SFF in Conversation

SFF in Conversation: John Chu’s “Stand Back! I’m Going To Quote Junot Díaz (Thinking about language)”

SFF in Conversation is a new monthly feature on The Book Smugglers in which we invite guests to talk about a variety of topics important to speculative fiction fans, authors, and readers. Our vision is to create a safe (moderated) space for thoughtful conversation about the genre, with a special focus on inclusivity and diversity in SFF. Anyone can participate and we are welcoming emailed topic submissions from authors, bloggers, readers, and fans of all categories, age ranges, and subgenres beneath the speculative fiction umbrella.

Today, we continue our ongoing new series “SFF in Conversation” with a thoughtful guest post from 2014 Hugo Award nominee John Chu on the topic of language.

The Water That Falls on You From NowhereDSC08101


“Stand Back! I’m Going To Quote Junot Díaz (Thinking about language)”

The use of language that is not, for lack of a better term, Standard English in English-language stories can be a thorny topic. Given that I’ve published work where characters speak in Chinese where that dialog is rendered in Chinese, it’s probably not a surprise where I stand on this. The differences between writing in dialect and writing non-English text are important enough that I want to make it clear that I’m mostly talking about the latter. Before I get where I’m going to, though, I think it’s important to get a sense of where I’m coming from. Let’s start with accents:

For decades, my parents owned and operated a Chinese restaurant in Lockport, NY. Like my sister before me, I waited on customers and bussed tables. Some kids grow up having to mow the lawn and do the laundry. I did that too, but I also worked at the family restaurant.

When people called to order take-out, I always answered the phone with the name of the restaurant. Sometimes, callers, rather than order right away, would first check whether they’d called the right place. They’d expected me to have an accent. I know this because they’d always tell me.

Meanwhile, the people who ate in, when I took their orders, would sometimes tell me that I “barely have an accent at all.” I’m sure they meant it as a compliment just as a lot of people thought it was funny to ask whether I was my dad’s “Number One Son.” I got asked that a lot.

So, that’s what I think of accents. I’m, of course, not saying that there’s no such thing. Unless you’re a linguist, though, it doesn’t matter whether you pronounce the word “bed” as [bed] or [b&#603d]. Many times, complaining about an accent or dialect is to use that accent or dialect as a proxy. People just use that as an excuse to think what they want to think. In my experience, they’ll think those things anyway even when you pronounce “bed” exactly as they do.

Even when the complaint really is about the accent or dialect itself, the complaint can still be problematic. Many accents and dialects have historically been treated as something less than, as though there were one true way of speaking or one true grammar and everything else were corruptions. Reality, of course, is messier than that. The line between a dialect and a language can be completely arbitrary. The putative worth of an accent has more to do with the judgment imposed on it than anything intrinsic to it.

This is probably a good place for the inevitable use of that awesome Junot Díaz quote:

“Motherfuckers will read a book that’s one-third Elvish, but put two sentences in Spanish and they [white people] think we’re taking over.”

Too often, using dialects or foreign languages in fiction is demeaned as a trick. Often, the implication is that those words are optional and that the writer can simply remove them or water them down without doing harm to the story. That view gives short shrift to the experience of anyone who understands the dialect or foreign language in question.

What’s actually happening when a story spans multiple dialects is much more interesting. To explain, at least by way of a parallel, I’m going to talk about the history behind the orchestration of The Carousel Waltz from the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical Carousel:

In American musical theater, the composers rarely orchestrate their own scores. Even those composers who have the skill rarely have the time while they are writing a show. More often than not, they hire orchestrators to turn their score into something that instrumentalists in a pit can play.

The great Robert Russell Bennett was originally supposed to orchestrate the whole of Carousel. He orchestrated parts of the score, including the 8-minute long Carousel Waltz that opens the show, before dropping out due to prior commitments. Don Walker took over. He did the much of the remaining work himself as well as farming out pieces of the score to other orchestrators. Carousel has a lot of music.

Months after the show opened on Broadway, Richard Rodgers asked Don Walker to reorchestrate the parts of the score that Robert Russell Bennett had originally orchestrated, including the Carousel Waltz. Walker would eventually replace most, but not all, of Bennett’s work with his own. Some of Bennett’s work still remains in Carousel but not his orchestrations for the Carousel Waltz (which is now lost).

The new theatrical orchestration of the Carousel Waltz obviously had to match Carousel‘s existing pit instrumentation, but Rodgers also needed an orchestration suitable for an upcoming concert performance. Rodgers did not want Walker to write two different orchestrations. Rodgers wanted one orchestration which incorporated a set of additional instruments. Without those instruments, the instrumentation matched that of the Carousel pit. With those instruments, the instrumentation matched that of a concert orchestra.

The result had to be an orchestration that sounded complete and satisfying either way. Those additional instruments had to sound integral to the waltz when they were used. The waltz couldn’t sound like it’s missing something when they weren’t used.

Don Walker is quoted as saying, “This was the hardest thing I ever had to do.”

Now, this is just a parallel, not an analogy. Whereas listeners might reasonably experience that orchestration both ways, readers either understand a foreign language or they don’t. However, like how the orchestration of the Carousel Waltz must be compelling in either instrumentation, a story that makes use of dialect or foreign language must be compelling either way. Non-fluent readers must never feel as though something is missing but fluent readers must never feel as though anything is extraneous.

The text tells two different, albeit related, stories. They both have to work for their respective audiences.

And audience is important. Perhaps I feel this way because I’m working with non-English text and, without some help, a monoglot English reader would be lost. Perhaps it’s as a friend suggested that the work is a vector between performer and audience. Rather than some platonic thing that exists in isolation, the work is actually a negotiation between performer and audience.

Again, there are parallels in theater. Two plays by David Henry Hwang come to mind: Golden Child and Ch’inglish. Not to mention Mark Medoff’s Children of a Lesser God.

Golden Child covers two generations of a Chinese family, one in 1998 America and one in early 20th century China. Linking them is the titular character whom we see both as a 10 year old in China and as a grandmother in America.

In theory, all of early 20th century China scenes ought to be in Chinese. All the characters are Chinese and those scenes are steeped in Chinese culture. For example, shifting attitudes toward foot-binding is used to reflect shifting attitudes in society.

Practically, scenes conducted entirely in Chinese was never a possibility. Golden Child played on Broadway (for about two months) and, in the performance I saw, there were likely more people of Asian descent on stage than in the audience. What Hwang does instead is have his characters speak in what amounts to a very literal English translation.

Characters say things like “eat bitter,” a Chinese idiom that means “to suffer” or “to bear hardship.” If you recognize this, lovely. If you don’t, Hwang expects you to work this out from context. He doesn’t take literalizing idioms very far, but far enough for the audience to understand those characters are speaking another language.

Ch’inglish is literally about translation and metaphorically about the difficulty of any communication between two people. The main character is an American in China who doesn’t speak the language. The play generates its meaning, in part, from mistranslations in both directions. In this case, the actors have to speak in the same language the characters speak in. The play does not make any sense unless the audience witnesses how impossible communication can be when characters lack a shared, fluent language and unless they see mistranslations happen before their eyes.

In this case, any dialog not in English is surtitled in an English translation. The play generates some of its humor from the mismatch between surtitled translations and translation that characters actually make in real time. The surtitling is both a concession to the audience and a virtue made out of a necessity. However, it also admits that to speak the Mandarin dialog in Mandarin is, in fact, a necessity.

One thread running through Children of a Lesser God is the right of deaf people to communicate however they want whether it’s via American Sign Language (ASL) or spoken English. In this case, the ASL is not surtitled in translation. Playgoers unfamiliar with ASL understand the deaf characters through context, character reactions, and spoken translations as part of other characters’ dialog.

In the performance I saw, the folks in the audience who understood ASL got the jokes before everyone else. This meant a lot of double-barreled laughter, one wave from the initial joke in ASL and a subsequent wave from the on-stage reaction. On one hand, the ASL fluent were watching a different play than I was. On the other hand, I never felt as though I was not part of the intended audience. What was happening on stage worked for everyone in their own ways.

The ways these plays demonstrate how to handle non-English dialog all take their audience into account. Golden Child and Ch’inglish might be different plays if David Henry Hwang assumed his audience understood Mandarin. Likewise, Children of a Lesser God might be another play entirely if Mark Medoff had assumed everyone in the audience understood ASL. Still, in each case, the non-English dialog is integral to the work. Remove, water down, or have the actors speak their non-English dialog in translation instead and the plays fall apart.

The same holds for the use of non-English language in English-language fiction. It is at once both integral to the work and not understood by some portion of your audience. For example, “The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere” is set in one version of the Chinese-American immigrant experience. Multilingualism is intrinsic to that. It’s not the main point of the story but there is meaning in various ways characters communicate or can’t communicate with each other. The story I was interested in telling had to reflect that. I wanted as wide an audience as possible to understand that without me also betraying that in some way.

Presenting a straightforward translation next to non-English dialog is, for me, the choice of last resort. (This is not to say that I’ve never done this. There is, in fact, one instance of this in “The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere.”) No one actually enjoys reading the same text twice in a row even if they are in different languages. At least, the translation could interact with the original.

Perhaps the translation can differ noticeably in nuance or be faithless to the original. The combination of the original and the translation ought to say something that neither says by itself. Or, in the case of my story, when Matt translates his mom’s words for Gus, there is meaning in the fact that Matt does not hold back. His translation is exactly what his mom intended. Yes, the reader sees a translation, but it plays in the story as an act of love and trust. The meaning of the translation is not merely the original words rendered in a different language.

Sometimes I don’t supply a direct translation at all. Instead, subsequent text gives the reader additional information. For example, in my story, Matt’s reactions to the questions posed to him at dinner make it clear what he’s being asked. Everyone else’s reactions as well as his own state of mind makes it clear how he answers. Non-fluent readers read what functions for them like a translation. Fluent readers read questions followed by reactions followed by answers and they are all integral to the story.

Unlike Don Walker and orchestrating the Carousel Waltz, this is probably not the hardest thing I ever had to do. It does takes time and care, though, to avoid losing anyone along the way. Like Golden Child, Ch’inglish, and Children of a Lesser God, taking this time and care allows me to create characters, establish situations, and tell stories that would be too difficult or impossible some other way.

Much has been made these days of how one carries along those who don’t understand all the language used in a story. As I hope these examples have made clear, though, the focus ought to be on those who do. Present to them a rich, satisfying experience and a wide variety people will understand and, I hope, enjoy the story.

Now, it’s not quite as simple as just this. “The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere” also spends time integrating the reader into its version of a slice of the Chinese-American immigrant experience. This is something that, for example, makes a Chinese translation of this story a challenging task. A version aimed at Chinese readers may need different things explained.

Still, if I’ve done my job right, I’ve told “The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere” to as many people as possible. And I’ve done it not by treating the use of Chinese as this optional extra, but as an element integral to the work.


About the author: John Chu designs microprocessors by day. He writes fiction, narrates for podcasts, and translates fiction from Chinese into English by night. His stories have been published or is forthcoming in Boston Review, Asimov’s Science Fiction, Apex, and Tor.com among others. His story “The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere” has been nominated for the 2014 Hugo Award for Best Short Story.


  • Greg
    June 17, 2014 at 12:13 pm

    “Motherfuckers will read a book that’s one-third Elvish, but put two sentences in Spanish and they [white people] think we’re taking over.”

    Elves dont set off their alarms because elves are invariably white.

  • Justine
    June 17, 2014 at 3:31 pm

    I don’t know who to contact at Tor, so I’ll just comment here that my Kindle version “The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere” is incorrectly printed: “[Gohng gohng] means husband’s mother and [poe poe] means husband’s father.” The browser version at Tor.com is correctly printed: “[Poe poe] means husband’s mother and [gohng gohng] means husband’s father.”

  • hapax
    June 18, 2014 at 2:49 pm

    As a huge language nerd (and no, I don’t understand a word of Chinese) I really loved this essay.

    I still remember being told that “You must never write a story containing dialect” when the story in question was set in the rural deep South, and the different speech patterns and pronunciations between the races and between those characters who were raised there, those who had moved there but had lived there long enough to mimic that dialect, and those who had moved there but refused to adopt the dialect, was not just an affectation but central to the story.

    It might not have been a very good story (looking back, it probably wasn’t), but without including all those different dialects, it wasn’t a story at all.

    And I do think that the Chinese in “The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere” is integral to the story. It was essential to conveying the inclusion / alienation of both of the main characters at different parts of the story.

    P.S. THANK YOU for the recognition that the-story-as-read (that is, the story that is negotiated somewhere between the text on the page and the reader’s brain) is as important and as “real” as the-story-as-written.

    I don’t want to wave any “Death of the Author” banners, since I think the concept is widely misunderstood and I don’t altogether agree with it, but it is a rare pleasure to hear an author argue that the audience is necessary for the narrative’s existence.

  • F.J. Bergmann
    June 20, 2014 at 11:45 am

    Loved this: “a story that makes use of dialect or foreign language must be compelling either way.” I enjoy being able to understand bits in the few non-English languages I can translate, but hate it when a seemingly integral part of the work is untranslatable. Effin’ Ezra Pound … And don’t get me started on the iniquities perpetrated by those who use Babelfish to “add authenticity” with chunks of ostensible dialogue in a language they don’t know at all.

  • bluestgirl
    June 20, 2014 at 12:27 pm

    Wonderful, thoughtful exploration. This subject is close to my heart, as someone who has spent many hours surrounded by people speaking over and around me in a language that my mother speaks but my father did not want me to learn.

  • SL Huang
    June 22, 2014 at 1:10 am

    This essay is utterly fantastic.

  • OMEC: Discuss Firefly with SL Huang – The Dream Foundry
    August 8, 2019 at 12:00 pm

    […] There’s a fantastic essay by Hugo-winning writer John Chu about using non-English languages in English-language fiction. I come back to it every time I include multiple languages in a piece. John details the challenge of how “nonfluent readers must never feel as though something is missing but fluent readers must never feel as though anything is extraneous.” […]

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