Babel Remedies


I took the family to Blue Lake Park this afternoon. Blue Lake Park is about a mile east of Portland and a long arrow flight south of the Columbia River. Portland, and especially the east side of Portland, hosts numerous ethnic enclaves. While wandering by picnics, family reunions, or groups clustered about playground equipment I must have heard at least six different languages spoken.

That got me thinking about the problem in fantasy or science fiction of dealing with characters who don’t savvy each others’ mouth noises. If you want characters to communicate important plot information to each other, you’ve got to work through this issue.

There are any number of methods writers employ. Some ignore it entirely, not bothering to address the sheer implausibility that their characters from various countries, or their non-human characters – their elves, dwarves, aliens – would all speak the same language. They figure if they don’t mention the problem the reader might not notice it.

A related fix is the ‘common tongue.’ Basically hand-waving the issue away with a line of dialogue asserting the existence of a lingua franca.

Telepathy is a good one. As is the Universal Translator or its magical equivalent in fantasies.

In my novel “Reunion” I provided for communication by having an academic character find a library stocked with works in the foreign tongue. He notes a resemblance to writing he’s encountered before, finds a copy of that referent work, and spends a couple of months deciphering the language. A good thing spoken communication with these strangers played little part in the narrative, right? But I didn’t want to take the easy way out.

In “Under Strange Suns”, (in the process of annoying agents and slush pile readers near you) I took another tack, the translator. This dealt with the language barrier quite well in this novel. But if the story had required extensive dialogue between the main character and the aliens this would have proved an unwieldy solution.

The variety of remedies for this problem is necessary, and in any given work of fiction must suit the story dynamics. There is no universal palliative.