A Friday link: The power of (mis)translation

[Here’s the link]

One of the blogs I follow is A Book of Creatures, which regularly introduces cryptids (animals that someone has said exist… that probably or definitely don’t in reality) from around the world. Many of these would make excellent fodder for a fantasy TTRPG bestiary.

The one I want to highlight today is a comment on how much of our world is shaped by translation: an elephant that was morphed over time, through ignorance and error, into a Scandinavian sea beast named the “sahab.”

This sort of drift is hardly novel. The same sort of process is what took “wild oxen” and “young women” in Tanakh, and mutated them into “unicorns” and “virgins” in certain Christian bibles, among many other issues. The same sort of thing is supposedly responsible for the atomic bombing of two Japanese cities at the end of WWII. Our primary lesson is that translation is serious business and that you need to be careful when interpreting or writing a text.

The far less important lesson is that if you want to invent a fantasy monster, instead of just slapping together parts and traits from the real world or re-adapting folklore tropes, you can always try a little creative mistranslation. Pull an animal’s description from a dictionary, or a paragraph about it from an encyclopedia, and guess at how it might be warped by human error and time.

If you’re polyglot, all the better. Start with a text in your weaker language and translate the text into your strongest language off of the top of your head, without checking any words. If you run across a potential pun or a phrase that could be misinterpreted somehow, make a point of erring. Read the description out loud to a child, have them draw a picture of it, and then re-describe the picture as if it were a new animal that you’d just seen for the first time. Trim off the rough edges as necessary to make a proper fantasy beast or cryptid, and you’re set!

About Confanity

I love the written word more than anything else I've had the chance to work with. I'm back in the States from Japan for grad school, but still studying Japanese with the hope of becoming a translator -- or writer, or even teacher -- as long as it's something language-related.
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1 Response to A Friday link: The power of (mis)translation

  1. Cornelius Featherjaw says:

    If you aren’t a polyglot, you could try running it through Google Translate a few times. Human error pales in comparison to the horrors machine translation has wrought. I love Google Translate.

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