting and clever method I haven't thought of, which is described in a comment.

From: toosuto
2007-06-15 07:49 am (UTC)
Actually I will pretty much accept any 'explanation' so long as it is consistent with the rest of the writing, which of course should be good.
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[User Picture]From: eto_theipi
2007-06-15 08:28 am (UTC)
Same here.
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From: chaosqueen42
2007-06-15 12:47 pm (UTC)
Interesting that you should bring this up. I'm in the middle of reading _The_Sparrow_ by Mary Doria Russell. It's about a group of people who travel to another planet to see who lives there, after a radio signal is picked up by SETI. One of the members of the group, and one of the main reasons the group is even put together, is a Jesuit who has been trained to be an excellent and fast-learning linguist. He will help them learn to speak to the beings they meet on the planet. This book was written in 1996 and takes place between 2020 and 2060, so that seems to be to appropriate, since we Earthlings are nowhere near any kind of universal language dohickeys right now. Bringing someone who can figure out languages very quickly seems the most likely option.
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[User Picture]From: goobermunch
2007-06-15 01:00 pm (UTC)
The Sparrow is an awesome book, though somewhat painful. Children of God (the sequel) is also excellent.

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[User Picture]From: boat_of_car
2007-06-15 01:08 pm (UTC)

ordinary and convenient

You describe the travelar as ordinary, (can't help but think of Arthur Dent) and the aliens as already mysterious. We need the basic mechanics, and that it works, and not much more, I think. Unless, as you suggest in your poll, how it works is relevant to the plot- for example, if the translation requires large amounts of a particular substance or technology that has other side effects...(sorry out of commas cant post until i get more arrrrgghhhh)
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[User Picture]From: bryree
2007-06-16 05:29 am (UTC)

Re: ordinary and convenient

How will getting more arrrrgghhhh help with your comma shortage?
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[User Picture]From: helava
2007-06-15 01:15 pm (UTC)
Agreed with the "good writing" comment, and any explanation that's consistently "good" would be fine. But I can't help but think that right now, there's so much information available on the net that some sort of fast-translation mechanic couldn't be derived from being able to run some sort of google/google image searches to do some sort of quick translation to whatever language you'd want. Like, you spend a couple minutes doing a monstrous information dump into a video/image/text search engine, and it spits out a device that'll essentially do rough translation on the fly.
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[User Picture]From: zalena
2007-06-15 01:31 pm (UTC)
I lost my previous response: thbbbt!

Anyway, I just wanted to say that I think as a writer it's best to go with your native tongue until you've worked your language issues out as they relate to your world building and plot. What happens in your story, will ultimately determine how you deal with the language problem.

For example, since I've been watching a lot of Westerns lately, I'm thinking about the problem of translation playing an essential role in conflict. Even when there's a good translator present, misunderstandings can lead to tragedy.

Then there's the Bjold model where civilizations have worked out their differences and might have "English" as a trade language, or translators, or whatever. The point of those books is cultural differences that can't be explained by the common language.

Of course, there's always the colonized model where everyone has to speak "English" because it's the language of the evil overlords.

So basically, I'm going with whatever the plot demands, though I have to tell you I am always a little irritated by universal translation devices, even if it does create a convenient out because all of the above conflicts are so interesting.
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[User Picture]From: dr_tectonic
2007-06-15 06:14 pm (UTC)
I think as a writer it's best to go with your native tongue...

I'm always annoyed by books that blithely throw around chunks of foreign language without any translation or summary for those of us who didn't take French or Spanish in high school. Inconsiderate much, Mr. Author?
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From: orbitalmechanic
2007-06-15 02:30 pm (UTC)
Whichever is thematically consistent. That's a different answer, by the way, than "whatever works well with the plot". How are you addressing other differences? Most visitor-to-another-world stories aren't even as unfamiliar as oh say a westerner visiting rural China. In real life people can use squat toilets for three weeks and still freak out about them. If you're not going to mess around with that stuff, why explain about language?

Never use option "gloss over it". "Hey, isn't it interesting that I don't have an explanation for this? Yeah, I noticed too. Let's talk about something else." The rest of your options need to match your general approach to tech, right? Are you explaining other tech? If your character rides a horse all day and doesn't cry for an hour the next morning, she probably doesn't need to learn language slowly either. Unless it's part of your plot.
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[User Picture]From: dr_tectonic
2007-06-15 06:05 pm (UTC)
That's a really good answer. Thanks!
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[User Picture]From: nematsakis
2007-06-15 03:27 pm (UTC)
Readers will readily suspend their disbelief in service to a good story. When you do bring up a mechanic, I think it should serve some additional purpose beyond "realism". In the case of the Babelfish, the description was actually pretty funny and one of the reader's first introductions to the Hitchhiker's Guide and so served three purposes at once. It's probably one of the best resolutions to this issue ever faced.

While Star Trek uses the universal translator, it is virtually never mentioned except when it is conveniently broken to create dramatic tension. Star Gate SG1 also just ignores the issue for the most part and I think both are entirely appropriate for television. It would annoy the hell out of the viewers to point out the language issue every week: either you mention in in passing (so why bother?) or you spend time on it that could better be spent on this week's story.

If your story is not a serial, and not constrained by the time limitations of television, and realism is important, then it's probably worth coming up with a good solution to this. Try to make the solution serve another purpose, then. It will be at a point in the story when the reader is first introduced to the strange-and-interesting place, and so maybe it could serve to help introduce the reader to that place.

The biggest problem is avoiding cliche. The first few thoughts I have are horribly cliche (as are translator microbes, I must say). Keep in mind that language can add a lot of character to the strange-and-interesting. It was used as device in The Time Machine, Gulliver's Travels, and of course Tolkien. Sweeping it under the rug may be ignoring a chance to add character.
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[User Picture]From: dr_tectonic
2007-06-15 06:04 pm (UTC)
"Translator Microbes" are from Farscape. Astronaut John Crichton gets sucked through a wormhole, his new alien companions inject him with translator microbes in the first episode, and it's pretty much never mentioned again.
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[User Picture]From: jofish22
2007-06-15 03:43 pm (UTC)
I'm impressed to see there seems to be consensus.

I'd say get over it, quickly, unless it's relevant to the plot.

And don't dick around and invent fifty new words that aren't translated because they're too unique to the culture, which usually mean 'family'. And/or 'honor', depending on the kinda book. I've now got a policy about putting down any book with more than ten invented words on the first page. You know the kind of thing:

"ShiggLe, it's kathba season. Let's go and have a picnic in the puth!op."

"But eJenGra, my tei-zen og'gLe is coming to visit and my quad-father will be angry if I'm not there to welcome her."

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[User Picture]From: helava
2007-06-15 05:14 pm (UTC)
LOL! Similar to jofish's, English with mixed up grammar is how foreigners speak not.
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[User Picture]From: ocschwar
2007-06-15 03:54 pm (UTC)
Other: make the language acquisition an integral part of the plot. And make it a both-ways thing.
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[User Picture]From: dcseain
2007-06-22 08:22 pm (UTC)
That was done well in The Color of Distance by Amy Thomson.
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From: (Anonymous)
2007-06-15 04:31 pm (UTC)

why use any plot device at all?

How about having a few of the folks in new place speak multiple languages including original person's language? This isn't really any different than American visiting Paris. American w/o speaking french might be at disadvantage, but enough parisians certain speak english to allow for communications and conversations...
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[User Picture]From: finagler
2007-06-15 05:42 pm (UTC)
I'm reminded of a comment by the writers of Avenue Q, something to the effect of "An audience is willing to believe anything you tell them in the first 15 minutes of the show." E.g.
'Oh my God, it's Gary Coleman!'
'Yes, I am...'
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[User Picture]From: nematsakis
2007-06-15 06:30 pm (UTC)
I'm reminded of Leper's response to the Matrix. It went something like:

Movie: Ok, reality as we know it is an illusion
Viewer: Ok, I'm with you
Movie: Really, the world is a giant computer simulation
Viewer: Sounds good
Movie: But all the humans are real, and they're being stored in these giant pods with wires into their brains
Viewer: Awesome
Movie: And they've been put there by a super-intelligent race of robots that they themselves built
Viewer: I'm with you 100%
Movie: And they did this so they could use the humans as a power source

Just don't create a situation like that, ok?
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[User Picture]From: flwyd
2007-06-15 07:23 pm (UTC)


For a writing challenge, have communication happen nonverbally. This could easily lead to a story which is mostly about learning how to deal with the new environment. But perhaps that's more social science fiction.
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[User Picture]From: eto_theipi
2007-06-20 06:59 pm (UTC)


I did an awful lot of pointing, showing numbers on fingers, and miming while I was in Vietnam.
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[User Picture]From: backrubbear
2007-06-16 04:55 am (UTC)
I'm fond of the low-level projective empathy solution. You can't communicate, but you can get the gist of feelings. Use the mechanism for people to learn to actually communicate.
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[User Picture]From: dr_tectonic
2007-06-16 05:34 am (UTC)
Hmm... it's actually a psi-instead-of-tech setting, so I'll have to think about that idea carefully. Thanks!
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[User Picture]From: dpolicar
2007-06-17 06:10 am (UTC)
So, I checked all of these, because I can imagine/think of stories in which they all work (my favorite "other" right now is "he doesn't speak the damned language, and your challenge is to make the story interesting without ordinary conversation"... which A Martian Odyssey did brilliantly, for example. It's otherwise profoundly dated, but nevertheless well worth reading if you haven't.)

That said, they can all not work, too.

A more specific answer would depend on the general focus and tone of your story. If you're going for a realistic world where technobabble doesn't otherwise stand unexamined, don't make this the exception. Etc. etc. etc.

Put differently: don't flout laws of linguistics any more blatantly that you'll flout other physical laws.
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