Translation Convention Trouble — Old & Middle English

Translation convention is a great device and I love it (and use it) to bits. But sometimes it just causes issues. So — something of a language rant incoming 🙂

Both in the webcomic and in prose, I use English to represent the PoV language. Both Bereghins and Halcians in At War’s Edge appear to be speaking English, though of course neither of them are. (I’m still working out what I’m gonna do when some of them finally meet face to face).

I’m also writing a novel set purely in Bereg, and I just got to a scene where Bereghin-speaking characters meet an elf. The elf, as it happens, is fluent in Bereghin. Or, rather, he used to be fluent in Bereghin about seven centuries ago.

Thing is, I think of Bereghin as a language evolved from Proto-Slavic but not directly corresponding to any modern Slavic language. (When I get around to using any actual Bereghin, it ends up a weird mix of Russian and Polish. With some Proto-Slavic thrown in and distorted for convenience. Alas, I’m a language nerd but no linguist). 

Now, because one of my two primary languages is Russian, I also tend to think of Bereghins as speaking Russian and Halcians as speaking English. Which, again, is not what they’re actually speaking, but it’s a convenient shortcut for me.

So, at the plotting stage, I figured that my elf with his Old Bereghin sounds to my characters like someone speaking Old East Slavic would sound to someone speaking modern Russian. Which is to say — they understand about half of what the other is saying, and might need a dictionary to work out the finer details, but they’re kinda-sorta communicating. I built my plot on that assumption, anticipating all sorts of fun with language and miscommunication.

Except, of course, the story is written in English, where English, as per translation convention, represents Bereghin, and so Old Bereghin should be represented by… Old English, right?

Haha. Turns out, “who are you” in Old English is “hwa beoth ge” (or “hwa bist thu” if singular). I could as well use Old East Slavic for all the meaning that conveys to an English speaker. There’s no way for the characters to communicate on page using these languages.

Alright then, I thought. Let’s use Middle English. That’s gotta be closer, yes?

And, oh yes, it’s closer. “Who are you” is “who be ye”, and “knight” is “knyght” and “yesterday” is “yesterday”. It is, in fact, so close, that… it seems to create no language barrier at all.

I mean, I’m not saying that Sir Gawain and the Green Knight or The Canterbury Tales are perfectly readable to a modern audience, but then again they’re both poems. When it comes down to short sentences and everyday words, Middle English looks a lot like modern English with a few spelling quirks.

So, on one hand, I wasn’t getting enough of a language barrier for my plot, and, on the other, when I checked the pronunciation, it turned out that spoken Middle English is not intelligible whatsoever. For example, every single letter in the word “knyght” is actually voiced, so it sounds vaguely like German “Knecht”. To my readers who don’t know how to pronounce Middle English (which I’m gonna guess is the overwhelming majority of them), Old Bereghin would be way too understandable, and those few who do know how to pronounce it would never believe that any communication is possible at all. 

Gotta love language history, eh?

So now I’m trying to decide between

  1. giving up on the entire mixed-language dialogue thing and just using either Old English or Old East Slavic for a few random words thrown in for flavour, or
  2. somehow mixing Old English with Middle English to create something borderline readable that doesn’t, however, correspond to any real-life language and translation convention be damned.

Choices, choices.

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