Friday, January 23, 2009

The Thing about Glossaries

In the style of Big Fish:  What do you know about glossaries?  I remember this one time after reading Tolkien I poured over the appendices and started putting together elven words ...
Stop, stop.  What I need to say is, the thing about glossaries is:

If they're not outright pretentious (which many are, in my not so humble opinion,) they suggest the writer is a bit lazy (at least to me.)   It suggests that the author didn't want to make terms clear by explanation or context or both for the reader.  And, really, do you want the reader to mentally halt in the midst of the story and have to look up a word in the glossary?

So what gives with Tolkien and others who use things like foreign language dictionaries and stuff in their books?

I think it's that Tolkien didn't use words that needed a glossary for translation in "The Hobbit" and the LofRs trilogy.  Everything is right there on the page, and the glossary is supplemental.  Other authors use context and then provide a glossary for readers like me who might be a little slow on the uptake sometimes and want a quick reference when we don't want to think too hard.  Also, I've noticed in books where glossaries are fun, you learn something that you wouldn't otherwise on the page, and you get to double-check your assumptions, to see how close you got.  If you're right often enough, well, you can be rightfully proud of yourself.  Actually, the author can be proud for dropping enough hints to make the meaning guessable, but not so many that the narrative is interrupted by a long, awkward set up and/or explanation on the page.  That takes some serious skill and insight into the reader's perspective.

I'm creating words that hopefully, by a combination of guilt by association, context, and on-the-page action, need no explanation.  I started doing this because quite a few of the words that worked the best were foreign already.  The one that tipped me over the edge is salle.  People who love all things sword know that a salle is the french word for hall, fencing school/college, and the actual room in which you practice fencing, all wrapped up into one term.  You know which salle is being referred to by context.  Sure, I could say it's a fencing hall or fencing school, but it doesn't have the depth of meaning as salle or salle d'armes.  Then there's maestro.  The English equivalent, master, has a lot of baggage and I don't want the baggage.  Sure, I can use the real world foreign terms and maybe even switch regions to mix it up (though those words would be far less likely to be recognized than their semi-international standard counterparts,) but what would that imply?  That my characters live in an alternate France, or Italy, or Spain?

And so, with these two terms as the launching point and no sensible way around them, I started creating Vyennen terms.  Vyenne, I've decided, is the Renaissance Italy of this world.  Cethrat, where my character grows up, is a military and naval powerhouse.  Hasla, to the north, is the center of all things religious and, probably no surprise to some but may be a point of complexity to the readers, rife with myriad cults, sects, and philosophical strangeness.  So much of the sacred poetry mentioned in the book was originally written in Hasle, and there are quite a few philosophical terms that have no direct 'English' equivalent.  

Which brings up an interesting conceit in genre writing.  In many texts of SF and fantasy nature, there's an undercurrent feeling of translation.  We, the English speakers/readers of planet Earth, have somehow come across a book translated from the 'original.'  This used to be literal back in the day, and not only that, but books of a speculative nature had to have an excuse for existing.  They were diaries, travelogues, collections of letters, and the authors often went so far as to write prologues as to how these materials got into their hands.  This created another layer of realism for the reader.  Since we, as a society, have shrugged off the tradition of creating an excuse for the existence of speculative text and don't have to pretend that we stumbled on the manuscript carefully wrapped in oilskins while marooned on an island (which we were, of course, later rescued from so that we could dash it over to the nearest publisher and bring it to you, dear reader) we can immerse ourselves in other worlds without having the author intrude by addressing us or creating elaborate stories that have nothing to do with the actual narrative.  Some of those were really fun, but let's face it--a lot of it was really, really bad.  And I still don't care for the addressing the reader directly thing, except when Mark Twain does it.  Then it's okay.  

But the sense of translation remains, though on a much more subtle level.  In Masks, with multiple countries, a multi-lingual (for the most part) nobility, physical as well as political, spiritual and cultural borders between countries that prevent them from consolidating or becoming essentially a mono-culture, there's a lot of opportunity to deepen the story through the use of 'foreign' terms that have no direct translation into my pov character's language, which in turn is, in the reader's subconscious, translated into English for their enjoyment.  Now, I could have done this the other way.  Right now it's assumed that the language of Cethrat is so close to English there are no untranslatable terms, and so therefore all the foreign words originate in other countries.  But I also could imply that Cethratan is a different language than English, and that I am as much translator as author for the reader.  The 'foreign' words are not foreign at all to my pov character.  They're Cethatan.  They just have no translated English equivalent.

What seems like a weird and somewhat complicated thing isn't actually that bad.  Most writers do it subconsciously and don't run themselves into trouble (except when they call a rabbit a smeerp.)  But if a writer is conscious of what s/he is doing, there's some interesting opportunities.

I've decided, for now, to go with a glossary and see where that takes me.   I may decide later to do something different, but for now I'm enjoying it, and it helps me keep my notes straight.

So, the thing about glossaries is, they're poopyheaded and silly, except when they're not.


The Moody Minstrel said...

Glossary shmossary. When we started our current online "blogventure" of my Impasse RPG, the players finally got so tangled up in (read "annoyed with") the names, terminology, and alien cultural elements that I wound up creating a whole Wiki site for reference. But the fact that there are, essentially, two cultures (and languages) in conflict in the current setting is at the very heart of the campaign.

And Hergoth and Yangae culture are soooooo different from one are their respective languages...

Kai Jones said...

I like a pronunciation guide, if the names are different enough or just spelled differently enough--for example, I'm not a Gaelic speaker, and a Cherryh I'm reading uses a lot of Gaelic names. Having a guide makes it a tad easier to follow.

Kami said...

Ooo, I hadn't thought about pronunciation. Great idea!

(Dashes off to add pronunciations, assuming I can find a dictionary pronunciation font.)

Kami said...

Playing cultures off of each other is a lot of fun. So is figuring out how their environment plays into the culture.

Mark Jones said...

Kai and I recently read a fantasy novel that, while it was interesting and somewhat original in many ways, was also definitely a failure in others. Ways that mostly had to do with names--proper names, place names, and a calendaring system.

The calendar was elaborate and complex. (The planet circled a double star and a year was much longer than on earth. Nonetheless, the nomenclature was clunky, made no material contribution to the story, and invariably threw me out of the story while I mentally paused to translate the made-up time intervals into conventional days, weeks, months or years.)

The names of places and people likewise were hard to wrap my mental mouth around and I was often distracted from the story by trying to figure out how I was supposed to pronounce them. And, again, they made no material contribution to the story.

I understand that the writer was trying to present us with an alien world and culture, but I think he failed on this point. Also, the book begins with a description of the alien solar system and an explanation of the calendar. In my opinion, if he couldn't work this into the story he should have ditched the whole thing and gone with more conventional terms.