7 min read

Building Beyond: Lost in Translation

Prove your pudding

Building Beyond is an ongoing series of conversations about how much fun worldbuilding can be. Building a world doesn’t have to be hard or scary. Let’s give it a try, together.

Universal translators have invented themselves and presented themselves to every sentient creature for immediate use! They work almost perfectly. Unfortunately, there's one thing they don't quite seem to be able to process: metaphors.

M Evan MacGriogair is an author, singer, and editor in Glasgow, Scotland. A fluent Gaelic speaker, Evan writes speculative fiction bilingually in English and Gaelic as M Evan MacGriogair, Emmie Mears, and YA as Maya MacGregor. Their short fiction has been longlisted for the Hugo award (Seonag and the Seawolves, Tordotcom), and their YA debut THE MANY HALF-LIVED LIVES OF SAM SYLVESTER will be out in May 2022 from Boyds, Mills, & Kane. Evan is autistic, agender, and chronically ill and collects names, words, and memories of the way the light shifts in the Gàidhealtachd.

Universal translators! The moment I saw this prompt, I knew I'd have something to say.

I'm autistic, and metaphors are something I have struggled with even in my native language (English). I speak five languages to varying degrees, and I'm at least conversational in all five: English, Scottish Gaelic, Polish, German, and Spanish. I'm fluent in English and Scottish Gaelic (and used to be in Polish too). One thing that is really evident when you speak multiple languages is how translation is an art as much as it is a science.

One way I explain this to people is by asking them to visualise or literally place a pitcher in the middle of a table. On one side of it, you have certain language groups. Since my languages are all European, I'll use them as an example. Picture the Romance languages, Germanic languages, Slavic languages, Celtic languages, Finno-Ugric, and so on all hanging out around that pitcher. The Romance languages and the Germanic languages could be near the spout, looking at that pitcher from one angle that isn't too far away from each other. On the other side of Germanic languages, you might have the Slavic languages and the Baltic languages, and on the handle side, you might see the Celtic family.

Everyone is looking at the same object, but they will describe it differently depending on what angle they're looking from. In English we are sick or have an illness. Same in German and Spanish. In Gaelic, an illness is on you. In Spanish (and English and German and Polish), the subject comes before the verb. In Gaelic and Irish, the verb comes first, at the beginning of the sentence. But also, both Spanish and the Gaelic languages share the division of the verb "be" into two words, one that deals in equivocation (these two things are equal--I am a human) and another that deals in relative state of being (I am tired). Polish, German, and Gaelic all have multiple noun cases that change the formation of a noun depending on its function within a sentence, and frequently according to certain prepositions. Polish has seven of these, and Gaelic and German each have four.

Universal translators would not only have to deal with discrete metaphors (looking at a pitcher is speaking a language), but they would also need to see all sides of that pitcher at once, which is a remarkably difficult thing to do. As any multilingual person can tell you, sometimes things get a little muddled inside a human brain with human capacities for logic. Excepting quantum computing, any technology based on binary logic would really struggle.

It would be interesting--and probably funny--to see a world where this was the case. Even imagining trying to have conversations with Google Translate alone is an amusing thought. Metaphor and language are so intertwined that universal translation that can't do metaphors would fundamentally be difficult for me to imagine. Literalism, to me, is something relative to the language it's expressed in. "I literally have the flu" is different in English than "tha an cnatan mòr orm an da-rìreadh" in Gaelic.

But while certain humour does get lost in translation even today, if there's anything I've learned in all my languages, it's that translingual communication's biggest requirement is that learners remember to laugh at ourselves and all our quirks. Puns might suffer (*clutches heart*), but literal translation will create its own humour without much help!

Sara Norja dreams in two languages; she was born in England and is now settled in Helsinki, Finland. Her poetry has appeared in venues including Goblin Fruit, Strange Horizons, and the anthology Sunvault: Stories of Solarpunk and Eco-Speculation (ed. Phoebe Wagner and Brontë Christopher Wieland). Her short fiction has appeared in venues including Lackington’s, Fireside, Strange Horizons, and the anthology An Alphabet of Embers (ed. R.B. Lemberg). She is @suchwanderings on Twitter.

~*~ Universal translators – THE FUTURE IS HERE! An end to confusion – your UT is there for you in every situation! Travel, business, romance – communicate worldwide today! ~*~

They meet at a conference – art history really is that sexy. Janelle takes Kuura out for dinner. She’s never been this electrified by someone she’s just met. Kuura is tall, beautiful, fearsomely intelligent. Janelle heard zir presentation on Ilya Repin in the morning and fell in immediate lust.

And the best thing is, Janelle doesn’t have to make Kuura speak a language that’s not zir mother tongue. The two of them can get right down to chatting about the deep stuff with no worries of a language barrier. Thank fuck for Universal Translators! As Janelle waits for Kuura outside the conference venue, she fiddles with  the cold spiral of metal containing the UT that’s directly connected with her brain. Science is amazing. AIs are a thing of beauty.

International dating used to make her feel guilty: she, with her monolingual English and just a smattering of French from secondary school, dating various amazing multilingual people who always had to accommodate her – since she is, despite her dissertation on the polyglot artist communities in the early modern Netherlands, not actually any good at learning languages. Turns out language is easier in the abstract for Janelle than learning how to say hello in Polish.

Now, she can date people of any linguistic background and not feel like a colonialist English arsehole.

Now, she’s sitting opposite Kuura in a chic restaurant in the Marais, and their UTs are letting them relax. They’ve ordered food from the Parisian waitstaff with no language barriers. Kuura’s speaking Finnish, Janelle’s speaking English in her London accent, and it’s all good.

Except when they get past talking about the conference and get to lighter topics. They’ve had some Pinot Noir, and they’re laughing. Janelle feels this deep connection that gives her butterflies in her belly. The best kind. Kuura’s telling Janelle about a conflict with zir ex-flatmate from years ago, a hilarious story, but it’s becoming more and more incomprehensible.

“So I told him, ski into a spruce tree, man! And he looked at me like a bear that’s been shot in the arse and said I kept pulling peas up my nose for no reason.” Kuura laughs like zie’s making all the sense in the world. “Seriously, that dude’s moomins aren’t all in the valley.”

“Umm,” Janelle ventures, “huh?”

This wasn’t supposed to happen. Universal translators: no awkward multilingual situations!

“Everything OK?”

Kuura’s confusion is adorable but it’s the last thing Janelle wants. “Sorry, sorry,” she says, clutching her wineglass to calm herself. “I think there’s an issue with the UT. I just don’t quite understand what you’re saying.” To put it mildly.

“Ah shit, my motorcycle totally slipped out of the mitten!” Kuura glances at zir wine and tries to focus. “I mean, I got too colourful with my language. I do that when I get excited. You know,” zie switches to English, the shapes of zir kissable mouth now matching the sounds Janelle hears in her head, “once in a blue moon when I get past my reserved nature and find someone awesome enough to open up to.”

Zir accent is charmingly monotonous, sounding utterly different from the smooth translation the UT provided while Kuura spoke Finnish. But despite the imperfections, Janelle can actually understand these English metaphors – and Kuura’s words make her want this to be more than just a conference one-night-stand.

“I’ve read articles online,” Kuura continues – in Finnish, clearly focusing on clarity, Janelle’s UT comfortably translating again – “about people with this metaphor issue, but I never thought it’d be an actual problem. Surely the UTs should have thought this through? I mean, metaphor is an essential part of human communication, right?”

“It’s everywhere,” Janelle agrees. “OK then, let’s test this the other way round, shall we? Umm, looks like you’ve got a bee in your bonnet about this metaphor thing, Kuura.”

Kuura laughs. “Heh. Works easier this way round. I know that saying in English – it sounds hilarious in Finnish but I can translate it back to English all right.”

Janelle is jealous of zir skills. Kuura knows her language, she doesn’t know zirs. The old feelings of monolingual inadequacy persist even with the UT whispering in her head. Can translation ever be unmediated by a person? Is universality even worth striving for if it can’t lead to perfect communication?

It gets better as they  keep talking, though. One glass of wine leads to another, one rant about the difficulty of humour without metaphors leads to another about the lack of cultural sensitivity in UTs and the dangers inherent in the potential loss of multilingualism worldwide. The night ends with Janelle and Kuura in the same hotel bed, speaking a mix of English and UT-filtered Finnish that, turns out, works out perfectly fine for the two of them – right here, right now – especially when words are supplemented with touch, with breath, with wonder.

Both of these possibilities are just beginnings. Evan's response has the potential to bloom into a fascinating discussion of language and translation as art. Sara's romance is just getting started, and there are seeds of miscommunication and intimacy as explored through translation. I would personally very much like to read a million words of both.

How would your universal translator fail? Would those failures shut communication down, or open it up in new and exciting ways?

Do whatever you want with these questions. You can write something down in the comments or on social media or in a notebook nobody will ever see. You can draw or paint or sit down a friend and talk their ear off about your ideas. You can stare at the horizon and imagine, letting the infinite landscape of your mind unfold just a little farther than it did yesterday. No matter what you do, take pride in the knowledge that you’re creating something that has never existed before. You’re building a little corner of a whole new world.

That’s amazing.

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