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  • Writer's pictureT.R. Peers

On Language

If you are one of the very few people* who has read my novel, The Wake of Manadar, then there's something about it you possibly might not have noticed- the complete absence of puns.

I love a good pun. I make them constantly and laugh at even the most groan-inducing tabloid headline attempts at them. But I found, when writing a novel set in a fantasy world, that the very concept of a pun falls apart, and so I've largely banned myself from using them. To understand why, let's take a look at a song that just about everyone has heard/ sung/ been forced to play in school music lessons at some point:

Frère Jacques, frère Jacques,

Dormez-vous? Dormez-vous?

Sonnez les matines! Sonnez les matines!

Ding, dang, dong. Ding, dang, dong.

I apologise for any childhood flashbacks I might have caused. Now, here's the same song as it's usually written in English:

Are you sleeping? Are you sleeping?

Brother John, Brother John,

Morning bells are ringing! Morning bells are ringing!

Ding, dang, dong. Ding, dang, dong.

If you understand even a smattering of French, it's immediately clear that something is being messed with. For one thing, our friend's name has changed from Jacques to John, and the first two lines have swapped. Wikipedia explains that it's even worse than that, in that in fact the meaning of the song itself has changed- in the original, Jacques is being told to ring the morning bells, whereas in the English version they're already ringing. In fact, the suggested, more accurate version of the translation is this:

Friar James, Friar James

Are you sleeping? Are you sleeping?

Sound the Morning Bells! Sound the Morning Bells!

Ding, dang, dong. Ding, dang, dong.

Even then, as Wikipedia explains, it's still not quite right, with the etymology of the words 'Friar' and 'Brother' and the French word frère causing more trouble. However, let's look at the most obvious problem- this version of the song sucks. The rhyme scheme has gone, the rhythm is disrupted and it generally wouldn't fit the melody at all without some serious vocal shenanigans. But what does this have to do with puns? Let's look at another example. Urusei Yatsura is a famous and long-running anime and manga series the premise of which I'm not going to get into, but in one scene a character who is a wizard, trained in magic in the west, attempts to summon a devil, but instead summons a rather confused bear. If you speak any Japanese, or maybe just play a lot of Tekken and Street Fighter, you might already see where this is coming from.

Though the Japanese don't exactly have a single Lucifer-type figure, the word often used to refer to a demon or devil is Akuma, like the red-topknot-wearing nemesis of Ryu in the Street Fighter series. The word for 'bear', is simply Kuma, as seen in Tekken's ursine fighter and pet of Heihachi. So when the wizard, who has an accent influenced by his time in the west, says 'AaaaaaaKuma!' the magic thinks he's saying 'A bear' and produces the furry result. As the saying goes, it's not funny if you have to explain it.

What this is laboriously leading up to is this: when any form of communication or culture is 'translated' from one language to another, some of the meaning gets lost and subtleties of word-play are the first to go. It's certainly possible to translate a joke or song, but something is going to have to give and it's a fair bet that the writers of Red Dwarf or Disgaea would find jokes in the translations of their work that they didn't recognise whilst others would be nowhere to be found.

The implications of this sort of thing, if you're the sort of person who lets it worry you (hello) are pretty big. For example, an episode of my favourite whipping-boy show, Legends of Tomorrow, has Professor Stein impersonating a German music-hall entertainer in a nightclub full of Nazis. In order to maintain his cover, when forced to sing on stage, the Prof displays a decent singing voice in a rendition of Edelweiss, which of course won't be written for over a decade, covering this fact by claiming it's a new song. The problem is, of course, that he's singing it in English, the words being translated by the show's version of a Universal Translator. I assume someone has tackled that task at some point, but for the device to not only translate the words, but also keep the song to the same tune and rhythm, would be borderline impossible. (We're dealing with a translator powered by a super-intelligent, time-travelling AI here, though, so I'll give Legends a grudging pass on this one.)

This particular rabbit hole only gets deeper. Let's imagine you're writing a WWII novel from the point of view of a German Wehrmacht soldier**. In a dramatic scene, our hero, Hans (apologies for the stereotypical name), finds another member of his unit, Peter, bleeding to death from a sniper's bullet. Peter gasps out “Tell my mother I love...” and then dies, leaving the sentence unfinished. It turns out, two-hundred pages of intrigue later, that Peter was secretly in love with Magritte, a member of the French Resistance, and this has great bearing on the rest of the plot. Hans, meanwhile, assumes Peter was saying “Tell my mother I love her.” and duly passes on the message. The problem is, that doesn't actually work. In German, the same sentence is “Sagen meine Mutter ich sie liebe***“ and the word liebe, meaning 'love', doesn't appear until the very end. Because of the way German grammar works, the initial confusion can't arise- though since the verb comes at the end, a different one could. To return to our first example, if Peter had instead chosen to celebrate his love of all things French with a quick burst of Frère Jacques and a furious SS officer shot him dead after the first line, an audience unfamiliar with the song would learn different things depending on which language he was singing in- the name of the monk, in French, or the possibility that someone was asleep, in English. (I don't know how the German version would start, I'll confess)

In literature, this is probably considered by most writers to be just 'one of those things' if they think about it at all. It's been a long time since I read The Hobbit but I'd guess Tolkien, as a linguist, would have understood the problem and I certainly don't remember many puns in the books- the closest thing to one probably being the 'Speak, friend, and enter' riddle at the gates of Moria which turns out to simply require the word for 'friend'. Certainly, it means that if a witty character in your favourite fantasy novel makes a pun that makes you laugh, his companions should probably be scratching their heads and going 'eh?'. For myself, since I'm using a translation spell as a device in my story, it simply means that I'm having to watch myself very carefully, because somewhere out there is someone as annoyingly pedantic as me.

*Few, perhaps, but of impeccable taste.

**We'll leave aside the question of why you might be doing such a thing and indeed, morally, if you should do so for another time.

***ish. My German is no better than Google Translate's German but I know verbs after the first end up at the end which is good enough here.

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