Lost in translation

Never read a pseudo-rules article on writing while drinking a cup of tea. That’s my advice after nearly spraying mine across the living room a short while ago. The source of this sudden beverage expulsion from my cavernous maw? A commentator who insisted fantasy writers should never use the phrase ‘short order,’ as it’s barely a hundred years old with an etymology in the roots of American fast food.

After I mopped up my mess and stopped laughing, I went back to the article. Now, for those with a quarter pounder for a brain, ‘Short Order’ is a centuries old military command issued on the brink of battle, urging pace into the fray. It’s for that reason the term became synonymous with haste in the English language. We have similar marching and battle orders today. ‘Open Order’ and ‘Close Order’ are still in use. ‘Step Short’ was popular in the British Army during the First World War as a command for troops to shorten their stride. You get the picture. It’s nothing to do with ‘ordering’ a burger and fries – or rather it wasn’t originally. However, in modern American parlance, IT IS. As an Englishman, I obviously don’t read Webster’s American English Dictionary. Sure enough, their current definition of the term reads as follows:

\ ˈshȯrt-ˌȯr-dər  , -ˈȯr- \

Definition of short-order

: preparing or serving food that can be cooked quickly to a customer’s order

a short-order cook

This brings me to the value behind what at first proved a laugh-out-loud comment: living languages are constantly evolving and operate in a state of flux.

If you resurrected Noah Webster, who wrote the original print version of the above online publication, he’d give you a definition of ‘Short Order’ akin to the military one I explained. As a well-educated linguist who served in the Connecticut Militia during the American Revolutionary War (and someone who pre-dated the advent of fast food to which the term often applied after 1890) it was a phrase all too familiar.

When I first started school, the term ‘gay’ still denoted a carefree person. Yes, I know, I’m a crusty old fart. Nobody batted an eyelid if you described yourself as ‘gay.’ Today, nobody would still bat an eyelid, but you’d be communicating a somewhat different idea.

So is there any credence to avoiding terms like ‘short order’ in fictional worlds? How far would you run with a criticism like that? Modern English is a bastardisation of mainly Greek and Latin. Playing devil’s advocate, let me make a point: NONE of the words used by characters in our fantasy novels would exist in their worlds. Do your characters say, “Hello,” at all? Sorry, not allowed. “How are you today?” Nope; that would have to go. Did your world evolve from a Greek and Latin-speaking people? No? Then why are they speaking English?

This is, of course, taking things to a ridiculous extreme. We might invent brand new languages, write our novels in them, and force readers to undertake a course of study before they’re able to enjoy our work. I’d suggest only Tolkien could pull that off, producing meagre book sales if he’d done so.

Tolkien is a great plumb line to consider our use of colloquialisms and common language against. If you read the appendices of ‘The Lord of the Rings,’ you’ll find a Shire calendar in which he details the months with their hobbit equivalents. September becomes ‘Halimath.’ Yet in the text of his novels – even when viewed by hobbits – Tolkien refers to months by their common, modern English names. September is ‘September.’ While this might give ‘burger and fries guy’ a fit of the vapours, Tolkien undoubtedly understood the importance of not confusing newcomers to his work; those without a degree in Middle-Earth studies. A master author, he might have included lines as follows:

Sam awoke to a heavy carpet of dew shimmering across the lush sward. A fresh chill ached his bones in the damp wilderness. At Bagshot Row, he’d no longer need to trim the verge, while the party tree squeezed its final shades of green from leaves soon to become a riot of crimson and orange. Halimath; the month was at hand. Had he and Frodo been away so long?

From a passage like that, the reader would easily glean Halimath equalled September or thereabouts. Yet it slows down the narrative and presumably wasn’t important enough to detail.

However funny, the observation inspiring this article holds some water if we’re passionate about not jarring our readers. The last thing any fiction writer wants is to burst the immersion bubble and remind our audience they’re reading a novel, rather than feeling like they’re living within it. If Legolas hopped down from the Deeping Wall and took a mobile phone selfie for his Instagram followers, you’d pitch the book across the room. Such a modern intrusion would ruin the story. While most linguistic ‘invaders’ prove more subtle, I’d say it’s worth considering our own position on them during the creation process.

My personal preference when writing fantasy is:

  1. Is there a better, alternative phrase which would serve?
  2. Am I just being lazy and/or would my characters really say that?
  3. Is the term used as part of the author’s voice to a reader, or between characters as dialogue?

Option 3 is the one I deem most important. Let me relate it to ‘The Arisendia Chronicles’ as an example. Common to most fantasy books, mine start with maps of the regions in question. I wanted the reader to understand distances involved, so have included a scale bar calibrated in ten mile segments. This map is for the READER, and doesn’t pretend to be hand-drawn in the world or anything like that. I tend to express distances in walking/riding/sailing terms etc. as far as the characters are concerned.

I’m one of those authors who enjoys chapter subheadings, rather than pure numbers. Some of those subheadings employ irony or mild humour to outline their contents. I subtitled a chapter where several protagonists evade slaughter through subterfuge: ‘Agents Provocateurs.’ This French expression is never used in the story text, but conveys meaning to the reader. Another chapter where diminutive characters join the group and agree a direction is called… wait for it… ‘Short Order.’ Yep, the whole gang pauses at a wayside inn and dines out on southern fried chicken (just kidding). To be honest, I’d have no issues using that term within the text. But if the thought of confusing/upsetting folk worried me, I’d probably draw a line at keeping it within the author’s voice, rather than character dialogue. Thus: ‘The king’s men dealt with the remaining marauders in short order,’ communicates a familiar concept to the reader as spoken by the author, without specifically introducing the phrase into fantasy world language. I’m okay with that. Speaking of which, some of my characters use the term ‘okay.’ It’s a relatively neutral word fitting the parlance of our day. In a hundred years, it’ll probably seem antiquated. Depending on who you believe, ‘okay’ dates back to a c920 Byzantine magical incantation against fleas, a nineteenth century Native American Choctaw expression, or any of around fifty other explanations, dates and national origins. To my readers, its meaning is a common way to check someone is hale; so that’s what it means to the story characters in question. Simple.

There are other terms I’m careful to address during editing/proofing. One character asked another to ‘inch forward,’ until I caught it and considered that ‘inch’ isn’t a unit of measure in Arisendia. They wouldn’t say to each other that ‘the penny dropped,’ as money is detailed by specific names other than ‘penny.’ That said, some familiarity makes things less laborious for my audience. Centuries, decades, years, months, weeks/fortnights, and days are referred to as is. Any mention of hours is kept to a minimum. I avoid going lower into minutes and seconds, as (to me) that jars. There are alternative ways to convey short segments of time without confusing anyone or falling back on those precision descriptors.

In the final analysis, if we put ourselves in a new reader’s shoes and don’t lose the joy of exploring a fantasy world while re-visiting our text, I put it to you they won’t either.

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