Kill the Babelfish

A stimulating and intensely interesting discussion of the problem of languages and universal translators in fictional settings.

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Universal translators are quite possibly the laziest deus ex machina out there. Honestly, even hand-waving some kind of superpower to understand all forms of communication has more merit behind it, but universal translators in all shapes and sizes are everywhere, and I really, really wish they weren’t.

On the other hand, though, I understand fully and completely why they are as prolific as they are: no one speaks a million fictional languages.

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From the mouths of babes

Because I’m giving the whole NaNo thing a serious effort this year, I’ve wrestled my introverted hide over to the coffee shop at the end of the block for tonight’s scheduled write-in.

This is the face of an author plotting mischief against her characters. (It's also the face of a person using Instagram filters to hide her lingering disfigurations from last month's tumble.)

This is the face of an author plotting mischief against her characters. (It’s also the face of a person using Instagram filters to hide her lingering disfigurations from last month’s tumble.)

There are three young people sitting at the table next to mine. One of them is trying to draw while the other two keep asking him questions.

“What do you like to draw?” one of the girls said, peering over his sketchpad.

He sighed in that particular teenaged way we all know and replied, in a perfect deadpan, “What does a fisherman like to fish?”

Not only did that fluster the girl so much she had no idea how to keep pestering him, but it is also such an amazing response that I think I’ll be stealing it the next time I get frustrated because someone asks me what I like to write when they can see perfectly well that I’m trying to actually write.

It’s NaNoWriMo for the first time

It’s November, which means it’s time for those so insanely inclined to churn out a 50,000-word novel in 30 days in the name of arting like a motherfucker. In years past, I learned that November is my own personal novel-less month and that signing up for NaNo is only ever a sure path to disappointment and self-loathing.

However, THIS YEAR is different. All of the things that have traditionally demanded my time and attention in November are no longer a factor. On top of that, I’ve got the full support of the people I live with, which is a new and exciting condition for me.

In other words, LET’S DO THIS.

As a novelist, I’m somewhere on the Pantser end of the writing style spectrum, with only very slight Architect tendencies. Which is to say, I’ll come up with a few ideas about the general structure, and hope that all of the details fill themselves in as I go. The fact that I’ve never hit 50K by November 30th might be related to this approach in some way, but I concede nothing. When I make too solid a plan, I find my creativity constrained by its boundaries to the point of immobility. There’s a sweet spot somewhere in the middle, and sometimes that boundary has to be renegotiated on a chapter-by-chapter basis. The real problem with NaNo is having only 30 days in which to perform these negotiations.

How do you novel?

What I Wish Everyone Knew About Sylvia Plath

“For Sylvia, writing a poem was like solving a puzzle – it meant turning it this way and that way, trying to fit the words together just right. She was dogged about it. Once a project was started, she wouldn’t or couldn’t give up on it. One thing that Ted Hughes wrote about her has always stuck with me:

“‘To my knowledge, [Plath] never scrapped any of her poetic efforts. With one or two exceptions, she brought every piece she worked on to some final form acceptable to her, rejecting at most the odd verse, or a false head or a false tail. Her attitude to her verse was artisan-like: if she couldn’t get a table out of the material, she was quite happy to get a chair, or even a toy. The end product for her was not so much a successful poem, as something that had temporarily exhausted her ingenuity.’

“I think about this quote a lot. Whenever I am in the middle of working on something and I am angry and frustrated because it’s not going the way I want, I stop and ask myself, ‘If this is not going to be a table, can it be a chair instead?'”

The Belle Jar

Today is Sylvia Plath’s birthday. She would have been 83 years old today. Maybe in an alternate reality she’s living in a cottage somewhere at the edge of the cold, grey Atlantic where she paints and writes and keeps a hive or two full of bees. Or maybe that’s what the afterlife looks like for her, not that she believed in an afterlife. Is it wrong to wish something on someone if they don’t believe in it? Probably.

You don’t have to be much of a detective to figure out that I love Sylvia Plath. My blog is named after her only novel. I have an embroidered portrait of her on my dining room wall. I even have a necklace with a tiny gold inscription of that old brag of her heart: I am. I am. I am. I’m obviously a pretty big fan.

But I’m a fan for different reasons than you…

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