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.