Wednesday, August 5, 2009

What's the Best Balance in Conveying a Foreign Setting?

With Sarah still traipsing around Portugal, we've got another guest blogger today. Sean Kinsell thinks of himself as a newbie in fiction writing, not realizing just how good he really is. Sarah, Kate and I are currently aiming our steel-toed boots at him as a means of encouragement for him to finish his first novel. This blog stems, I think, from one of the questions he's asking himself right now as he writes. -- Amanda


One of the first things you're hit over the head with when you study Japanese literature is how hard it is to translate. That's partially for easily explicable reasons: Japanese and English are structured very differently, and ambiguities and associations are possible in each that are not possible in the other.

But of course with Japanese it goes much further than that. Even more than the rest of East Asia, Japan has a reputation for mystery and paradox that, one is frequently given to understand, the Western mind doesn't have the tools to grasp. That the Japanese have equal difficulty understanding us, despite our reputed forthrightness and literal-mindedness, somehow gets less play. Users of any language (such as writers) rely on shared cultural assumptions that may not obtain for the audience of a translation, and there are times when that barrier is impossible to get around. The problem with a lot of authors who deal with Japanese is that they tend to assume that that barrier is a feature, not a bug. Lots of translations of Japanese literature have a resolutely flat quality; it's supposed, I think, to suggest a placid surface with a lot actually stirring underneath, but it often just comes off affectless.

And the problem doesn't just come up with translations; literature written in English about Japan often has the same kind of flaws--sing-song prose and would-be profound paradoxes on every page. An example that really stuck in my craw was Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha, which opened like this:

Suppose that you and I were sitting in a quiet room overlooking a garden, chatting and sipping at our cups of green tea while we talked about something that had happened a long while ago, and I said to you, “That afternoon when I met so-and-so…was the very best afternoon of my life, and also the very worst afternoon.” I expect you might put down your teacup and say, “Well, now, which was it? Was it the best or the worst? Because it can’t possibly have been both!”

Well, of course it can have been both, dear lady. What are you going on about? The conflict between opposing but equally strong forces--moral duties, affections, predilections, desires--animates much of the world's greatest literature. For a novelist to put into the mouth of a narrator the idea that it's only natural not to believe one could hold two opposite feelings simultaneously is a shocking display of bad faith. (And Golden's novel gets far, far worse from there.) But he was writing about Japan, don't you know, so Sayuri's patronizingly patient explanation of why such a thing is possible was considered charming, if not profound. Objecting would be spoiling the Zen.

So my question is…what's the best balance when trying to convey a foreign setting? What authors are good at realizing an exotic setting without being smug about how esoteric it all is? When is it good to sprinkle in foreign words, and when does it become show-offy and jar the reader out of the world of the story?


Francis Turner said...

I think one of the best people at foreign locations was the old thriller writer Desmond Bagley. His descriptions of places were spot on (I've been to some of them) and he tended to sprinkle the foreign words in very lightly. Enough to make sure you remembered that you weren't in Kansas anymore but not more than that.

C Kelsey said...

Bernard Cornwell generally does a great job of describing battlefields that I've never seen.

When you mix language in with the location, Tom Kratman writes a pretty convincing Blaboa based upon Panama.

C Kelsey said...

Err, That should have read, "Bernard Cornwell does the best job of... that I've *ever* seen.


Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Sean, great topic.

I think both your questions can be applied with equal ease to describing fantasy and SF worlds.

How much do of your alien or fantasy world do you reveal to convey the setting? One of the things I've been dealing with is 'mind set' -- just what you were talking about with the Japanese.

I've created a fantasy world which isn't 'medieval lite'. Society is so different from what we know, it's like an alien world. How do I convey the characters' motivation, when it is so different?

Rowena Cory Daniells said...


Bernard Cornwall is excellent. My husband has read everything he's written.

KylieQ said...

It's a difficult balance - I'm working in ancient Egypt at the moment and while I want to convey the mystery, exoticness (is that a word?)and turmoil of this particular 20 year period, I also want to be true to the people that lived through it by showing reactions and emotions they would have been likely to have, not what I - with a different mindset, education, religious views, knowledge of technology, etc - have. Reading about an historical period written with a modern day mindset always irritates me and it just doesn't ring true.

One of the first SF/F books I read was Robert Silverberg's (Silverthorn?) Thebes of the Hundred Gates. I knew nothing about ancient Egypt at that time and he showed how beautiful and sinister it could be at the same time. I came away going, "wow, I want to be a time traveller and go to ancient Egypt and never come back" just like the characters did.

Kate said...

From what I've seen, the best balance isn't a rule so much as a 'feels right' thing. The same amount of alienness in one writer's hands is perfect, while in another's it flat doesn't work.

I'm not sure whether language shapes culture, vice versa, or "yes", but there is certainly a very strong relationship between how a language works and how people who speak that language tend to think. Even within English-speaking cultures there are differences: ask any American who's been confronted with with a strong Aussie accent liberally peppered with dialect.

I think there's a tendency to assume that with different thought patterns there must also be different emotions. That, from what I've seen, is so much bullshit. What differs is the acceptable way to express the emotion - if there is one - and often, the subtle shadings of meaning used in the expression. Arthur Golden falls into that trap in the snippet, with his patronizing assumption that because to most Westerners Japanese seem very controlled and unemotional a) we're not going to realize Japanese people feel just as intensely as we do, and b) they aren't going to know how to express how they feel or even what they feel.

Okay, I've rambled on for way too long on a tangent to the point. I honestly don't know when or how much is too much. It seems to be a case of a foreign word is okay if the meaning is obvious from context and the nearest non-foreign equivalent would give the wrong impression. Similarly, if there's description around the phrases, and context and setting, it works. If it's just "ooh look at the neat stuff with all the exotic names", it goes splat.

Mike said...

Oddly, that snippet reminded me of "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." Which I do believe is a rather European work?

Mike said...

More of a serious answer. What's the best balance when trying to convey a foreign setting? When is it good to sprinkle in foreign words, and when does it become show-offy and jar the reader out of the world of the story?

First, what is the foreign setting for? Assuming that it ties into the story, and isn't just an exotic setting for the spice, which parts of it do you need to convey to make the story work? Having the hero visit a rotemburo and sit outside naked in hot water, enjoying the wind and the company, may seem like fun, but it should also tie into the story? Perhaps he's going to meet her while wandering around the hot springs resort in his hotel yukata, and be somewhat too aware of having one thin layer of cotton between him and her? Or...

Foreign words? Perhaps the question again is what do they provide for the reader? I'd suggest that any foreign word needs to be defined by the context -- actions, dialogue, and so forth -- well enough that readers aren't going to be scratching their heads trying to figure out just what it means. And remember the old advice about not calling a rabbit a smeerp -- or even an usagi. Admittedly, when you are talking about the rabbit pounding rice cakes in the moon, someone is likely to realize that they aren't in Kansas anymore, but still, call it a rabbit. Hum. On the other hand, calling tanuki a raccoon dog isn't really helpful, because most Americans still don't have a reference. Describing them, perhaps, or telling one of the old stories?

I think the best balance is going to change depending on what the foreign setting is doing in the story. If it is just a backdrop, then you probably don't want to call too much attention to it. On the other hand, the parts of the foreign setting that mold the story, that shape the events and characters and the actions, those need to be conveyed clearly and with some details.

I'd probably start lightly. A little goes a long way. And make sure that what's there contributes to the story and is understandable -- at least by the end of the story. This is also probably a good place for trial readers. Get someone who isn't familiar with the setting and the language to help you gauge the use.

Kate said...


Yes, there is a certain "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." to the snippet, although as I recall Dickens didn't go on to assume that you'd be surprised that it could be both at once and then explain how it could in fact be both at once.

We're messy, contrary, and often contradictory creatures and our lives, emotions, and stories have a tendency to reflect this. Anyone assuming otherwise... Lets just say I don't have much respect for that kind of viewpoint and leave it there.

Sean Kinsell said...

Thanks to everyone for the comments; I hope I don't seem like an ingrate for taking a few days to respond.

Rowena, I think, may have phrased my own question better than I did, although from the opposite direction. I don't think I'm quite so worried about the trappings. As Mike says, you can just describe things to the point of making them clear to someone who's never seen them--e.g., America may not have many hot-spring resorts, but it's perfectly obvious what one is. A tanuki or other species may be more cumbersome to handle, but you can still do it.

It's conveying the ways of thinking that I find tricky. I'm afraid of making the thing sound like an anthropology or language textbook. I moved to Tokyo when I was 24 and moved back to New York last year at 36, so I essentially know a lot about adult life in Japan and very little about adult life in the States. I'm not sure I even know what has to be explicated and what doesn't. What I do know is, as Kate said, that the Japanese don't have any emotions that no one else has. The acculturation through which their impulses are channeled is what's different, and giving both of those equal weight is hard to negotiate.

Mike said...

Quick, late response... is there that much difference between showing readers how a Japanese kacho deals with his team and showing readers how an American CEO thinks about his staff? In both cases, we're using actions, dialogue, and all that to help sketch in the beliefs and thinking -- what's going on in someone else's head. I think sometimes people get caught up in thinking that portraying another culture's characters is somehow different, and I'm not so sure there is any real difference. Admittedly, people think that the neighbor must be more easy to understand, but part of our practice as writers is showing that even twins don't really think the same. Hum... is there a difference in portraying character due to them being members of different cultures or societies? I don't think so, but that's an interesting question.