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Wednesday Editorial: The Language of Science Fiction

Editorial: The Language of science fiction

Lavie Tidhar

This was going to be a shameless self-promotion editorial, in which I tell you that my new novel, The Bookman, comes out tomorrow in the UK and Australia. I was going to say it’s a steampunk adventure, and a book about books, and a mystery, and a love story…

But instead I think I’ll talk about something else.

Firstly, my book isn’t the only one coming out tomorrow. I am not sure it is exactly a trend, but we are certainly seeing a – however small – group of writers who have chosen to write in English in order to reach a wider readership (or for other reasons, which is partially the subject of this editorial). Tomorrow, then, also sees publication of French author Aliette de Bodard’s first novel, Servant of the Underworld, which I haven’t had a chance to read yet but which sounds fabulous, a murder mystery set in the blood-drenched world of human sacrifice and Aztec mythology…

And coming out this year we have Finnish writer Hannu Rajamieni’s first novel, The Quantum Thief, which I’ve been hearing great things about, while Dutch writer Jetse de Vries, putting on his editorial hat, will see his first anthology, Shine, published. All four books come from mass market publishers in the UK – and we can also expect translated novels from French writer Pierre Pevel and Russian writer Dmitry A. Glukhovsky

Pretty extraordinary, really.

So… why English? I ask the question not for myself but because a common argument – across languages, in fact, since I’ve heard it expressed with regards to any non-English language, from Hebrew to French – is that English is the language of science fiction.

What do they mean by that? Why can’t science fiction be written in other languages?

My own view, of course, is that this is (to borrow a term from that great showman, P.T. Barnum) complete hokum. Yet it is so prevalent, and I see it repeated again and again. Partially it is the terminology of science fiction – anything from wormhole to ansible, from warp drive to FTL, from “plugged in” to BEM to the “science fiction” itself. In Hebrew, for instance, science fiction was initially called mada dimyoni, or “imaginary science”, before being replaced with mada bidyoni, or “fictional science”, then shorthanded conversationally to madab, the sort of acronym Hebrew likes so much. English is the language of science fiction! And there’s something in that – when you even have to argue about which word to use for the English “telephone” or “computer”…

But consider.

One of the nicest words Hebrew doesn’t use is “sach-rachok” (try pronouncing the ‘ch’ as that sort of deep-in-the-throat sound). It means something like “speak-distance” and was an early word proposed, by that most venerable institute, the Academy of the Hebrew Language, for “telephone”.

Of course, it also sounded a bit silly, and no one wanted to use it, and Hebrew ended up borrowing the word “telephone” and making quite nice use of it after all.

But see, that’s the beauty of language – any language. Not just the act of borrowing (what is also called ‘loan words’) – the way English borrowed “amen” or “cabal” or “sack” from the Hebrew, or borrowed “algebra” and “bazaar” from Arabic, or “chocolate” from Nahuatl…

Languages always evolve, and they do so by borrowing, and by modifying, and by adapting, and by making up new words (neologisms). English does a lot of it… and so does any other language. Being a speaker of Bislama (the pidgin English – and now, sometimes, creole – of the South Pacific islands of Vanuatu), I was delighted recently to come across a new verb – gugelem. Which means, of course, to google! (as in, bae mi gugelem – I’ll google it).

The argument about vocabulary really doesn’t hold. Indeed, it should be one of the most fun parts of writing science fiction in another language – coining new terms or transforming existing ones to create a new language of science fiction.

And yet…

Here I am, “guilty” just as much for writing in English.

The thing is, I do love English. And by writing in English I can assure myself not only more readers, but also – and this is rather crucial, alas – better pay for my work. But I continue, albeit rarely, to write in Hebrew for the pure joy of it – short stories such as “Shira” (later translated and published in English in The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction & Fantasy, ed. Ellen Datlow), or “Chalomot Be’aspamia” (translated and published, as “Daydreams” in Apex Digest) – I even wrote an entire book in Hebrew, with Nir Yaniv, just for the hell of it – “Retzach Bidyoni”, or “A Fictional Murder” (itself a play-on-words on the Hebrew term for science fiction), a tongue-in-cheek murder mystery set in an Israeli SF convention, a la Bimbos of the Death Sun

I’m even working on a book that incorporates at least segments of Bislama into the narrative – and would happily write an entire book in that language, if only there was someone to publish it…

For it is market forces that dictate the writing of science fiction, not “a limited vocabulary” or some mythical Campbellian (John, not Joseph) strictures; it is not lack of words but lack of finance that restrict, in many parts of the world, the writing of science fiction into the foolhardy act of a maddened lover. And yet there is a joy in it, a purity that can be captivating.

My love of Hebrew science fiction – however obscure the titles, however bad some of its early forms – remains alongside my love of English science fiction. And it shapes my own writing, whatever the language.

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January 6, 2010 - Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , ,


  1. Well, I think computers and the internet had a lot to do with it. But even before that, in many places English turned out to become a sort of lingua franca.
    And the dollar was, till the euro, THE international currency – that has to have some bearing on the subject.

    Anyway, about vocabulary, it’s interesting to note that, if we go back to the late 19th century and to scientific romance (you’ll find similar literature in many places I’m sure), Portugal and Spain have examples of those type of narratives completely ignoring the english language. Mainly, I think, because they had other cultural references (france and germany, mostly).

    Wells and Verne, etc, are important of course, but it is inescapable that modern SF is a product of Gernsback & offspring – it came and developed firstly from the United States & while that country was gaining an important place in the international stage.

    I guess it just sort of…happened that way.

    I’m convinced that as the global village advances, the most used languages will fight for the stage. English had a very good start on that with the 20th century… and SF just reflects this.

    If it will remain the leading language used in SF, only time will tell. For the time being english is indisputable as the best-formed and complete market for it, but things can change.

    Comment by nfonseca | January 6, 2010

  2. Hi,
    Not to try to detract from your point, but I think at least for Hannu, writing his novel in English is pretty natural — he lives in Edinburgh, works and does his research (and publishes that) in English, and is part of a local writers group, so his writer peers all speak and write English.

    His short fiction is also published in Finnish in Finland, so he doesn’t write exclusively in English, though.

    Comment by Tero | January 6, 2010

  3. One of the mainstays of sci-fi lingo, “Robot”, comes from Karel Čapek.

    I think a lot has to do with the economics of who has the leisure to write, and to publish.

    In Spain, for instance, many SF writers earn more money translating books from other languages than they can for writing their own books, and as a result, they spend more of their time translating than writing.

    (For instance, lets say an advance of 1000 or 2000 euros is paid, either for the rights to a foreign novel or as an advance for an original SF book, which will usually have a print run of about 2500 copies. Pay for English->Spanish translations is on average 10 euros per page, so a 300 page novel will earn a translator 3000 euros. Some publishers rely on fans to translate more cheaply, and lately some Spanish publishers are outsourcing to Latin American countries, with weaker currencies, and then paying a corrector to “normalize” the linguistic quirks depending on the country.)

    Comment by Lawrence Schimel | January 6, 2010

  4. [...] be of interest (or otherwise!): What Do We Talk About When We Talk About Steampunk (SF Signal) and The Language of Science Fiction (The World SF News [...]

    Pingback by Whistle-stop blog-tour ahoy! « Lavie Tidhar | January 6, 2010

  5. Simply really, look up “microwave” in welsh…etc.. Modern words sounds stupid in other languages.

    In terms of technology english is the fastest evolving language.

    Comment by Haniff Din | January 7, 2010

  6. “In terms of technology english is the fastest evolving language.”

    Oh, thanks, Haniff! That’s SO good to know! And how did you determine that?

    Comment by lavietidhar | January 7, 2010

  7. Ours is such a rich and wonderful world, isn´t it? English is a very pliable language – Portuguese doesn´t have the same kind of flexibility, but it also has a richness (due to its Latin heritage) that compensates splendidly, making it sound beautifully and especially poetic.

    German is also an excellent language to technology because of its juxtapositions. So is Japanese, because it accepts neologisms easily.

    English is a wonderful language, but it is not the only one in the world.

    Comment by Fabio | January 7, 2010

  8. You say: English is the language of science fiction! And there’s something in that – when you even have to argue about which word to use for the English “telephone”

    Although “telephone” comes from the Greek, so is it “really” English? Is English even the default language of sf terms when, as Lawrence points out, one of its most famous words is actually Czech and many other words, like “hyperspace” have non-English roots? One of the strengths of English is the way it borrows words from other languages, although most if not all languages borrow words from other languages anyway. Clearly, there are other reasons (mostly economic) for the fact that many non-native English speakers write in English.

    I’m not convinced that English is going to remain in its privileged position — or maybe there will be a number of different “Englishes”? I remember, for intstance, reading a number of stories written in English by European writers (or translated into English by their English-speaking compatriots) which sounded very strange to me. And then I realised that they were written in American English . . .

    Comment by Andy Sawyer | January 8, 2010

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