The original, short version of this post was written for the Book Marketing Tools blog. This longer version was written as a guest post for Vanessa Finaughty’s blog.

From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's booksOne of the best ideas of Douglas Adams had to be the Babelfish. Just stick it into your ear and presto – you can now understand all languages. One of the things that always made we wonder, though, was how Babelfish might translate terms. For example, if someone said their computer has crashed, would it conjure an image of a person flinging their PC out of a window?

Now, I may be Greek, but I can easily understand what someone means when they say that their computer has crashed or that they didn’t save their file. Our culture and education have taught us these things. What about the rest of humanity, though?

Enter a lovely Economist article, describing the pitfalls of translating cultural idioms. When Mozilla tried to translate its web browser into as many languages as possible, it soon became clear that some words simply cannot be translated. For instance, a cookie (not the edible one, the digital one) has absolutely no translatable connection in some African dialects and people know a mouse as the little rodent most of us would like to keep out of our house.

It’s while reading this article that I realized the extent to which our language is geographically and culturally bound. In essence, words that the Mozilla people wanted to translate had to relate to things that are actually present in African peoples’ lives. Hence, translators had to find culture-specific words, closely related to livestock, farming and fishing because these are the activities that local people can associate themselves with.

The result? A computer crashing was translated into a word that basically means ‘a cow falling over but not dying’, which I think delivers the message nicely. Timeout was translated as ‘your fish has got away’ and cached pages were turned into ‘bits of leftover food’ – which I love as a comparison as it really gets the message across (even to me!). As for some people in Mexico who simply have no windows in their homes, Windows became ‘eyes’.

Why did I love this article? First of all, for its poetry. We use words to convey a message, and for the most part that works fine. However, we are so caught up in delivering the message, that we don’t consider the concept behind the words. We know exactly what Windows is and are happy to communicate in a fast and concise way about it. Everyone around us will understand us*. I find it poignant and inspiring that there are so many other – and beautifully written – ways to present Windows.

(* Although I’m reminded here of a dear old lady who was a client of mine back in Edinburgh. When her computer crashed, she called her son for help. He told her to close the window. After a moment, she returned to the phone. “Done! Would you like me to close the door as well?”)

I also find it remarkable –which highlights how presumptuous I am- that other people have no understanding of many words I use in my everyday life. I could have a conversation with some of these people and they would simply blink in desperation, completely ignorant of what on Earth I’m talking about. We assume that our way of talking and communicating is the ‘normal’ and universal one. However, words reflect a culture and civilization. They are representative of people, and since people are very different, it’s only natural that words and notions should be different as well.

And a last reason why I really liked this article: I tried to imagine how I would translate my books into Fulah (a Senegalese dialect), Chichewa (a Malawi dialect) or Zapotec (a Mexican dialect) and I had to laugh. So many words would have to be translated in culture-specific meanings, and I would love to see how a spaceship, an Orb, an e-lib and so many other words in my books would turn out. I’m betting that my books would become much more poetic, but also a good deal more surreal. Perhaps they could even be entered into whole new book categories!

Space cows, anyone?

From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's books


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