Unlikely Influences: What Arkady Martine learned about writing from translating medieval languages

Unlikely Influences is a series of weekly blog posts about how science fiction and fantasy writers can learn the tricks of their trade in odd places. Most are from guest authors, but I’ll pop in from time to time too.

This week’s installment is by Arkady Martine.

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What I learned about writing from translating medieval languages

By Arkady Martine

The most intellectually difficult thing I’ve ever done – worse, in some specific and intense ways, than writing my PhD dissertation, which I would manage to complete about a year afterward – was sitting the Master of Studies exams in Classical Armenian at Oxford University.

I sat them in an enormous room in a building called the Examination Schools, along with several hundred other students being examined on a plethora of degrees. I had engineers to the left of me and music theorists to the right, and I was alone, sans dictionary – such crutches are forbidden – with a passage from an eleventh-century Armenian’s epistolary collection, three hours of time, and blank paper. I’d gotten myself into it. I’d run away from my PhD program in the U.S. to spend a year learning to read these particular texts, and here one was, on the exam, waiting for me. It was horrific.

There’s an echo of that horror in every blank document that I need to turn into a story. Me, the clock, and the command to render something inchoate into intelligibility. And every time, I think, at least it’s not going to have Greek calques and I know all the vocabulary. Small mercies. But mercy isn’t what I learned about writing from being a historian and a dilettante philologist. (If only!) What I’ve learned from spending my day job translating medieval Greek and classical Armenian is microstructure.

Sentence-level structure. Rhetorical tropes. Encoded connotative meanings. A tendency toward employing rising, intensifying, tripartite clauses –

Enough of that.

Translating a medieval language is qualitatively different from learning to speak a living one. Fluency is measured differently: in the ability to understand the functional grammar employed by the author, and in the ability of the translator to convey that functionality in English – while still preserving both good sense and euphony. I’ve been translating Greek since I was eighteen, and I am still not all that good at conveying functional grammar in beautiful English.

Here’s an example, from one of those texts that showed up in my Oxford examinations (the translation’s mine):

To the Amir Ibrahim, concerning faith, from Grigor son of Vasak, saying:

I know, via your good mind and from your curious inquiry, of your zealous desire and its eagerness-provoked longing – oh Emir, surnamed Abraham, descended from Abraham’s people through the offspring of Ishmael, a people made-for-ruling —

Sometime in the third decade of the eleventh century, a hellenophile Armenian Christian prince named Grigor Pahlavuni began a letter to the Muslim emir whose territory bordered his with these words: praising his curious mind, flattering the coincidence of his name, and then implying, in a single word, that his ancestry was simultaneously powerful in the present and forever subordinate by nature. A people made for ruling, Grigor says of the offspring of Ishmael: a people who rule, and a people made to be ruled over. It’s a better pun in Classical Armenian. It’s only one word; a participial adjective, agreeing in number and case with people.

Here’s the trick of it: the translator can read either meaning. Both are equally present in the text, because Classical Armenian does not distinguish between the passive and active participial forms of the verb to rule. The word, and the meaning of it, exist in a liminal position – the people are simultaneously made for being ruled and made for ruling. It’s not a mistake. Grigor knew what he was doing – he’s invoking both registers of meaning simultaneously. He offers a political sop to his interlocutor – who is, after all, an emir, who received his authority from the Abbasid caliph in Baghdad – and at the same time places himself and his own (Christian Armenian) people in a position of superiority over Ibrahim, and grounds that superiority in the ancient authority of the Biblical prophets.

The reader of Classical Armenian holds both options of interpretation simultaneously. The translator into English needs to somehow invoke both options without the convenience of declinable, multiplicitious participial forms. When I work on translation projects, I become hyper-conscious of the weight of single words; of the nuances between different English synonyms (none of which correspond precisely to the original Armenian or Greek, of course – and neither Armenian nor Greek is my native language, so how am I to judge nuance correctly?); and, especially, of the use of minute inflections of language to convey setting, background, voice, and character.

Grigor Pahlavuni chose to employ a verb form which can be read as simultaneously passive and active, to convey his knowledge of a political situation and his personal opinion, and to display his own linguistic skill (Grigor, I have learned after writing a good third of my PhD on the man, likes showing off). I, translating him, am exquisitely aware of how voice and word choice demonstrate his character, and how I must work to preserve that character when choosing what words will represent his in English.

And if I take that much care with Grigor, I ought to take that much care with the characters I invent, when I leave off being a historian and take up being a writer for the day. The same principles apply – narrow, complex choices in the microstructure of language convey setting, character, and background.

Being a historian has made me interested in writing richly plotted political stories; but being a philologist has made me pay attention to how sentence structure and single words can create entire characters, and how character voice can reveal worlds.

Arkady Martine is a speculative fiction writer and a Byzantine historian. Her story “City of Salt” was recently published at Strange Horizons. Website: arkadymartine.wordpress.com Twitter: @ArkadyMartine