Monday, October 11, 2021

The Steerswoman & the Wood Gnome

The Steerswoman is the first of what is currently a four-book series by Rosemary Kirstein, with more entries apparently planned. It was originally published in 1989, with the latest book so far, The Language of Power, coming out in 2004.

The setting is what appears to be a low-fantasy world slowly making its way to a scientific revolution via the actions of the eponymous Steerswomen to collect knowledge and explore the world. Several items and events seen by the characters as "magical" are easily (or less than easily) identifiable to an attentive reader as entirely mundane and technological in nature, which gives the story a somewhat similar feeling to other stories like the earlier Dragonriders of Pern, or the more contemporaneous Black Trillium. As of the end of the first book, however, it is not entirely clear whether this will turn out to be a full-on sci-fi in disguise, like Pern, or if some of the magic will remain unexplained and fundamentally magical. (As an aside, all three of these series happen to be written by women and have female main characters--which is unfortunately notable when it comes to "classic" sci-fi and fantasy!)

The plot threads dealing with physics and chemistry make it feel almost like a mystery novel at times, as the characters investigate mysterious events, although there is an extra level of dramatic irony present given that we, the readers, exist in a post-Isaac-Newton society which allows for solving these mysteries must faster than the characters can! And I think the author is to be commended for not falling victim to presentism and allowing the characters to realistically struggle with their existing physical preconceptions, rather than having genius-level flashes of insight about things that are only obvious to us because we have been taught the answers.

The Steerswoman has very little surface-level linguistic content, which puts it outside the realm of things I would usually review and analyze, but there is a great deal of recognition of linguistic knowledge; while the Steerswoman's world seems to have a single universal human oral language, that fact is not entirely taken for granted by the Steerswomen, and several characters do in fact comment on the dialectal and accent variations that exist throughout the world, and how they can be used to identify someone's origins and social affiliations. And it turns out that there is some surface-level linguistic content... exhibiting a sign language!

I have been looking for examples of books with sign language representation, so finding this entirely by accident in a book I was reading for other reasons was kind of nice! In particular, while they appear only incidentally in this first book, the Steerswoman's world contains multiple seemingly-intelligent non-human cultures, the most salient of which are the Wood Gnomes--small humanoid creatures who communicate via sign language with humans. (It is unclear if they also have their own oral language or not.)

In my initial research on how sign language might be represented in print, I came across this article specifically about ASL language and culture for writers; while the central focus of that article is not about portraying the language itself, it does have one very straightforward bit of advice: whatever you do, don't gloss. To quote:

Glossing, a tool that is often used in ASL textbooks and courses to help students remember ASL syntax, uses the words that most closely align to ASL signs and puts them in ASL order.  Words in gloss are always written in the present tense and in capital letters.  For example, the gloss of the ASL translation of the English sentence, “Where is your car?” would look like this:


Glossing can be a valuable tool, but it is extremely limited because it does not show use of space or nonmanual signals (for example, eyebrow and mouth movements and body shifts, all of which serve a grammatical function in ASL).

Worse, when glossing appears in fiction, it gives an incomplete picture of the language and makes deaf characters sound primitive and limited in communication.  What’s wrong with using standard dialogue conventions and replacing “said” with “signed”?:

“Where is your car?” she signed.

And you know what? That seems like pretty darn good advice. Almost obvious advice. I certainly wouldn't recommend word-for-word translations of oral languages, either--and I have yet to ever come across that as a secondary-language incorporation technique in the wild, which suggest to me that most-if-not-all authors also see that as an obviously bad idea. Yet there does seem to be a temptation to do it with signed languages, as that is the only exposure to sign language examples in print that many people have ever had. So what else are you gonna do? In the absence of standard sign orthographies, it doesn't seem like there are really any good options other than not actually showing the sign language at all, and relying entirely on free translation with language-specific dialog tags as suggested above.

So, what does The Steerswoman do?

A typical example of Wood Gnome conversation can be seen in this excerpt from the beginning of chapter 9:

    Rowan turned back to the wood gnome and addressed him in the language of hand signals that his people shared with humans. "Where woman?" she gestured.
    "Woman in bed," he replied, obviously meaning Rowan.
    "No. Other woman." She pointed to the bed with Bel's clothing.
    "Fur-woman. Noisy woman gone. Throw rock at me."

This isn't quite free translation, and it's not entirely clear what the broken-English representation is really meant to represent. Is it effectively word-for-word gloss? I don't know, but at least it is easy to read, not-all-caps block text!

Later on, Rowan encounters a deaf man who appears to communicate through some combination of iconic gestures and home sign. We are introduced to him and his communication style as follows:

    [The woman] tapped her assistant on the shoulder as he made to unload another crate. Pausing in his work, he watched intently as she indicated Bel and Rowan and pointed from the boxes to the door; then he nodded pleasantly at the pair; he was deaf.
    Attracting the disheveled man's attention again, she attempted to give him a more difficult, complicated instruction. Eventually comprehending, he led the way.

And a little later, we get some Wood Gnome Sign Language again:

    At the top was a second landing, and there the man put down his crate, indicated those carried by the women, then indicated the floor. When they complied, he pointed at Rowan and Bell, back down the stairs, pointed at himself, and made a motion toward a short corridor behind him.
    Without thinking, Rowan replied in the wood gnome language of gestures. "I understand. We go down now."
    These particular phrases were simple and obvious, easily comprehensible to an intelligent person; but the formality of the gestures, and the fluid naturalness of their use, surprised him. It was more than pantomime, it was language, and he seemed to recognize something of this. 
    With a look of surprise and concentration, he repeated a phrase, pointing at himself, then extending his index finger near his right temple. "I understand." He said it twice, testing the moves.

Notably, although the signs cannot be directly written, there is some attempt in this passage to represent the actual diagetic language through partial descriptions of the forms of the signs. The last paragraph could even be analyzed as a classic example of appositive subtitling. And on general principle, I appreciate the explicit acknowledgment than sign language is language, at the same level as oral language, and distinct from non-linguistic gesturing. This deaf man has no real significance to the larger plot (although the context of this interaction with him does provide some additional clues for the reader in solving some scientific mysteries), so I can only assume that he was included specifically to allow the author to make this point!

Our final narrative exposure to him is as follows:

    When Rowan delivered [the crate], she could not help speaking to the man again. "Work finished." Those signals were more abstract, and she amplified them with gestures indicating the stairs, the box, herself, and the man, and a negative shake of her head.
    He watched in fascination. Then, with the crate precariously tucked under one arm, he replied, "I understand." He paused, thinking, the hesitantly added, "You go down now."

Although it is rather limited, I was also quite pleased by the representation of sign language, and it should provide a decent basis for comparison with other works.

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Friday, October 8, 2021

Living in a Hyperbolic Universe

 A few years ago, there was a question on the Worldbuilding StackExchange site about living on a hyperbolic plane. This turns out to be a pretty fascinating setting, but it runs into all the same sorts of problems as infinite flat Euclidean worlds do--how does the sun work? If there's gravity, why don't mountains destabilize the whole thing and fragment it into ball-worlds? Etc.

So, I started thinking; what if you just had a planet in a hyperbolic space?

It turns out, the surfaces of spheres in hyperbolic spaces are not themselves hyperbolic manifolds; just like Euclidean spheres, they end up having positive curvature all over. So, you don't get all the interesting features of living on a hyperbolic plane, like the entire surface area of the Earth being within walking distance and the navigational problems that that implies--but there are other interesting features of such worlds!

First, let's talk about exactly how we're going to construct a hyperbolic universe. It turns out, you can do this in General Relativity, but a relativistic universe with hyperbolic space turns out to also be an exponentially expanding universe as well. The reason for this is that parallel lines in a hyperbolic space diverge, and in a relativistic universe you can't distinguish objects in motion from objects at rest--which means that parallel world lines of some collection of objects that are at relative rest to each other must diverge, no matter how that collection is moving relative to anything else. Since geodesics diverge in space, they must diverge in time as well, and the result is an expanding universe. If the curvature is strong enough to be interesting on human scales, that means the universe blows up before anything interesting can happen, so we won't be putting out planet in a relativistic universe after all!

Instead, we'll use a 3-dimensional hyperbolic space with Newtonian absolute time. Now, in a Euclidean Newtonian world, we still have Galilean relativity; any object moving inertially can be declared to be at rest, and physics is unchanged. But in this hyperbolic universe, that is no longer true; motion implies geodesic divergence, which means moving objects will feel strain from pseudoforces trying to blow them apart perpendicular to their direction of motion, so it's easy to determine a universal absolute state of rest, and absolute measurement of velocity. Travel speeds won't be limited by the speed of light, but they will be limited by the tensile strength of materials--move too fast, and you will blow up!

This also applies to a planet orbiting a sun. At different parts of its orbit, a planet will have different absolute velocities, producing seasonally-varying strains trying to distort it, and the orientation of those strains relative to the surface features will vary as the planet rotates throughout its day--meaning that there will be tides with no need for a moon! Incidentally, this also puts limits on where planets can exist and how big they can be, lest the divergence forces of orbital motion tear them apart! Fortunately, gravitational force drops much more rapidly with distance in hyperbolic space than it does in Euclidean space (exponentially, in fact), so orbits can be rather slow, which will keep our planet from blowing up even if it orbits very close to a star--which it will need to do to get enough exponentially-decaying light!

Now, the characteristics of the planet itself: we want the hyperbolic curvature to be strong enough to be interesting and noticeable, but not so strong that it makes human life impossible. Suppose we choose a hyperbolic scale of 10km. On that scale, a planet with about 55 thousand square kilometers less surface area than Earth would have a radius of a mere 71.4998km. Why am I using so many decimal places? Because if you increase the radius by a mere 10cm, to 71.4999km, the surface area jumps to 9,695 square kilometers bigger than the Earth! Fortunately, the circumference of the world changes by only about 0.02% over the 2-meter height of a tall human, so you can in fact walk on such a world without your feet leaving your head behind!

So, humans can certainly walk around on that kind of world; but what if we make the curvature more extreme? At a hyperbolic scale of 1km, a planet with a radius of a mere 9.45257km exceeds Earth in surface area, and the variation in arc lengths over a 2-meter height is still only about 0.2%. Meanwhile, if you dig down 50 meters (a typical subway tunnel depth), all distances contract by 5%. And if you travel upwards by even 150m (not even quite meeting FAA requirements for minimum flight altitudes), distances expand by 16%. So, unlike living on a hyperbolic plane, the entire surface of the world is not within walking distance over that surface, and navigation on the surface isn't too different from navigation on Earth... but flying is significantly disincentivized, and everything is within 20 km if you are willing to take the most direct route tunneling through the interior of the planet! So, subways rather than airlines turn out to be the way to go for fast travel!

And don't forget, the core of the planet is only 9 kilometers down. The deepest mines on Earth are not-quite-4km deep--a significant fraction of that distance. Which means this hyperbolic planet is much easier to mine than Earth--almost all of it is extremely close to the surface. Precious (and mundane) metals won't all be inaccessible in a deep core.

And you know what that means: hyperbolic space is pretty much made for dwarfs!

Thursday, September 23, 2021

Shadowscent: The Darkest Conlang

Shadowscent: The Darkest Bloom and Shadowscent: Crown of Smoke together compose the Shadowscent Duology (beware the Amazon Affiliate links!), the debut work of author P. M. Freestone. Shadowscent is a secondary-world low fantasy adventure set primarily in the Empire of Aramtesh, whose culture puts huge emphasis on scent, olfaction, and perfumery technology.

This would seem like the perfect sort of novel to incorporate a conlang, and I first found out about it via the Lingthusiasm podcast because one of the hosts, Lauren Gawne, actually created a conlang for it, which she gave a presentation on at the latest Language Creation Conference!

To my minor disappointment, there is not much actual Aramteskan language shown in the text, apart from proper names, so there's not a whole lot to analyze in my usual manner. We do, however, get one sentence of Old Imperial, the mother language from which modern Aramteskan descends, which comes up during a debate over what its proper translation into the modern language actually is:

masaat asytaa amidak snalu masaat kiregtaa traalapaame

While the full translation would potentially constitute a spoiler, we get a little bit of explanation with more repetitions of the Old Imperial words in this excerpt:
"We still use marsat for 'cloud', but the other terms have no modern equivalent. If we were to be literal, masaat asytaa and masaat kiregtaa translate to 'wet cloud' and 'dry cloud', more or less."

This is just plain old diagetic translation, but it does a nice job of almost-lampshading the implicit translation convention between the modern Aramteskan that the characters are "actually" speaking and the English that the reader can see. (As well as demonstrating phonological evolution between the archaic words and a modern equivalent.) And this causes me to wonder how direct that translation should be assumed to be, at least in this instance, because the speaker almost certainly would not have actually said the equivalent of "we still use the word 'cloud' for 'cloud'". Are there perhaps multiple modern words for "cloud", such that a different one was substituted in the latter case? Or did he really just say "we still use the word 'cloud'" with the extra "for 'cloud'" being added in "translation"? Something to keep in mind when crafting dialog that's supposed to be a translation--similar to the "it just happens to rhyme in English" trope. (This excerpt also tells us something about noun-adjective order in Old Imperial... but since syntax as well as phonology can change over time, we can't be sure that the same applies to modern Aramteskan! So you'll just have to wait for the grammar to be published.)

While I don't have a whole lot of Aramteskan text to analyze in context, though, I did manage to get an interview with Lauren Gawne for another behind-the-scenes look at how the language influenced the books.

Q: There was very little Aramteskan that actually made it into the text, aside from proper nouns. Was simply using it as a naming language the originally planned extent of its usage? If so, do you know the reasoning behind that? If not, and there was a plan to exhibit more of the language, what caused the change?

A: There’s one phrase-length string of Old Aramteskan in the first book (see above). Other than that, the language appears either directly as a naming language or indirectly in a variety of in-world structures, such as the way people greet each other, insults, socio-dialectal dynamics and the way the currency is structured.

This was the extent the language was always intended to feature in the books. The additional depth to the language was something I worked on in part for my own interest. PM Freestone is a long-time colleague and collaborator, and they brought me into the worldbuilding on this project really early. I don’t normally get the chance to work with authors so early in the process, normally there’s a world, characters and/or plot already in place. Being on board from the start was a chance for me to build something more structured while also helping to build out the world for the books.

While of course I always like to see the actual language in a secondary-language situation, I think this is an excellent addition to the list of Reasons Why You Need A Conlang; a simple naming language already adds a lot, and Shadowscent is a demonstration of how thinking about the language, even if it never makes it to the page, can feed back into informing the culture and character interactions.

Q: Was there any consideration of including a pronunciation guide in the books?

A: Not that I’m aware of. I’m very sanguine about the fact that there are names and words that people will bring their own pronunciation to. I try to structure the language and the names to minimise the likelihood of that, but it happens and it’s ok.

My conlanging for other people’s work always accounts for the medium and the audience when it comes to the sound and the structure of the language. A conlang is there to enrich the experience, not to pull people out of the world.

A related excerpt from the forthcoming Aramteskan grammar:
Aramteskan was created with the aim that it be easy to read for English speakers, using the Latin alphabet. I have deliberately avoided using diacritics or other markings. Aramteskan mostly exists in the written medium and so I have avoided using sounds beyond English phonology, since people will encounter the language as written rather than spoken.
Stress is free, based on how English speakers find the words best to pronounce. A more consistent stress system can be developed if this needs to become a spoken language.

Q: What was the editor/publisher's opinion on developing a conlang for the books? Did they even have one?

A: I think what is immediately apparent in PM Freestone’s work is the general depth of worldbuilding that underpins the fast-paced narrative. The language building is just one element of the cultural and physical world building that they bring to their work, so I don’t think it was something that was singularly noticed in the work process. The publisher trusted them to deliver a rich and fulfilling story and I’d like to hope that the language helped them accomplish that.

Q: At what point in the writing process was the language "finished"? Did it develop more between books 1 and 2?

A: There are still so many things I’d tinker on, but there are more projects to do then there are hours in the day. Putting together the materials I have to publish with Fiat Lingua (forthcoming) is part of trying to draw a line under Aramteskan now that the books are finished. The structure of the language was broadly in place by the end of book one, and then for book two it was mostly about adding vocabulary and tweaking a few things, including fleshing out the pronoun paradigm to make sure Rakel’s chat with another character (spoilers!) about pronouns and gender make sense within the structure of the language.

Q: Are you aware of reader feedback specifically about the linguistics content? Is it practically nonexistent, generally positive, or generally negative?

I haven’t seen too much, but then I am happy to not spend time delving into the bookwebs (either as a creator or a reader!). A lot of the positive feedback has come from linguists and authors. When it comes to authors they love hearing about how building a rich conlang can help give motivation to narrative, characters and the world they’re building. Linguists enjoy hearing how conlanging can be a creative way to highlight the constraints of what we know about existing language typologies, for example almost a quarter of the world’s languages have a grammar feature that shows the source of evidence for a statement (in English we use additional, optional phrases like ‘I saw’ or ‘I heard’), but none of those languages have a distinct category for scent-based evidentials. I always like to find one or two ways to push against my own tendency to be very focused on naturalness, and deliberately build in features unattested in natlangs. Linguists appreciate the humour and creativity in that.

So there you go! It's just not just me who likes linguistic content in books! But if you, current reader, happen not to be a linguist or another author, but you have opinions about the linguistic content in Shadowscent, leave a comment or @ me on Twitter! More data is always good!

And finally, a bit of con-historical linguistic nerdery:

Q: Have I correctly interpreted the grammar as indicating that "ph" represents an aspirated p in the language of Doskai, but was loaned as /f/?

A: That’s pretty much how it goes. This is one of those moments where the conlang builds itself around the constraints inadvertently created by the author. Aphorai was a place that was named by PM Freestone in early drafts, and I never managed to budge that <ph>, even when they were happy with the phonology of the language in general. So, /f/ as <ph> became a sound in the language specifically in that region, and specifically loans from a long lost older language. You’ll also notice that it pops up in names from that area, such as Sephine. This kind of chaos would stress me out when I started creating languages, now I appreciate the way it builds in more texture and natlang style layers.

And I think there's a useful lesson there in how artistic creativity can be sparked by constraints!

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Saturday, September 18, 2021

The Mandalorian & Tusken Sign Language

A long time ago, in a language community far, far away, a bounty hunter negotiated with some desert nomads in a sign language....

Two episodes of Disney's The Mandalorian feature on-screen portrayals of a constructed sign language: Tusken Sign Language or Tusken Raider Sign Language. Since Star Wars is a Disney property now, and it is in fact Disney's The Mandalorian, I suppose this makes TSL Disney's fourth actual conlang, after Atlantian, Kumandran, and Barsoomian. The Star Wars franchise, however, is not really known for its linguistic sophistication (Greedo, whom Han shot, for example, just speaks random phrases of garbled Quechua; portrayal of alien languages in Star Wars generally has been the domain of sound designers rather than linguists or conlangers), and this bit of conlang representation came about essentially by accident: sign language was specified in the script, and someone on the crew suggested that, if they are going to portray signing, they really ought to get an actual Deaf person to consult, and that Deaf person (one Troy Kotsur, who also plays one the Tusken Raiders) decided to come up with a conlang!

Essentially all of the publicly-available information about this process comes from one almost-8-minute video interview (with English transcripts) done with Troy by The Daily Moth, a dedicated ASL news site. Of course, information about the language itself is also extractable from the scenes in which it occurs, and a Tusken Raider Sign Language Facebook group has been established to study and decipher it; as of now, very little deciphering has actually occurred, but Troy is a member of that group, which gives it some legitimacy, and leaves open the possibility that one might actually get authoritative answers if one asks questions there.

Of course, none of this would've happened if some sort of sign language had not been specified in the script in the first place, which raises the question of why anybody thought that signing should be in the script! George Corley of Conlangery suggested to me that it might be because the Tuskens' vocalizations were already established as the sounds of braying donkeys, which doesn't really lend itself to a proper language--but that presupposes that the writers actually cared about portraying a plausible language in the first place, an assumption that I find heavily suspect given the portrayal of Frog Lady's supposedly-linguistic vocalizations in the same show. Wookiepedia claims that the Tusken language is a multi-modal combination of vocalizations and sign, but that seems to be a retcon to explain the appearance of sign language in The Mandalorian, not a reference to a common source that The Mandalorian may have drawn from, and the questionably-canonical Star Wars: Absolutely Everything You Need to Know (updated edition; note that these are, as usual, Amazon Affiliate links) already claimed consistent English translations for particular (transcriptions of) Tusken vocalizations. The most plausible explanation to me comes from this tweet by Star Wars Autograph News, which claims that it is "undoubtedly" a reference to Plains Native American Sign Language.

So, how is this new language actually used? As with Disney's previous use of Kumandran and The Dragon Prince's portrayal of ASL, The Mandalorian completely eschews the use of subtitles in favor of a combination of Making it Obvious and diagetic translations / explanations (with the shortage of direct translations in the on-screen source material making fan decipherment rather difficult!)

Unlike Raya and The Dragon Prince, The Mandalorian is clearly not aimed at a child audience, so they don't need to worry about the literacy level of their viewers. Why then, would they avoid subtitling? I expect a large part of it is just the biased expectation that audiences won't like them, but whether or not it was actually on purpose, I think the decision actually worked out for the best in this context. One could argue that subtitling of Tusken would be appropriate because Mando speaks Tusken and Mando is our viewpoint character--but, Mando is not a first-person main character, and there is essentially no dramatic irony in the series as far as Mando is concerned. If we, the audience, know something, then Mando also knows it, but the converse is not true; we do not know everything that Mando knows, and that is on purpose. He is supposed to be a mysterious figure. If The Mandalorian were a serial novel rather than a TV show, it would be told in limited third person, not first. Thus, we shouldn't necessarily have subtitles for the same reason that we don't get voiceover narrations in this show: we are not supposed to be inside Mando's head. If someone else in the scene is confused, we should be confused.

That said, let's get finally get into the nitty-gritty stuff!

Tusken Sign Language first shows up briefly in Chapter 5: The Gunslinger, with this conversation:

[Mando signs to the Tuskens.]
Calican: "What are you doing?"
Mando: "Negotiating."
[More back-and-forth signing.]
Calican: "What's going on?"
Mando: "We need passage across their land."
[More back-and-forth signing.]
Mando: "Let me see the binocs."
Calican: "Why?"
[Mando tosses the binocs to one of the Tuskens.]
Calican: "Hey! What?"

This already shows that mix of diagetic explanation and Making it Obvious. While some of the signs are pretty iconic, Troy is probably the only person who can give us a complete literal translation, but the context makes it easy to reconstruct a basic outline. Mando is negotiating, he hands over the binocs, they conclude--he must have agreed to trade the binocs as payment for passage across Tusken land.

While there's not much here, this minimal interaction is narratively necessary to establish in a low-stakes setting the fact that Mando knows the Tusken language and has reasonably amicable dealings with them, so that that skill can be employed with much higher stakes later on, and there is indeed considerably more representation of Tusken Sign, along with Tusken vocalization, in Chapter 9: The Marshal.

Initially, we see some signing with Irrelevant content during the desert crossing montage shot, while Mando sitting around campfire with Tuskens. This is just showing us the language for flavor, and to remind the audience that Mando has that skill.

For the most part, the remaining Tusken language is handled with minimal diagetic explanation, with the audience taking the point of the view of Cobb Vanth. E.g.,

[Mando engages in multi-modal communication with Tuskens]
Cobb: "Hey partner, you wanna tell me what's goin' on?"
Mando: "They want to kill the krayt dragon, too."

and later: 

[Tuskens add more tokens to their battle map.]
Cobb: "That's more like it. Where are they gettin' the reinforcements?"
Mando: "I volunteered your village."

with a few instances of what may be more direct translation in the form of indirect reported speech:

Mando: "He says your people steal their water, and now you insult them by not drinking it."
"They know about Mos Pelgo, they know how many Sand People you killed."
Cobb: "They raided our village! I defended the town!"
Mando: "Lower your voice."
Cobb: "I knew this was a bad idea."
Mando: "You're agitating them."

and direct reported speech:

Cobb: "What are you telling them?"
Mando: "The same thing I'm telling you. If we fight amongst ourselves, the monster will kill us all."
Mando, SimComming with English, slowly: "Now, how do we kill it?"

And in one instance, they actually exploit the unique capacities of the visual modality to allow Mando to report on someone speaking in sign at an extreme distance, via binocs:

[Tusken signing at long distance]
Cobb: "What'd he say?"
Mando: "He says it's sleeping. If we listen carefully we can hear it breathing."

I somehow doubt that the show's writers planned ahead to introduce a sign language just to allow that one scene to work (if they hadn't, a walkie-talkie would've served just as well), but hey, now you know that that's something you can do! 

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Wednesday, September 8, 2021

Into the Night of Language Diversity

Into the Night is a 2020 Belgian Netflix-original series (apparently inspired by the Polish sci-fi novel The Old Axolotl [beware the Amazon Affiliate link!], although I see very little resemblance myself; it feels to me more like an SCP Tale in the 001 Daybreak canon, just without the shambling blob monsters), which has an ensemble cast of characters from a wide range of linguistic backgrounds--and it fully embraces that fact! There is no single language shared by all of the characters (although between French and English we have them all covered), and no on-screen translation convention; everyone is portrayed as speaking the language they would really be speaking at any given moment. The official language of the series as indicated by Netflix is French, and that does seem to be the most common language spoken throughout the series (which is sensible, given that the story starts in Belgium), but I'm not actually sure it's a majority--and if it is, it's clear that other languages are not treated as second-class. If you don't turn on the subtitles, you have to just know every language that's spoken in order to follow the plot; like War & Peace, it does not have a primary language with affordances to make secondary languages accessible--it just is fully multilingual. As such, there is not much to say about the techniques it uses for language affordance; it's just subtitled! You could maybe make an argument for a couple cases of Making It Obvious, but they're not really trying; and I can think of one case of diagetic translation, but that's because the original speaker was mumbling and would've been unintelligible otherwise regardless of the audience's linguistic prowess.

Unlike War & Peace, however, the sheer diversity of languages represented on screen (French, English, Flemish, Russian, Arabic, Italian, Turkish, German, and a throwaway bit of Mandarin right at the beginning) means that you can't actually expect any significantly-sized audience to actually know all of them. No matter who is watching, you will need subtitles at some point--so Into the Night just goes all out and subtitles everything, uniformly. So, given a sufficient number of subtitle tracks, it does not need to assume its audience speaks any of the featured languages--the viewer can pick whatever linguistic representation they need, without changing the video. At the moment, Netflix only offers subtitles in English, French, and Chinese, but all three language groups are in pretty much the same boat. Which leads me to the intriguing conclusion that this is a bit of story-telling media with no primary narrative languages.

Now, there are ways of telling stories with no spoken or written language at all--wordless picture books, mime shows, LEGO assembly instructions--and that's a whole interesting area of study to get into on its own. Heck, you could probably do interesting stuff with a series of statuary forming 3D "frames", although I don't know of any examples myself. And if that interests you, I must recommend the work of Dr. Neil Cohn, the Visual Linguist, and his Visual Language Lab, which looks at conventions of graphical representation and how they support storytelling either in conjunction with or in absence of written language across different cultures.

But that's not really my thing. My thing is explicitly analyzing the narrative use of secondary languages. And while, as I have just explained, Into the Night doesn't really do the secondary language thing, the way that it manages to not do it is fascinating. I can't imagine that this is the first bit of media to do something like this, but it's the first one I've noticed, and it just blows my mind, even if for no other reason that helping to better define the boundaries of my area of interest. And what it is doing is something that I just cannot imagine working very well in any other medium. You could imagine, for example, a multilingual opera with the libretto printed in a variety of languages in the play book for the audience to follow along, but that suffers from dividing the audience members' attention between page and stage. I am told that modern opera productions sometimes display the translations on screens for the audience, but then you are implicitly choosing a privileged language for at least that performance--the whole audience, regardless of background, is forced to rely on a single language chosen for the cinematic captions. And since subtitling relies on multimodal perception, or at least multichannel perception--you can read the subtitles while listening to the actors' spoken dialog, or read subtitles in your foveal vision while remaining aware of signing on another part of the screen (although Into the Night in particular does not happen to feature any sign language), you really can't do it in print or audio. (Although, perhaps the War & Peace trick of having a audience-language foreground track superimposed over a uniform diagetic language background track might work for audio format? I don't know how annoying that would get if used so continuously; someone should try it!) This form of storytelling is something that is just fantastically well suited to the very specific medium of home-viewed video with selectable subtitles. It's not specifically a streaming video thing; you could imagine this being done on DVD, for example. But has anyone?

So, anyway. That's a thing you can do with video, apparently.

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Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Война et Paix: French in the Great Russian Novel

 — Eh bien, mon prince. Gênes et Lucques ne sont plus que des apanages, des поместья, de la famille Buonaparte. Non, je vous préviens que si vous ne me dites pas que nous avons la guerre, si vous vous permettez encore de pallier toutes les infamies, toutes les atrocités de cet Antichrist (ma parole, j'y crois) — je ne vous connais plus, vous n'êtes plus mon ami, vous n'êtes plus мой верный раб, comme vous dites. Ну, здравствуйте, здравствуйте. Je vois que je vous fais peur, садитесь и рассказывайте.

Thus begins Leo Tolstoy's masterpiece, War and Peace, widely regarded not only as one of the greatest works of Russian literature, but of world literature. And yet, that first paragraph is mostly French! There is no translation, even in a footnote. There is no context that could make the meaning obvious to a Russophone reader. What is going on?

The mystery deepens if we examine the opening of this French translation from 1901:

« Eh bien, prince, que vous disais-je ? Gênes et Lucques sont devenues les propriétés de la famille Bonaparte. Aussi, je vous le déclare d’avance, vous cesserez d’être mon ami, mon fidèle esclave, comme vous dites, si vous continuez à nier la guerre et si vous vous obstinez à défendre plus longtemps les horreurs et les atrocités commises par cet Antéchrist…, car c’est l’Antéchrist en personne, j’en suis sûre ! Allons, bonjour, cher prince ; je vois que je vous fais peur… asseyez-vous ici, et causons... »

That's... not the same. Even accounting for the need to replace the Russian phrases peppered into the original, you'd think if someone was translating French into French, they could just use the original French, right? The initial serialization of War and Peace began in 1865, so this translation was done only 36 years later--hardly long enough for the French language to have changed so much as to need updating for modern readers.

One clue comes from the fact that the speaker in that opening paragraph is not French--it is, as we learn in the second paragraph, Anna Pavlovna Sherer, maid of honor to Empress Maria Feodorovna, speaking to Prince Vasily.

Tolstoy is not using French as a secondary language, such as I have investigated in other works. Thus, he has no need to employ any of the special techniques for incorporating secondary languages. Rather, War and Peace is a bilingual novel (or, a bilingual work of literature, anyway; Tolstoy himself did not like to call it a "novel"). It is written under the assumption that its readers will already know two languages--Russian, and Russian French.

In the time during which War and Peace was set, and in which it was written, French was the literal lingua franca of Europe, and the language of the European aristocracy--including the Russian aristocracy. But just as, e.g., Indian English is different from, despite being mostly mutually intelligible with, British English, Russian French was not exactly the same as standard French French. Hence, the translation, from one dialect to another, which would be more intelligible to French readers.

Because Tolstoy expected his audience to comprehend the language, he could accurately represent the language that his characters really would have been using. And without having to employ any of the special techniques used to support comprehension of a secondary language, Tolstoy could convey changes to the character's political affiliations and sense of personal identity through their choice of language as the Napoleonic wars progress and the occurrence of French declines over the course of the story (partially as a result of Francophone Russians learning actual Russian for the first time!)

Modern Russian readers, however, cannot generally be assumed to be French/Russian bilinguals--and yet, materially altering the text of Tolstoy's masterpiece by translating the French into Russian in-line would be culturally unacceptable! The French, thus, has to be treated as a secondary language, but with very limited opportunities for improving integration. In practice, modern Russian editions add extra footnotes with Russian translations of the original French. And at least one audiobook edition does a very audiobook-specific thing: playing the original French dialog at lower background volume, while the Russian is spoken over it!

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Sunday, August 29, 2021

British Sign Language in _Doctor Who_

Under the Lake and Before the Flood, episodes 3 and 4 of Doctor Who, series 9 (Amazon affiliate link), are notable for featuring a Deaf character (Cass), played by a Deaf British actor (Sophie Stone). Cass and a few other characters speak BSL (British Sign Language--which, yes, is a totally different language from American Sign Language) throughout both episodes, and the British Deaf Association praised the episodes for helping break down barriers for Deaf actors.

In particular, the Chair of the BDA said:

What was most heartening was that the Deafness of Sophie’s character, Cass, is incidental to the plot.

But that turns out to be not entirely true! In fact, Cass's Deafness is critical to the plot!

But before we get to that: how is the language itself presented, and made accessible to the typical hearing viewer?

In the opening scene, we have Lunn, later identified as Cass's interpreter, SimComming "Can I go in?" (to the mysterious craft they are investigating], to which the response is some untranslated signing from Cass. Lunn then continues SimComming with "If it's not safe, how come you can go in?", which makes it fairly obvious what Cass was signing, even though (like the previous examples of ASL I analyzed) there are no subtitles provided.

For most of the remainder of the story, when Cass speaks, we see her sign and then get the immediate (diagetic) translation from Lunn. In a few cases, where other characters may not have seen Cass, we get clarification, like this:

Cass says he might be right. It might have been here since the 1980s, when the valley flooded. [Italics added]

Additionally, after first meeting the Doctor (i.e., not already having an established relationship with him as a translator for Cass), Lunn tries to introduce his translation with "Cass is saying-" only to get cut off:

Doctor: Thank you, but I actually don't need your help. I can speak sign. [signs] Go ahead.
[Cass signs rapidly]
Doctor: No, no, actually, I can't. It's been deleted for semaphore. Someone get me a selection of flags.
Lunn [translating]: One of the ghosts is our previous commanding officer. The other, um moley guy, we don't know what he is.

And apart from that, as long as Lunn and Cass are both present, and other characters can see that Cass is speaking, Lunn simply translated directly, without comment. The fact that Cass is almost always speaking, and being spoken to, through a translator ends up being exploited for some minor comedic effects--a possibility which The Dragon Prince completely ignored! For example:

Doctor: It's a Faraday cage. Completely impenetrable to radio waves, and apparently, whatever those things are out there. So, who's in charge now? I need to know who to ignore.
Lunn [translating]: That would be me.
Lunn: Uh, her. [pointing]

The interpreter is exploited in the opposite direction in an amusing scene at the end:

Bennet: Lunn. Will you translate something to Cass for me?
Lunn: Of course.
Bennet: Tell her that you're in love with her and that you always have been.
Lunn: What?
Bennet: Tell her there is no point wasting time because things happen and then it's too late. Tell her I wish someone had given me that advice.
[Cass asks Lunn what's happening. Lunn passes on the message. Cass looks quizzically at Bennett.]
Lunn: Oh, God, no. I was just passing on what he said. Please, don't--
[Cass grabs Lunn and kisses him.]

We also get one solid example of exploiting the language barrier to delay a translation for dramatic effect:

[Cass grabs Lunn by the lapels and signs rapidly]
Lunn: No, she's right. Neither of you can get it back.
[Cass signs]
Clara: What? What is it? What did she say?
Lunn: It doesn't matter.
Clara: Please.
Lunn: She said to ask you whether travelling with the Doctor changed you, or were you always happy to put other people's lives at risk.
Clara: He taught me to do what has to be done. You should get going.

This is shortly followed up by a lampshaded instance of Making it Obvious:

Clara: Look, he'll be fine, I promise.
[Cass signs angrily.]
Clara: Okay. Didn't need anyone to translate that.

And at one point we get a clear instance of diagetic description, rather than a straight translation, when Lunn summarizes a conversation he had been having with Cass (not translated in real time as they were the only conversants, so interpretation was not necessary) for another character:

Lunn, SimComming: It's not safe out here!
Clara: What's the matter?
Lunn: She won't let me look inside the spaceship. She says it's not safe. I'm saying it's not safe out here.

Although this is a little awkward, as the only reason for Lunn to suddenly start vocalizing seems to be to bring Clara (and the audience) into the loop, and Clara wouldn't have interjected in the conversation otherwise.

Throughout the episodes, we also get a few brief shots of Cass and Lunn conversing with each other in BSL that are never translated. Some of these could be Easter Eggs, but the brevity of the shots and the fact that the signing is often half off-screen indicate that the filmmakers intended to Make it Irrelevant; the background signing exists only to show sign language to the audience, to remind them that it is there--not to communicate any additional semantic content. Similarly, nearly every scene in which some other character is talking in Cass's presence features a shot or two of Lunn moving his hands about--usually short, often only partially visible. This is enough to remind the audience that, yes, Cass is Deaf, and requires interpretation of spoken English, and it's a subtle indicator which works much better than the closest equivalent in prose; but, it's also something of a missed opportunity. Given that Lunn's actor had to do all of that signing anyway, simply reframing the shots so that all of Cass's interpretation was available to the audience as well would've gone a long way towards improving Deaf accessibility, and breaking down barriers not merely for actors, but for Deaf people on both sides of the screen.

In one instance (at least, that I was able to notice) we see one other character demonstrating knowledge of BSL to communicate with Cass without interpretation:

Bennet, SimComming: Cass, what do we do?
Cass [via Lunn]: We abandon the base. Topside can send down a whole team of marines or ghost-busters or whatever.

And in this case, the SimCom for a short simple sentence is actually reasonably justified, as Bennet wanted to keep everyone else also looped in to the conversation.

But, more significantly, we also have instances of characters needing to communicate with Cass when Lunn is not present, who do not use BSL, such as :

[O'Donnell moves in close to Cass's face]
O'Donnell: Cass, he's alive!

O'Donnell gets close and enunciates so that Cass can read her lips! And that is all it takes to establish for the audience a) that Cass can read lips, and b) that it takes attention and effort. This is never stated outright, but it is critical information to understand the plan that the Doctor comes up with: to capture the ghosts and in a small area and get them on screen with a good enough view that Cass can concentrate on reading their lips to figure out what they are saying. That's something that Cass is uniquely good at (not superhuman like Amaya from The Dragon Prince, but good), because, being Deaf, she has had to be. And the fact that the process is still not perfect is highlighted by the haltingness and corrections shown in Lunn's interpretations of Cass's reports:

Lunn: She says they're saying the same thing, the same phrase, over and over. They're saying the dark. The score. No, the sword. The for sale? No, the forsaken. The temple.

Lunn: Cass thinks the Doctor's saying something different to the others. He's saying Moran, Pritchard, Apprentice. No, Prentis [closeup of Cass fingerspelling]. O'Donnell, Clara, Doctor, Bennett, Cass.

So, you see, Cass being Deaf is not, in fact, purely incidental, but is in fact absolutely critical to the plot--that feature of that character allows the withholding of information, which is otherwise right there on the screen if you knew to look for it, from the audience and the characters until the writer wanted you to know it, by only making it accessible to the character who ought, by virtue of her Deafness, to have developed the skill to access it.

For further commentary, the actors playing Lunn and Cass have a behind the scenes interview in which they talk about using BSL in the episodes.

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