Category Archives: research

Lost in Translation

One of the highlights to travelling through France is the delight in trying to make you understood to the natives. This usually involves a smattering of secondary school French, a little sign language and lots of shouting (It is true that if you shout loud enough foreigners will understand). In recent years though, more French people are speaking English and want to speak English. I don’t think its due to a flux if British and American visitors, more likely it is due to the increasing populace of Chinese and Japanese. English is taught as a second language in Chinese, Japanese and French schools so it makes sense.

However like all languages which pass through two or three grammar forms and vocabularies something is always lost in translation. The receptionist at the hotel spoke very good English, bade us farewell and wished us a nice road home. Google translator, while a godsend when booking hotels and self catering apartments, also provides some funny translations.

Translations have always been a bit of a minefield over the centuries. One little known mistranslation spawned a whole era of science fiction literature. In 1877 Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli published a paper about ‘canali’ on the surface of mars. The paper when translated into English reported ‘canals’ had been found on Mars. Canals by definition are artificial water channels thus an alien race must have existed on Mars and the canals were created as a last attempt to save a dying race. A theme which inspired a number of sci-fi stories including H G Wells ‘The War of the Worlds’.

The actual translation of ‘canali’ is ‘channels’ or ‘trenches’, Schiaparelli was merely noting natural terrain differences.

Perhaps the most widely translated book in the world is the Bible. There are over 50 translations in English alone and another 2500 plus in other languages. The original texts were in ancient biblical languages of Greek, Arabic and Hebrew and this was where the first mistranslations started. The Hebrew word for ‘virgin’ and ‘young woman’ were very similar so the Greek translation wasn’t to careful about the difference between the two.

Another problem is metaphors and cultural differences. A shepherd in todays society is seen as a peaceful guide, someone who cares and protects but in biblical times a shepherd was a sign of might, ferocity and royalty. Taken in this context the Lord is my shepherd takes on a whole new meaning. Another metaphor used during biblical times was the terms for kinship like ‘father’, ‘brother’ and ‘sister’ which was used to indicate power structures, so in the Book of Solomon the term ‘my sister, my bride’ refers not to incest but a woman’s equal status to her husband.

Mistranslation is a common occurrence so be wary when you have work translated into another language or you may end up with a very different story.

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The Value of Research

Rather stupidly I thought I did not need to sleep. After overcoming writers block which had plagued me for these past three months I emerged believing I was a super powered creature. I was a Writer.

Ideas were forming in my unclogged brain, words came tumbling from my fingertips, my imagination wanted to be fed. So I submitted an idea for a 6 part series to a new online magazine which was accepted. Yay. I planned several short stories for competitions, deadlines due during the next two months. No problem. I joined three history courses with Future Learn about Hadrians Wall, Shakespeare and Shipwrecks, all starting this week. I can do this. I signed up for NaNoWriMo in November. Hmm…sorted I think. And I joined a creative writing course due to start end of October. Add to that my regular jobs to do (the one that pays)and a phenomenal amount of social events I’ve been invited to. I’m sure sleep isn’t that important. My body disagrees. The obvious thing to do here is quit my job. The practical thing to do is quit the online courses.

Research is the second best tool a writer can have. The first is a pen. Whether you are writing non-fiction or fiction, an historical murder mystery or a romantic sci-fi, at some point you are going need some real facts otherwise, like Walter Mitty, your readers will notice you’ve been making it all up. Luckily, the internet has made research so much easier.

Wikipedia is invaluable but after starting Future Learns online course I’m beginning to appreciate how much more you can learn from real people. During week 1 we looked at, amongst other things, The Vindolanda Tablets, scraps of thin wood used for letters, lists, business account and just about anything that needed to be written down.

Amongst them was a series of letters from a Roman Commanders wife to another woman of the same social standing who was stationed nearby which proved interesting and inspiring. They talk of arrangements for a birthday party in the first, sickness in another and the dangerous journey one of the woman must undertake to reach her friend with medicines. Excellent start for an historical drama.

Another letter from a foreign merchant to a Roman official speaks of unfair and brutal treatment from a legionnaire for a crime his was innocent of. A murder mystery perhaps or a political tale of corruption.

The Wall was one of the most heavily fortified outposts of the Roman Empire, a place occupied by an array of people both foreign and native, full of tensions, rebellions, law, corruption, love, loyalty and the odd party. Lots of ideas for stories about an historical era I knew nothing about and I’m only halfway through week 1! Can’t wait to get to grips with Shakespeare.

I know what I must do. I’m quitting my job.

You can sign up for Future Learn at http://www.futurelearn.com

I’m contributing an article about Scrivener and other writing programs to a new online writing magazine Bibliophilia Magazine out 1st November. You can find it on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/bibliophiliamag

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