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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.

[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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