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CD Covington

“Translation is defying a curse laid by God”: R.F. Kuang’s Babel and the Colonialist Origins of Linguistics

R.F. Kuang’s Babel (2022) tells the story of Robin Swift, a Cantonese child who is spirited off to England at age 11 by Professor Lovell, who gives him a rigorous education in classical Greek and Latin and sends him off to Oxford to study translation. Robin makes friends with his classmates: Ramy, from Calcutta; Victoire, from Haiti; and Letty, from England. All four of them face discrimination: the boys and Victoire for their skin tone, and the girls for their gender. The story is about colonialism and empire, and its set dressing is linguistics. The translation institute at Oxford is colloquially known as Babel, and it’s in a literal tower.

The bulk of the novel is set in the 1830s, while Robin is at Oxford. The British Empire, already the dominant imperial power of the 19th century, is expanding its reach, growing poppies in Bengal and trying to force China to buy their opium. Comparative philology is a shiny new field, thanks to Sir William Jones’ realization that you can draw equivalences between Sanskrit and classical Greek and Latin, and philologists have begun reconstructing Proto-Indo-European. There are some who want to reconstruct the Adamic language, claiming that it’s God’s perfect language and all other languages are fallen from grace; some want English to be the Adamic language. All of this is in the book, and all of it is real linguistic history.

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On Tolkien, Translation, Linguistics, and the Languages of Middle-earth

Since I started this column in 2019, I’ve been avoiding one famous—possibly even the most famous—example of using linguistics in SFF literature: the work of J.R.R. Tolkien. It’s not because I don’t like Lord of the Rings—quite the opposite, in fact. It’s just such an obvious topic, and one which people have devoted decades of scholarship to exploring. Hell, my Old English prof has published academic scholarship on the topic, in addition to teaching a Maymester class on the languages of Middle-earth. But I suppose it’s time to dedicate a column to the book that first made me think language was cool and to the man who wrote it.

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Slang, Accents, and Linguistic Worldbuilding in Lara Elena Donnelly’s Amberlough

This month, I’d like to call attention to a trilogy from a few years ago called the Amberlough Dossier by Lara Elena Donnelly (whose new book Base Notes just came out, though I haven’t had a chance to read it yet). It’s a spy story in the vein of Le Carré set against a decadent backdrop inspired by Cabaret

The main characters in the first book are Cyril DePaul, a scion of an important family who works as a spy for the government, and Aristide Makricosta, a cabaret singer and emcee who also happens to be a crime boss. Cyril is supposed to be investigating Ari and breaking up his crime network, but they become lovers instead. The third main character in the first book is Cordelia Lehane. She’s a dancer in the same cabaret as Ari, and when politics comes for her friends, she gets revenge.

[Let’s talk about Donnelly’s linguistic worldbuilding…]

Glitching Reality With Power Morphemes: Battle of the Linguist Mages

When a friend told me he’d seen a publication announcement for a book called Battle of the Linguist Mages, I was of two minds on the whole concept. The only way it could work, thought I, was as a comedy, and that’s what the promotional material indicated. Either way, I knew I had to read it. It’s out now, and I’ve read it. (I received a NetGalley review copy.) Let’s discuss!

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The Tricky Art of Translation and Maria Dahvana Headley’s Modern Beowulf

It’s not very often that a thousand-year-old poem has a new translation that gets people hyped up, at least in the Anglophone world, but Maria Dahvana Headley’s recent Hugo Award-winning translation of Beowulf stirred up a lot of interest—there’s even a video series of writers and entertainers reading it out loud. (Alan Cumming’s section is excellent—he really knows his way around alliterative verse.)

Translation is a fascinating topic. I talked about some of my own experiences with translating dead languages in a previous column on Turning Darkness into Light and how Marie Brennan uses dead languages to great effect in that book. Today, I’m going to talk a little bit about theories of translation, then I’m going to get into the specifics of Headley’s new translation.

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Were We Wrong All Along? Interspecies Relations in CJ Cherryh’s Foreigner Series

Bren is back from space, but he has to go to the human enclave of Mospheira to deliver a copy of the kyo treaty to President Tyers and make the arrangements for the first Reunioner families to land on the planet. For the first time, he goes to Mospheira as an atevi lord and diplomat, and that means his bodyguards and a few staff go with him. The majority of these four books (Convergence, Emergence, Resurgence, Divergence) is about atevi politics, but the first two show how Bren’s bodyguard reacts to Mospheira and how the structure of the atevi studies department at the university is, in fact, a hindrance to human-atevi relations. [Read more]

The Kyo Come to Visit: Clearing Up Some Important Questions in CJ Cherryh’s Foreigner Series

When we last left our heroes, they had brought a handful of Reunioner kids from the station to the planet to visit Cajeiri. During their visit, all hell breaks loose (because of course it does), and Tatiseigi, the notorious human-hating curmudgeon, develops a fondness for the human kids when they admire his collection of artefacts.

At the beginning of this duology (Tracker, Visitor), the kids and Jase go back up to the station, where politics awaits. In the middle of an extremely messy intra-human conflict, the kyo show up. Because they know so little about the kyo, everyone decides that it’s best if they send the same three people as last time up to the station to meet the envoys, so Bren, Cajeiri, and Ilisidi venture up to the station. The human conflict comes to a head while they’re there, and they have to fix it before the kyo arrive. They do so, and Bren can get back to the important task of figuring out how the kyo language works. [Read more]

Bridges Go in Both Directions: Humans and Atevi in CJ Cherryh’s Foreigner Series

When we last left our heroes, they had stopped another atevi war, at least for now. They uncovered some very distressing political goings-on, which they will deal with soon. This brings us up to the fifth trilogy (Intruder, Protector, Peacemaker), in which Cajeiri’s ship-associates come down to the planet and land in the middle of the aforementioned messy political situation.

If you remember, when Cajeiri returned from the two-year voyage to Reunion and back, his elders were somewhat concerned about his development of man’chi. He had been around humans for that whole time, and maybe the feelings wouldn’t develop appropriately. Ilisidi was confident that they would, and Cajeiri did indeed develop some “proper atevi” feelings when he returned to the planet. His elders generally disapprove of his association with the human kids and want to disrupt it by keeping them separate, but Cajeiri clings to his happy memories of playing in the tunnels and sees the human kids as part of his network of associations: people whom he must protect, as aiji.

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Who Gets to Be People? Encountering the Alien in A Desolation Called Peace

Arkady Martine’s latest book, A Desolation Called Peace, picks up a few months after the events of her Hugo-winning novel A Memory Called Empire (which I wrote about here). The Teixcalaan series continues to be heavily influenced by works like C.J. Cherryh’s Foreigner series and Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, drawing science fiction into a deeper conversation about what it means to be human. I noticed one obvious reference to Foreigner—a Captain Cameron, who’s a spaceship pilot in a comic book Mahit picks up—as well as a more subtle one, in which a Teixcalaanli character says they don’t believe in numerical luck anymore.

Ambassador Mahit Dzmare is back on Lsel Station, in a bit of disgrace and with the Station government breathing down her neck. Her friend Three Seagrass is still in Teixcalaan (the city) and decides to assign herself a request from the front of the war: the aliens they’re fighting communicate in some way, and the commander wants someone from the Information Ministry to come initiate first contact, or at least try. The sounds the aliens make are dissonant, and they make the human listener nauseated.

The book has only been out for a few weeks, but discussing it without spoilers (at least for this part of the story) is proving impossible, so be forewarned if you haven’t read it: there be spoilers ahead!

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Disruptions in Communication Disrupt Atevi Society in CJ Cherryh’s Foreigner Series

Like the previous trilogy in Cherryh’s Foreigner series (discussed here), the fourth trilogy (Conspirator, Deceiver, Betrayer) is also heavily focused on politics, notably the aftermath of the coup against Tabini, but all Bren really wants is to go fishing on his boat and not do politics.

So, naturally, he quickly gets dragged into some *extremely messy* politics! [Read more]

Building a Bridge Between Cultures in CJ Cherryh’s Foreigner Series

In previous columns, I’ve explored how intercultural communication works in the first and second trilogies of CJ Cherryh’s Foreigner series. In the third trilogy (Destroyer, Pretender, Deliverer), the focus is mostly on politics, and there’s not a whole lot of linguistic content to comment on. Bren spends the first book on the run, the second getting to Shejidan, and the third chasing a missing person. And somehow, all of this takes place in about a week! But we get our first real atevi POV: Cajeiri, Tabini’s 8-year-old son, and through him, we gain a lot of insight into atevi culture and man’chi. [Read more]

Linguistic First Contact: Encountering the Kyo in C.J. Cherryh’s Foreigner Series

This column is a continuation of the previous column, in which I discussed intercultural communication in CJ Cherryh’s Foreigner series with examples drawn from the first trilogy in the series. This column will look at the very specific form of intercultural communication that is first contact with a focus on the second trilogy (Precursor, Defender, Explorer).

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“Man’chi” Is Not the Same as “Liking”: Intercultural Communication in C.J. Cherryh’s Foreigner Series

CJ Cherryh’s long-running Foreigner series has a lot of interesting linguistics in it. One of her specialties is writing non-human species (or post-human, in the case of Cyteen) with an almost anthropological bent. Whenever people ask for “social-science fiction,” she’s the second person I recommend (Le Guin being first). These stories usually involve intercultural communication and its perils and pitfalls, which is one aspect of sociolinguistics. It covers a variety of areas and interactions, from things like international business relationships to domestic relations among families. Feminist linguistics is often part of this branch: studying the sociology around speech used by and about women and marginalized people.

In Foreigner, the breakdown of intercultural communication manifests itself in a war between the native atevi and the humans, who just don’t understand why the humanoid atevi don’t have the same feelings.

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“Oh, Frak” — Avoiding the Censors the SFF Way

Every culture has its own set of taboos surrounding bodily functions, religion, and naming things. In Anglophone cultures, our taboos generally involve waste excretion, particular body parts, sexual acts, and Christian deities. But we can still talk about these things (with varying degrees of comfort) by replacing them with non-taboo words, or we can “soften” them to non-taboo forms by changing something about the word itself. This column will unavoidably include cusswords, though I will try to keep them to a minimum…

[What’s more satisfying: frak or frell? And why?]

“Evil Earth”: Linguistic Worldbuilding in N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth Trilogy

The Broken Earth trilogy tells the story of Essun, a woman who possesses the power of orogeny, giving her the ability to manipulate the earth itself to stop earthquakes, among other things. Each of the three volumes of the trilogy—The Fifth Season (2015), The Obelisk Gate (2016), and The Stone Sky (2017)—deservedly won the Hugo Award for Best Novel in an unprecedented run.

The story opens with a man tearing the world apart, opening a massive rift in the earth and wiping out the capital…and triggering a volcanic winter that could last for millennia. Around the same time, Essun discovers that her husband has killed her son and stolen her daughter away because the children are both orogenes. She sets out on the road, following them, as the volcanic ash from the Rifting begins to fall.  [Read more]

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