17 May, 2010

Anachronism? Prithee, nay!

Some fellow authors who've read sections of my novel Saint Mark's Body have commented that the voice sometimes sees out of place for the 9th century A.D.--or worse, that some of the Venetians sound *gasp* American! I respectfully submit that often a modern voice is the best way to tell an old story.

First off, we need to understand that we are reading in translation any novel set in a time or place where modern English isn't spoken. Even an author with a Mel Gibson-sized ego can't write an entire novel for an English-speaking audience in Aramaic or Incan. Books do not have subtitles. (well, yet... I suppose all things are possible with ebooks).

The author's job is always to make us feel as though we're witnesses to the action. When the characters are all speaking, for example, 15th century Swiss German, the situation is complicated. It's as though the author gives us the gift of tongues--somehow by peering through the veil of the printed page, we understand 15th century Swiss German.

C.W. Gortner does this well in his novels of the old Spanish court, for example The Last Queen. Every now and then he throws in a Spanish phrase most people will understand, or uses a more obscure one but skillfully works in a quick translation. It helps that Gortner is fluent in both languages, so his Juana chooses words we read in English that feel to us like old Spanish (even if we don't understand old Spanish, or any Spanish at all.)

Readers have the same expectation of books set in old-time England. They want to feel like they're right there, and they understand what everyone is saying... but in this case, often forget that once again they are reading in translation. Drop any one of us moderns in Robin Hood's England, and we'd be completely lost for a while. There are enough common words between our English and the 11th century version that we could probably order coffee and get directions to the train station (if either existed) , but fluent communication would be difficult.

However, most people don't realize this. Most think that Medieval English was just like ours, except you call peoply 'thou' and tack 'est' onto the end of every other verb. Speech in that format, even if it's as wrong for the period, sounds 'oldey-timey' and correct. Why?

Because that's the way Errol Flynn did it, that's the way Hollywood does it, and it's worked out pretty well so far.

Fig. 1 : And he was a terrible fencer. Yeah, I said it.

It reminds me a bit of gunshots on stage. In a theater, a real gunshot doesn't sound like a gunshot. A blank round sounds like a gunshot, because that's what audiences are used to. We learn our version of reality from the contrivances of fiction, and then disbelieve fiction that matches reality instead of the contrivance.

So, why do my Venetian sailors use modern swear words, contractions, and other things that don't sound oldey-timey? Because I want the reader to be there with them on the ship, and I know that 'thee' and 'belayest ye sheete!" is as much an anachronism as Valley Girl speak, there being no language recognizable as English in 827 anyway.

And I do want my Venetians to sound just a little American. I'll get to the 'why' of that in another post.

1 comment:

  1. He may have been a terrible fencer, but he looked spectacular in his tights and sequins!

    I think also writing in very early times (and non-English-speaking places), you have a little more leeway in using modern English. You're exactly right, in that you're writing a translation for your audience. Writing historical fiction set in the 20th century, I feel my language is very conspicuous.