?

Log in

Raw seafood, Mary, just imagine! - Barnstorming on an Invisible Segway [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]
Marissa Lingen

[ website | My Website ]
[ userinfo | livejournal userinfo ]
[ archive | journal archive ]

Raw seafood, Mary, just imagine! [Sep. 30th, 2014|10:39 pm]
Marissa Lingen
[Tags|]

Jo Walton has a blog post about the Decameron and ravioli, A Kind of Rissole, and it got me thinking about how we handle this sort of explanation in fantasy for effect, because Alec and I talk about it in terms of East Asian-inspired fantasy kind of a lot. It especially comes up with names, but I’m going to start with food and go from there.


The translator telling the reader that ravioli was a kind of rissoles, in Jo’s example, was trying not to make the reader trip on ravioli. (Slippery stuff. You could fall and hurt something.) It looks to me like he was trying to reassure his audience that, no, this is not important, this is mildly exotic but not upsetting, go on with this other thing I’m saying. He could have gone the other way. He could have described it in exoticizing detail, describing pasta in as distant a way as possible and then the fillings too, choosing the least familiar possible thing to fill ravioli with rather than going, look, it’s sort of like the thing you know with a starchy thing on the outside and a meat on the inside, right? When I was a little kid in the early ’80s, sushi was not a thing most older middle-class white Midwesterners ate, but oysters on the half-shell were a known thing, at least, a rich person food but a white rich person food, so if you were trying to explain sushi to someone’s white Midwestern great-grandmother, you could say, “It’s like oysters on the half shell, Gran, with a bit of rice,” if you wanted it to sound a little bit familiar, if you wanted her to say, “Oh, right, okay.” Or you could say, “They take tiny bits of carefully cut raw fish and seaweed and try to arrange them to look pretty, and then they eat them with long sticks,” if you wanted to make her go, “They what, I never.”


The same thing happens with names. If you’re trying to tell a story about someone’s daughter and you’re talking about, say, Japan to an 18th century English audience, you can think, oh, hell, well, the important thing is that Yuki was somebody’s daughter; what do people name their daughters? Fine, her name was Mary or Jane or Anne, one of the things people named their daughters. And the audience who needed to hear that ravioli was just like rissoles will think, oh right, it’s just someone’s daughter, carry on. Or you can decide that the important thing is the Flavor of Abroad, and you can carefully phoneticize: her name was Yoo-Kee, that’s what I think I heard! Yoo-Kee, your audience will savor, what a curious sound! how exotic! Or you can take a middle ground and translate. You can say, well, they named their daughter Snow. Snow! says your audience. What a pretty custom. And their other daughter was named Bitterness. Don’t think much of women there, do they? says your audience.


Oh wait. I slipped. That was Mary again.


Things have changed since the eighteenth century and even since the early 1980s; now Yuki is just an ordinary person’s name for most of us, thank heavens, and “oh, eat it, it’s fine, it’s basically like sushi!” is a way to make a food familiar and comfortable. Again, for most of us. For some…not so much. “Everyone” knows ravioli now. But my point is: fantasy authors sometimes want to invoke each of these effects in fantasy settings. The distancing, the familiarizing, the pieces in between. And that’s pretty value-neutral!…except for the assumptions behind what’s distant, what’s familiar, and which components of your audience will find them to go which directions. Writing is communication, and if you have giant chunks of your audience with opposite assumptions about what’s familiar and what’s distancing, that’s a pretty tricky balancing act for something as simple as a name. It’s very easy to overthink, but that’s because it’s a genuinely hard problem, and at a certain point you just have to do what you’re going to do and let it fall out as it may with different groups of readers.


Some of whom might end up thinking a rissole is a lot more similar to ravioli than it actually is, if you’re not careful with how you translate the Decameron.




Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux

LinkReply

Comments:
(Deleted comment)
[User Picture]From: mrissa
2014-10-01 12:09 pm (UTC)
This comment has crystallized for me that a future in which three sisters are named Yuki, Mary, and Rissole, or that sort of clustering is a familiar-cozy future, is a way of bringing the future in close for me. That's a way of saying that these people are not alienated and upsetting, some of them name their kids after meatballs because they like the sound of it, but don't we all have a cousin like that?

The distancing effect names are the ones with numbers or letter-designations--if they had been named Yuki 4, Mary IX, and Rissole-Gamma, that's a distancing effect naming scheme in SF.

So it's different genre to genre.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
(Deleted comment)
[User Picture]From: mrissa
2014-10-01 01:27 pm (UTC)
Pleased.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: swan_tower
2014-10-01 06:17 pm (UTC)
Distancing names for me are names I can't pronounce at all

This is one I wrestle with, because there's such pushback (not from you; in general) against making things "too hard" . . . but "too hard" includes a broad swath of things that are quite normal to various non-Anglophone audiences. And sure, I'm writing primarily for an Anglophone audience, so there's nothing wrong with me taking that into account. But I get grumpy-faced at the notion that I shouldn't include names like Ndidi or Blodeuwedd or Huitzilopochtli.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: mrissa
2014-10-01 08:03 pm (UTC)
And having Ndidi sometimes now raises the chances that more people will say, "Oh, of course, it's Ndidi, like in swan_tower's book," later, and have it be familiar.

But so does the rest of the world going on, and a lot of times it looks to me like SF writers reach a point in their lives where they have to be careful not to trail the world in diversity of naming.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: swan_tower
2014-10-01 08:19 pm (UTC)
There actually was a review of The Tropic of Serpents that bemoaned all the "weird fantasy names*." I headdesked, because while it's true they are invented names, I based the phonology on certain West African languages, and really, surely we who supposedly love other worlds can cope with a few odd phoneme combinations.

Heck: I even had to supply a gentle nudge during copy-edits for that book, when the style sheet talked about the capitalization conventions for invented titles . . . like "oba." Whereupon I explained that no, that's a real-world title just like "king" or "boyar," and while we're at it let's change the rule here to make the capitalization of English titles match what I'm doing with non-English ones.



*I paraphrase, but that was the gist of it.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: whswhs
2014-10-02 03:44 pm (UTC)
When I copy edit a book—of course, I copy edit scholarly books, and only rarely fiction—if I run into an unfamiliar expression, I research it and/or query the author. Often it's just "please confirm that this is what you want," but the more problematic cases often fall under "this appears to be a case of X, for which the usual convention is A; is your following the different convention B an intentional choice not to follow A?" or "you do this one way here, but a different way here; can we adopt a consistent style, and which one do you prefer?" But I take it that my job is to find a way to realize the author's intent.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: whswhs
2014-10-02 03:56 pm (UTC)
Of course, nonanglophone audiences can have trouble with English names, too. The two English sounds expressed as "th," for example, are quite rare in world languages statistically; much rarer, for example, than the "kh" sound expressed as "j" in Spanish or as one of the "ch" sounds in German.

Then there are issues of name order. I have seen more than one work where a Chinese author whose name is, say, "Hong Li-li" is cited in the text as "Li-li (1998)," which has a very high probability of being wrong. Or even of being in the bibliography as "H. Li-li," alphabetized under the Ls.

On the other hand, pronunciation can be challenging. It took me a long time to find out that Japanese "desu" is not pronounced "deysoo" or "dehsoo" but "dess" (I was assuming continental vowels), or that Hungarian "nagy" is not "nahghee" but "nahj."
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: asakiyume
2014-10-01 05:17 pm (UTC)
This is an awesome little gem of a story, right here.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: whswhs
2014-10-01 04:30 pm (UTC)
I would also note the effect that Tolkien calls "mooreeffoc," a word I believe he borrowed from Chesterton: Taking something that is perfectly familiar and distancing it through the manner of description. This is a neat way of commenting on one's own society. I can think of two examples that are quite powerful scenes for me:

In Kipling's "As Easy as A.B.C.," there is a description of the familiar process of voting, told by someone in the mid-21st century to whom the whole business is a barely remembered custom of the barbaric past (and in particular is associated with mob violence against racial minorities). Out of this amazing play, he assured us, would automatically arise a higher, nobler, and kinder world, based‚he demonstrated this with the awful lucidity of the insane—based on the sanctity of the Crowd and the villainy of the single person. . . . I turned bewildered to Takahira, who was nodding solemnly.

In Kingsbury's Courtship Rite (perhaps my favorite science fiction novel), there is a scene where Oelita the Heretic, who has rejected her planet's custom of eating the "low listed" during its recurrent local famines, sees convincing visual images of scenes from Earth's militaryhistory. And she goes outside and falls on her face in the mud before her God orbiting overhead and thanks him for saving her people from a terrible place where people are slaughtered in vast numbers and no one even eats them. The fact that Kingsbury made that totally convincing to me and even moving gave me one of the most purely sfnal pleasures I can recall.

I know perfectly well what ravioli are, but I don't have a clue about rissole, though I've seen the word often enough for it to be familiar. Does it seem a bit odd that "ravioli" is a mass noun in English, as if the noodles were a continuous substance, when they look as if they're a plural count noun in Italian—one raviolo, two ravioli, many ravioli? (Merriam-Webster confirms this and says raviolo is a diminutive derived from Latin rapa, turnip—which in English has transferred to a different species of Brassica, though the oil from its seeds is now sold as "canola," because "rape oil" was terrible for marketing. So I guess someone thought those filled noodles looked like turnips, back in the day.)

Thinking about this is making me go all free associative. I'd better hit Post Comment now.
(Reply) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: mrissa
2014-10-01 04:40 pm (UTC)
I have recently had the experience of defamiliarizing myself with a familiar thing through description: I described Homecoming and Homecoming royalty to some British people. Wow, did it look strange by the time I was done. I mean, it was already a little odd, but uff da, what a thing.

I think one of the points I was too tired to make properly is that we sometimes get caught up, as spec fic writers, in the fact that we do this all the time, the distancing and exoticizing of our own stuff. But that it can be done neutrally, or it can be done positively or negatively, and we need to keep an eye on what we're lauding or denigrating, when we're using distancing/exoticizing effects, especially when it's stuff that's been distanced/exoticized consistently for the audience we're writing for.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: whswhs
2014-10-01 05:26 pm (UTC)
I like playing with this as a game master. I often make up my own settings, especially for fantasy, and it gives me an excuse to play with unfamiliar customs and modes of legal reasoning. Fortunately, my players are fairly good at getting into the mindsets of historical or fictional societies, most of the time (though the players in my Barrayaran campaign almost totally failed to think Vorishly).
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: mrissa
2014-10-01 08:01 pm (UTC)
I think the Vor are hard for people who aren't used to hierarchical obligation, and I think that Americans in particular but modern Western people in general are taught to deny hierarchical obligation as much as possible. Being the person with power in a relationship is terrifying and bad, and you will see people going "ack! I don't have power!" when they do, in fact, have power--you will see them moving the goalposts so that having power in a relationship has to be unilateral (which it almost never is) and universal (which HAHAHA no) in order to "count," just because we are culturally so completely uncomfortable with the idea that we might be the authority figure in a relationship. And the relationships in which someone is the authority figure are hedged about with written rules rather than handled as understood relationships.

It's also the case, of course, that people will attempt to deny that someone else has power over them, but I think that's better understood. I think that's more obvious, that we are a culture where no one wants to admit being subordinate or weak. And yet there are cases where one clearly is the less powerful party, and you just have to go with it and know it--you're the employee, the student, the patient, the child, whatever. The denial of power gradient from the other side strikes me as much more pathological. It also shows up in completely failing to understand that while the peasants owed the lords things under the feudal system, the reverse was seriously also true. I am alarmed at how many people just miss this crucial piece of feudalism.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: whswhs
2014-10-01 09:53 pm (UTC)
All of my players were playing progressives a generation further on in Barrayaran history, and that was fine in itself. But they were playing characters who really didn't even understand the Vor sense of honor, despite two of them being Vorpatrils, one a Vorkosigan, and one a Vorrutyer. And that was kind of strange.

A character learned that the owner of his apartment building, an elderly Vor woman, had sold the building to a property investment firm that offered her a high price based on the Vorbarr Sultana real property market's climbing values, and the firm offered him the option of staying on if he bought the apartment for monthly payments more than twice his rent. He decided to move out. Another tenant who made the same decision, a retired major, came around with a petition to the former owner appealing to her duty to her tenants, which he dismissed as obviously silly. Then the former owner's solicitor got in touch with him with an offer to make good his losses and expenses from moving—and the player was visibly flummoxed, and couldn't even imagine why she would think she owed him anything.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: mrissa
2014-10-01 10:03 pm (UTC)
But--but--aughhhhh.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: sprrwhwk
2014-10-03 06:41 am (UTC)
I wrestle with this as a LARP-writer a lot, with the added ethical quandry of how I feel about asking my players to enact various things. (Although I have the benefit of my players having to choose and invest quite actively in playing my game, and giving them pre-written characters rather than having them bring their own.) We actually call the issue the "twenty-first century college student problem" (stemming from the fact that many of us are or were recently college students, but obviously not confined to them).

I am getting better at embedding the social assumptions of the world in the characters, and the stories, and the mechanical structure of the game itself, but my experience is that it has to be reinforced everywhere in order to stick, and even then it makes writing characters who are trying to move between value systems hard by making it too easy or too hard for the players, depending on the direction.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: whswhs
2014-10-03 08:50 pm (UTC)
There is also the process of so familiarizing something that the effect is funny. The other day I was running a session of a campaign set in my Bronze Age fantasy world with seven humanoid races, and the player whose character is the troll ship's surgeon asked one of the elves in the town they were visiting about acquiring seeds of hemp or poppies to see if they could be cultivated in her native lands for medicinal use. And I said, "Have you prepared an environmental impact statement?" The players laughed, and of course phrasing it that way was funny, but I was envisioning the elves as long-lived, very K-selected people whose values centered on attaining a stable optimum and conserving it, and of course they would be very cautious about bringing in potentially invasive species. And happily the players went right to thinking in terms of "the spirits of the land." (I do mostly have good players; they just occasionally have trouble getting some things.)

Bujold has tended to portray Barrayar in terms that make it seem familiar and easy to assimilate, rather than terms that make it alien and disturbing—at least in the Miles novels; the Cordelia novels make it more disturbing. On one hand the players could plausibly say that Barrayar has gotten more progressive/civilized/Galactic since then; on the other hand they may not have fully assimilated that Cordelia found, in wicked, cruel Barrayar a man with a deeper sense of honor than her native world offered, or that her son was still obsessed with that same sense of honor and that it often made him a better person.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: sprrwhwk
2014-10-03 06:46 am (UTC)
I wonder how much our popular narrative of feudalism is actually about the experience of being workers in an industrialized society. The feudal lords of the stories bear the same kind of disinterest or hostility towards their people in much the same way that the self-styled captains of industry do to their workers.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: mrissa
2014-10-03 10:58 am (UTC)
The other thing is that the breakdown of bonds is the failure mode of feudalism or of having an aristocracy that has forgotten its feudal obligations--or has not updated them to what is currently useful. You'll see this in 19th century British novels, where one aristocratic character will be concerned with the poor in a highly practical way, another will be ridiculous for wanting to take them something old-fashioned that won't actually help with their troubles, and another just won't care, will want to flutter off doing their own thing and ignore the poor completely. We're much closer to that failure mode than to the failure mode of "you're not a good lord because you're not fighting off enough of the bandits."
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: asakiyume
2014-10-01 05:14 pm (UTC)
You have absolutely nailed the problem of translation down, too. Do you want a person to experience a thing they're familiar with, but with shades of difference (since this is not, in fact, something they've met before), or do you want them to experience A! Different! Culture! in which case you play it to the hilt as Other. . . but in the process, create a reading experience that's not at all what anyone in the country of origin would have.

You probably know that when Waley translated The Tale of Genji, he included things like devans and chairs and desks, because it was just too alienating (he decided) to go with the screens and mats and clothes-as-bedding and so on. Later translators didn't do that.

I had never thought of explaining sushi in terms of oysters! That's very good. And that's an excellent example of the difference between playing something up for alienness or similarity.

I'm going to point my husband to this post; he'll love it. (He teaches Japanese literature.)
(Reply) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: mrissa
2014-10-01 05:27 pm (UTC)
Yes, that's just it. And if you want to get people used to a different culture actually existing as itself, there have to be steps of familiarization in some sense: they have to know about there being screens and mats, and yet the screens and mats have to get past the OMG SO WEIRD stage for the people who have chairs and desks (and simultaneously on the other end--the screens and mats people have to get used to the chairs and desks people too). You can't just pretend that everybody does it your own way forever. But early on, the idea that those people you haven't met yet aren't so strange really, they're just people: it's a useful idea if your listeners haven't got it already. Which in some cultures and subcultures they really haven't, and even in ours we sometimes need that subconscious button poked.

I find that "oh, it's like [familiar food] with a little bit different gravy" is very useful with some older people. My parents are young, and my grandmother even--she's only 82 and very broad-minded about food for 82. But "gravy" is a very, very safe-making word for elderly white Americans who are less world-travelers than my own grandparents. It is hitting a subconscious "this is safe" button. Someone's gravy might be boring, certainly, or even faintly icky. But it's unlikely to be dangerous. Sauce could be anything. Who knows about sauce! But gravy, now, worst that's going to happen to you is you won't like it much.

By all means, send your husband on over!
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: asakiyume
2014-10-01 05:35 pm (UTC)
I wouldn't have guessed that about gravy! When I was growing up, my WASP mother cooked my Italian father pasta two times a week, and he wasn't big on roasts, so sauces (tomato sauce) were what was ordinary, rather than gravy. But I totally get what you're saying, and I need to remember this for when I'm explaining foods to people.

I pointed him to it on Twitter :-)
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: zelda888
2014-10-01 06:09 pm (UTC)
I am told that in many heavily Italian neighborhoods in the US, tomato sauce is called "gravy." The English word "gravy" seems to mean primarily "that basic sauce that you put on pretty much everything," more than meaning any specific ingredient list.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: asakiyume
2014-10-01 06:14 pm (UTC)
Interesting! I think of gravy as requiring meat--being meat based, in fact--but I can see how it could be used more broadly if that helped with cultural communication.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: asakiyume
2014-10-01 05:14 pm (UTC)

PS

(I know what ravioli is, but not rissole. Heh.)
(Reply) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: mrissa
2014-10-01 05:15 pm (UTC)

Re: PS

That's where I was, too, until Jo's post.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: asakiyume
2014-10-01 05:18 pm (UTC)

Re: PS

Which I'm going to go read next break I take.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: houseboatonstyx
2014-10-01 10:06 pm (UTC)
Off to the side, another case, current.

Elderly Southern ex-cowboy, ex-military: "Scallops? What do you do with them?"

Me: "Well, anything you'd do with tofu."

Him: "Oh, fine."
(Reply) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: mrissa
2014-10-01 10:11 pm (UTC)
HOORAY YES THAT IS AWESOME.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: redbird
2014-10-02 09:04 pm (UTC)
I like this. Thanks.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: sprrwhwk
2014-10-03 06:32 am (UTC)
In Boston the term for potstickers or Chinese dumplings is "Peking ravioli", which I'm convinced came about because a bunch of Chinese immigrants moved in next to a bunch of slightly-more-settled Italian immigrants and tried to explain their food to each other.

I think every culture has something which could reasonably be described as "It's like $ravioli, Mom," for local stuff-in-a-fried-doughy-shell values of $ravioli.
(Reply) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: vcmw
2014-10-03 01:27 pm (UTC)
Things-wrapped-in-flat-breads and things-cooked-in-dough-pockets are pretty much some of my favorite foods. I'm generally excited by them whether the flat bread or dough pocket is made of teff or buckwheat or wheat or corn or shredded fried potato or rice flour or what have you. And I like all the fillings. Veggie fillings or meat fillings with ginger or curry or tomato or rosemary or chili. Things in dough things!
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)