Monday, December 05, 2005

Recent reading: Native Tongue

Translators are key in Suzette Haden Elgin's dystopian classic from 1983, Native Tongue. It's 2182. Earth's economy depends on fluency in alien languages, and the only way to be fluent is to be born a Linguist, and grow up from infancy with an Alien In Residence. The Linguists are a class apart, living in austerity, working terribly long hours, the target of human resentment because they can't have babies and train them fast enough to be interpreters.

Part of the result of this situation is a patriarchal dystopia similar to Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale (1986) in which women have very few rights. The book's central premise is the women's invention of a secret language, their attempt to reshape reality through language.

Alien literary translation enters into the story briefly, when Nazareth, a brilliant young linguist, has offended alien trade negotiators for the umpteenth time. In order to understand just how she has transgressed the bounds of politeness, she tells a long rambling story gently introducing the offensive ideas (in this case, color) to gauge the alien reaction without triggering their hostile withdrawal.

Haden Elgin has a fascinating blog. She talks about linguistics, teaching, poetry, science fiction, feminism; lately she's told some autobiographical stories that have a bearing on translation. In her early life she went to Europe to life with her husband's family, and she writes eloquently of the cultural and gender boundaries she transgressed and how difficult it was to figure out through interpretation of social and nonverbal cues what she was doing "wrong".

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