Sunday, March 30, 2008

Terminology in historical fiction

Well, I had made up my mind to post about something else, but this particular topic has been giving me some cause for head-scratching the last few days.

If you read this blog regularly, you'll know that I'm writing a series of novels set during the Roman invasions/occupations of Scotland. Since Scotland was never settled (ie. no set-plan towns or villa systems were ever established) and remained a military frontier zone throughout Rome's occupation of Britain, most of my Roman characters are involved with the army in some way. And if you pick up a book on the Roman army, you'll find it full of neat, specialist words and terms. I guess that if I ever manage to get my books written and - Mithras forbid - published, I suppose my target audience would be people who were interested in this particular period and place, and so might be familiar with a lot of these terms already. But what about my readers who aren't? How do I strike a balance to make the terminology user-friendly for anyone who might happen to read my books?

I could just use the Latin terms, and throw together a handy glossary at the end, but I know I would get annoyed if I had to break off from the story regularly to flick to the back of the book and look up unfamiliar words. I dislike books where the author overuses italicised Latin terms in order to make themselves look more knowledgeable. I mean, do you really need to call it a gladius when the word "sword" will do just fine? Unless, of course, you're making a comparison between Roman and Celtic swords, or something. And do you really need to call that cloak a sagum?

But I do think that economical use of proper terms can lend authenticity to a book. The question is: which ones are best left as they are, and which are better translated, however roughly? Writing is, after all, about communication, and frustrating the reader is hardly going to help you.

As a general rule, if there is a word which has a direct rendering in English - like legionary, auxiliary, centurion, or legate - I'll use that. Other words I translate for simplicity's sake. Take those terms for the roads and gates inside a Roman fort. "Main street" is a fairly loose but serviceable translation of via principalis, but the other roads were the via praetoria and the via decumana - which can't really be translated into English (okay, I suppose they can, but "praetorian street" and "street of the tenth" aren't very helpful, and, in the case of the latter, don't make much sense). The four gates of a fort were known as the porta praetoria, the porta decumana, and the porta principalis dextra/sinistra - literally, the "main gate right/left". Translations which don't really fit into English syntax. Since not all Roman forts faced the same way, I decided to use simple directional names - "west gate", "north gate", etc. - and refer to the via praetoria and the via decumana as the "north street" or the "south street" as appropriate. I figure the reader needs to know in which direction a character is going more than they do the proper Latin name for the road they're on.

And it's not just Latin terms. Since my Caledonian social structure is based roughly on the model given in early medieval Irish law texts, there are certain specific phrases used. But since most of my Caledonians are not Goidelic speakers, and because I'm writing a story, not a dissertation on Celtic society, I've used approximations. So I substitute fine for "family" or "kin-group", and tuath, which has more territorial connotations, for "clan". I treat the tribal units (Epidii, Caledones, etc.) as roughly approximate to the provinces of Ireland, which were made up of a number of tuatha.

They're tricky terms to approximate, but it works for my book.

Then there are those terms I've chosen to leave in the original. For example, if there isn't an English equivalent for a term of Roman army rank, in some cases I'll give a simple approximation - eg. "standard-bearer" for signifer - but mostly I tend to use the original Latin, as with optio or tesserarius. They don't lend themselves well to an English translation (optio literally means "choice" (ie., "chosen man"), and tesserarius means something along the lines of "man with a tile/tablet"), and I'm not too fond of trying to substitute in modern army terms, so I just leave them the way they are. I don't actually italicise them in the prose, simply because I think they would look a bit odd next to non-italicised legionaries and centurions.

Some terms I'm not too sure about, however. For instance, Firmus of the second book is a pilus prior centurion: the most senior in the cohort (my invention; the altars don't specify which rank of centurion he is). I'm still not sure whether I should refer to him as the pilus prior, or maybe use an approximate phrase like "senior centurion" or "first centurion". Bloody Roman army.

So, I know more or less which phrases I'm translating and which I'm leaving as they are. The new question is: how do I intergrate those foreign words into my book? I don't want the reader to have to stop and look up a glossary in the middle of a crucial scene, nor do I as a reader like an author halting the action in order to explain what a certain term means. The smoothest way to do it is through context, whether this be dialogue or demonstration. Remember the writer's golden rule: show, don't tell. This is especially true, in many cases, for historical fiction. After all, if my reader wanted to be educated on the Roman army, then they'd have picked up a non-fiction book on the Roman army in the first place. It also disrupts the PoV flow.

For example, in the first chapter of The Ancestor Crown, I introduce my Roman MC, Marcus, and his contubernium. A contubernium was a unit of eight men who shared the same barrack-room, or the same tent whilst on campaign. Counting now, I use the word seven times throughout the course of the chapter, but I never pause the story (such as it is) to explain, "oh yeah, this is what that means". By the end of the chapter, there's enough information and context for me to trust the reader to work it out: eight Roman soldiers sharing a barrack-room.

The same goes for the Old Irish word fidchell. With phrases like "fidchell board", "fidchell pieces" and characters sitting down to play fidchell, I think the reader can tell it's the name of a board game. Which is just as well, really, since we don't know much more than that!

On the other hand, the word "optio" has cropped up in my last two excerpts, and I'm not sure how successfully I've managed to get across what an optio is in them. I know that he is the centurion's second-in-command, but I'm not sure if the context fully gets that across.

Dialogue can also provide a context. For example, the Druidess Sargaid tends to refer to Gairea by the Gaelic ban-fhàidh, but most other characters use "seer", and Marcus also uses "sibyl", so the non-Gaelic speaker shouldn't have much trouble with meaning. Pronunciation is another matter! ;)

I'm not really sure how to sum this up; I was just trying to sort out my thoughts. I suppose it comes down to balance. Too many foreign terms can become awkward and irritating, especially when the author feels the need to pause the action to explain their meaning, but a few well-placed ones can really enhance the atmosphere and authenticity of the story. It's a matter of working out what those are, and how I can slip them in so the readers barely notice.

And now I'd better go. I've got a book to write, and I need to find out why Gairea's brother Leathan has suddenly decided to start acting like a first-class mentula. ;)


Crystal said...

Oh girl! Good post today! Well, I love all your posts;o)But i'm glad you wrote about this topic because i've been wondering the same thing. Do you HAVE to put sagum instead of cloak? I'm with you on how I read. I like good historical books without all the dictionary or search engine type words all through it. Don't get me wrong, I'll read it either way if it's good enough But to me all those "big" words derail me from seeing it like the author truley sees it, Make sense? If they have a glossary in the back of the book then i'll still injoy it. Most times I don't mind stopping to look up the word. There again, to get the whole picture.

Latin, yeah leave those in there like they are but like you said, sagum and gladius can be changed to a simpler word. I don't know what either of them were until you wrote it. But, there again, does using those words NEED to be part of the story to have the affect you want or does it really matter? Girl don't get me to second guessing all this. I'll ramble until I have posted on your blog;o)

Okay..what's mentula?lol!!

Kirsten Campbell said...

Yeah, that's how I see it. If a reader has to stop and work out what a word means too often, it'll derail them from the story and characters - which is surely the most important thing in a work of fiction. Which is the last thing a writer wants, especially during a crucial scene where the reader should be trying to connect with the emotions/actions of the characters.

I keep the original terms if, like "optio", they don't have any real English equivalent, or not one that would get across their meaning sufficiently.

It's like you said - does including the proper term add anything to the story?

Mentula means "prick". :) I threw that last sentence in as a joke, but it does kind of highlight what we've been talking about.

Gabriele C. said...

I have the same problem, and I'm not sure how to deal with it, either. Somehow, a sword is not a gladius in my eyes, and what the heck are you doing with a cohors equitata or a praefectus castrorum? Half mounted troop sounds like they are really bad riders, and fort leader has an air of pathfinders. Eagle Bearer for aquilifer jars worse than the Latin word, imho, though that was one example where I had a discussion with someone who wanted to see an English word instead.

Well, in the edn I'm going to follow my gut feeling and leave the final decision to an editor at the publisher I'll hopefully find; it's what they are paid for, after all. :)

Kirsten Campbell said...

I think a lot of it does come down to gut feeling. I use aquilifer over "eagle-bearer", too.

I don't know what you'd do with cohors equitata. Lol, like you said "half-mounted" makes them sound inept, and "mixed" isn't any better. Just makes them sound seriously confused. I tried to use "fort prefect" for praefectus castrorum but that sounded a bit too close to Ford Prefect. :) And don't even get me started on what "camp prefect" calls to mind.

Some terms just don't translate all that well. I still can't think of anything decent to substitute in for primus pilus.

Crystal said...

Mentula means "prick". :)

ROFL!!! Oh Kirsten I LOVE it!!!! I'm going to have to use that with Matt!!!!

Kirsten Campbell said...

Lol. You're sure insulting him in a foreign, dead language won't scare him off?

Sarah Cuthbertson said...

I'd go with your gut feeling. The occasional Latin word (or Celtic) adds colour and authenticity, I think and can work without a glossary if the meaning is reasonably clear from the context. I noticed that R.S. Downie used "Second Spear" for one of her soldier characters in Ruso and the Disappearing Dancing Girls (is there a Second Spear rank?) and it didn't jar, so I don't suppose First Spear for primus pilus would either (ok I know a pilum is tecnically a javelin, not a spear but...).

Kirsten Campbell said...

Pilus posterior rank, maybe? Second after the pilus prior.

Though I wonder about the word pilus. Does it actually mean "spear/javelin"? I've only ever seen the word pilum.

I noticed at the beginning of Eagle of the Ninth, Rosemary Sutcliff called Marcus the Pilus Prior Centurion, so I suppose I might get away with it, too. ;)

I must pick up one of those Ruso books. I saw your post about them and I'm dying to have a look. :)