• Avoiding Jabberwocky

In my first post on the subject of language (So… how would they talk?), I discussed what I consider the #1 linguistic challenge facing an author of historical fiction who attempts to bring ancient people to life while writing in modern English. I promised to post again to offer other thoughts about the choices involved.

So, okay, here goes… and please remember that I’d love to hear your opinion on this subject.

As I see it, the second most challenging linguistic decision facing a novelist who writes about the distant past is how much of the original language and how many archaic dates and place names to drop into an English book. Pile it on too heavily and the text becomes as incomprehensible as “Jabberwocky.” Include too little and some may say it lacks authentic flavor.

Consider this made-up-for-my-blog snip from a non-existent novel set in first-century Rome:

When they reached the ostium, Marcus embraced the senex, who had donned a heavy pallium in preparation for his journey in the procella.

“Vale, Pater. We’ll meet again on the Nones of Iulius, without fail. Please greet Mater warmly on my behalf and give Minor a basium for me.”

After his pater had left, Marcus crossed the atrium, taking care to avoid the overflowing impluvium, and walked into the triclinium, where his amici were assembled.

“Salve, Lucius.” He slapped the miles on the back. “How was Neapolis?”

“Unusually hot this aestas. Fortunately, I was able to spend time in Stabiae. Such a pleasant little urbs!”

Anyone who has studied Latin will find that passage a quick-and-easy read, albeit a curious one. Other readers will probably roll their eyes in disgust. Much too confusing for the average English speaker to bother deciphering.

Would it help to italicize the Latin words, as shown below?

When they reached the ostium, Marcus embraced the senex, who had donned a heavy pallium in preparation for his journey in the procella.

Vale, Pater. We’ll meet again on the Nones of Iulius, without fail. Please greet Mater warmly on my behalf and give Minor a basium for me.”

After his pater had left, Marcus crossed the atrium, taking care to avoid the overflowing impluvium, and walked into the triclinium, where his amici were assembled.

Salve, Lucius.” He slapped the miles on the back. “How was Neapolis?”

“Unusually hot this aestas. Fortunately, I was able to spend time in Stabiae. Such a pleasant little urbs!”

To my mind, those italics don’t help. Rather, they call attention to how many “foreign” words the reader faces… and quickly paging through an entire book filled with italicized Latin words would be a major turnoff.

In writing Rubies of the Viper, I decided on a few simple linguistic guidelines. I would:

  • include Latin words that have survived intact and are easily comprehensible today, such as villa, atrium, pergola, and Saturnalia.
  • include a few other Latin words that were bound to come up in my story but had no obvious translation into English, such as palla and stola (common items of women’s clothing) or quaestor and praetor (titles of specific government officials). And, of course, I would try to provide enough description and/or context at first mention for the words to make sense.
  • translate into English such Latin words as these from my snip above: ostium (entry door), senex (old man), pallium (cloak), procella (storm), vale (farewell, good-bye), pater (father), nones (seventh day of the month), Iulius (July), mater (mother), minor (younger, distinguished a girl from her mother), basium (kiss), impluvium (pool), triclinium (dining room), amici (friends), salve (hello, greetings), miles (soldier), aestas (summer), and urbs (city).
  • translate into English the names of months and major places, such as Rome, Naples, Greece, Athens, Corinth, Britain, and Antioch. I made an exception for small towns whose names carry special historic resonance, such as Reate, Caere, Pola, and Stabiae.

So, by my own guidelines, had the passage above occurred in Rubies of the Viper, I would have written it as follows:

When they reached the front door, Marcus embraced the old man, who had donned a heavy cloak in preparation for his journey in the storm.

“Good-bye, Father. We’ll meet again on the seventh of July, without fail. Please greet Mother warmly on my behalf and give my sister a kiss for me.”

After his father had left, Marcus crossed the atrium, taking care to avoid the overflowing pool, and walked into the dining room, where his friends were assembled.

“Hello, Lucius.” He slapped the soldier on the back. “How was Naples?”

“Unusually hot this summer. Fortunately, I was able to spend time in Stabiae. Such a pleasant town!”

Most other contemporary authors who write about ancient Rome don’t use lots of original Latin either. Some drop in tidbits, like triclinium or impluvium, for flavor. Perhaps they opt to use Pater/Mater as terms of address instead of Father/Mother, or Salve/Vale instead of Hello/Good-bye. Some may choose to use the original place names (Roma, Neapolis) instead of modern English versions (Rome, Naples). They may italicize the non-English words, or not. But it’s a safe bet that all authors of historical fiction wander through the same minefield of choices before coming up with the linguistic scheme that suits them best. There’s no right or wrong answer… just the one that fits a given work of literature.

The biggest trick, of course, is knowing when to stop. Once you start dropping in Latin words (or Ye Olde English or any other archaic language), why use one original term and not another?

That was one benefit to my decision to use modern English almost exclusively. I didn’t have to make those choices more than once.

—text copyright © Martha Marks—

2 thoughts on “• Avoiding Jabberwocky

  1. Agreed; language should be used to communicate, not confuse.
    My latin’s rusty enough to have to translate procella in context, I don’t think I’ve ever used it….. and frequent foreign words don’t add flavour they merely detract from the story.
    I personally like the idea of a compromise on the dating to mention the nones of July, with a brief historical note in the back but that’s my own ideosyncrasy. I feel that nothing gives a flavour of time like looking at it from the eyes of the period. You know you’re in the middle ages when someone tells you that he will be travelling the day after the feast of St Somebody.

    • Hi, Sarah, and welcome to my blog!

      My Latin is much rustier than yours (and never was very good to start with), so I’m especially interested in your take on this subject. Thanks for leaving a comment.

      You’re right that referring to specific dates is a great way to establish the flavor of a long-ago historical time, and that’s one place where I could see changing my approach. Everybody know what the ides of March are, so that one would be easy to drop in. But most people haven’t heard of the nones, kalends, etc, so to use those terms would require a glossary and an explanation of why “nones” refers to the 5th or 7th of a month, not the 9th.

      I guess the choices made depend on whether an author is more interested in total accuracy or ease of reading. I opted for the latter, and while not everybody would agree with that, it did pass muster with a retired college professor of Latin who helped me wade through a sea of linguistic and stylistic decisions.

      Glad you agree with me that, in general, language should be used to communicate, not confuse. Amen to that!

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