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Please close the door and switch on the fun without fail.

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Toil and trouble
msauvage purple
So. Writing update. That scene I had lost--I had tried to recreate it from memory. Turns out I ended up with an opposite take on how one character reacted, so after I found the original (like I said: Windows Explorer can't locate something you didn't type up), I realized that I had two opposing takes to reconcile. Which is fine; I just have to decide which works better. I have no problem writing out a scene in as many different ways as it takes to find one that works. I don't feel like the story exists, concretely, unchangeably, once you write it down, so I don't have a problem playing with different versions. I just have to sit down and figure it out now. It's a really interesting (to me) scene, so it's fun.

I'm skipping around at the moment because that's just how I always roll I'm trying to type up all my handwritten notes and drafts. I think the next bit I type up is going to be about the Chinese apothecary. I did what research I could on the Limehouse/Pennyfields area, while also looking into stereotypes so I can work against those. Does that make sense? To learn about the popular conception of the area vs. what it was actually like? Something like that. Burke's Limehouse Nights is really useful for background detail, if you can stomach the constant and horrific racism--it's the location detail he takes for granted that's the most useful. And if you want to learn about offensive Chinese stereotypes of the 1800s, well, Limehouse Nights is your one-stop racism shop. (Well, to be fair: to get your dime-novel crime genius, you're going to have to stop at Sax Rohmer's on the way home.) There are a lot of really awful attitudes in Victorian literature as a whole, but you have to be aware of them in the first place in order to avoid or subvert them. And what your characters are like and how others treat those characters are two different things. On top of that, even "good" characters can have unpleasant attitudes--at first; they wouldn't be admirable if they didn't grow beyond that. But I do think it's unrealistic to have historical protagonists with a full set of socially progressive 21st-century attitudes right out of the box. You've got to find a way to balance realism for the period with what we expect of people now. My feeling is that the best way to do that is start wherever you have to, and use the extraordinary experiences of the story--literally, "beyond the ordinary," because that's why you're telling this story instead of someone else's--to have them learn things about the world that maybe other people don't. Does this make any sense? Because it's important to me to get this kind of thing right, to avoid hurtful implications or bad messages for readers, but be realistic about how enlightened this or that character, varying by person, could possibly be in 1889.

Talking about this is one of those moments where I want to give up in terror.

Another thing I wanted was for the Chinese apothecary, who speaks some English, but not very well, to make mistakes based on Chinese grammar. (His daughter translates for him when necessary.) Like, when I try to speak Spanish and I'm not sure what to say, I revert to the English order of subjects and verbs and adverbs; I'm not fluent enough to think in Spanish. (I do a little better in French, but that's possibly because of the Norman influence on English.) Now, my understanding is that "Chinese only has one basic form, used for every person and tense," and additional phrases specify who and when. So rather than have really terrible stereotypical gibberish, you sit there and think, what does he want to say in Chinese, and how would he translate that directly, if incorrectly, to English?

I also figured out which particular dialect of Chinese he would speak, based on where he lives, which in turn suggests where he immigrated from. (And which suggests what kind of food he and his daughter would cook, which was something I was too dense to realize immediately.) I also realized that Wade-Giles romanization was used from the mid-19th century until 1958, when pinyin was approved, so I'm going to need to use that instead of modern romanization. And there's a character in a different part of town who speaks a different dialect--I've lost where in my notes I figured this out, but based on notes I subsequently took, it looks like my apothecary should be from Shanghai, thus speaking the Shanghainese dialect of Wu Chinese (and possibly Mandarin as a lingua franca), whereas the other character speaks Cantonese. And many of these dialects are "mutually unintelligible," so this isn't something I can just guess on my own with a Chinese-to-English dictionary. (Which is always a bad idea anyway, regardless of the language.) Basically, I have found out enough to get myself into trouble, and I'm going to have to find someone to consult on this. Possibly a linguistics professor. These are actually supporting characters, not the primary protagonists, but you see them throughout the first novel and then the daughter becomes important, so... I have to get it right.

But I'm at a point where I can't grind to a halt and figure out the specific translations just yet. I can write the dialogue in English italics when the POV character understands it, and possibly keep a lot of it that way--which might be easier for readers anyway--but if I use any Chinese at all, I'm going to have to confirm it with someone. Later. I've done enough research (and no, not just on Wikipedia) to know what I don't know, which is the important thing at this point, I guess.

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I got that it's complicated; what I didn't know (until now) was just how complicated it was!

I'm not very wordy tonight, but: *cheers you on* Please don't give up in terror! You can do it! *\o/*

That sounds really cool!

Linguistic professors aside, I'd recommend hitting up second-generation Chinese-Canadians/Chinese-Americans and asking about speech quirks their older relatives slip into.

I absolutely adore the degree of care you're putting in to this. It means a lot that you hold the story, the characters and the reader in such high esteem that you're going to these great lengths to get things right.

These sorts of novels aren't usually my cup of tea, but I will definitely be reading this. You are so AWESOME.

I second this. Research (for me) is always a pain in the ass, but it really does help the quality of the story in so many ways.

From the sounds of it, it sounds like the ball really is moving. Good luck with everything!

If you want to know common spoken errors by people speaking fluent Chinese then oh man I can totally tell you. I have to edit all the emails for the Chinese company I work for.
Also, DON'T GIVE UP! ^_^

Oh, awesome. I love how much thought you're putting into this! It's so irritating to read something that's supposed to be historical fiction and see characters saying "okay" (seriously, WTF?) or espousing racial and gender equality, which is of course a good thing but seriously? That's not how people thought back then.

While I don't think "okay" was as popular in Victorian times as it is now, apparently it's been in use since 1790!

Dialects are a spoken thing, and yes, people don't always understand someone with a different dialect. The written language (ie: written Mandarin Chinese) is always the same though, regardless of whatever dialect the person is speaking.

So everyone who can read Mandarin, can read the same Chinese newspaper, for instance, regardless of their dialect. It's just that when they read it aloud, it'll potentially sound very different in different dialects. For instance, if I were reading out the word "eat" in Mandarin, it would be "chi1". But I were reading the same word out in the Hokkien dialect, it would be "jia4", and in Cantonese, I think it would be "sik6". (I bascially had this same conversation with a British and another Chinese, Cantonese-speaking friend, where the 2 of us were trying to explain to our British friend about the differences between the dialects.)

But, the written character is the same no matter how you pronounce it. The grammer is the same as well. So techincally, if you want both Chinese characters to communicate, and they are literate enough to read and write (note that not everyone would be! Some people could speak dialect, for instance, but not write, or read), they could always write down what they're trying to say to each other.

Hm. The thing is, all the scenes I'm thinking of involve spoken Chinese. But yeah, when it's a difference of dialects--the two characters from Shanghai and Canton--them writing things down could help. I think it is a matter of spoken translation, though, when it's the father who only speaks some English and the hero who only speaks some Chinese. Which is where the daughter who speaks both comes in.

I can't even articulate how much this book sounds like PRECISELY MY KIND OF THING. Just listening to you describe your research and writing process is awesome.

For the thing about Chinese to English mistakes, yes, expect difficulties conjugating verbs, because there is no verb conjugation in Chinese.

So for instance:

"Have you eaten?" would be: "Ni3 [You] chi1 [eat] fan4 [rice] le4 [already] mei2 you3 [or not]?"

See, that right there is incredibly helpful to me, just knowing that "Have you eaten?" would come out as "You eat rice already or not?" Honestly, that kind of "translated" English diction might be more crucial than trying to nail down a dialect most readers can't understand anyway. You want what you do use to be correct, but in the end, you have to look at what's most useful to the reader, I guess.

You could do what Terry Pratchett did in Jingo: Write the languages the POV characters don't understand in a different font and switch between them.

Heh. You say that like it hasn't already crossed my mind.

Oh my God, I know where you're coming from when it comes to racism and how to portray it. I'm trying to write something based in the future, but in an England that's become far more racist than today's England, and it's hard to write that without making your characters sound like horrible people or your book sound like you think it's OK to hold those views.

With the language thing - can't you just write all the dialogue in English while you look for a native speaker of those dialogues then get them to help you out with correct idioms/translations later? I know that for me, that would be the easiest way to avoid getting stuck and therefore not writing anything. But most probably this is exactly what you are planning on doing!

I think my real fear is that people are going to freak out if they have to wait for the personal character growth regarding racism, because they can't read my mind, after all--they don't know that this character is going to feel differently two books from now. But you don't want to have a total After School Special at the end of the first one, either.

can't you just write all the dialogue in English while you look for a native speaker of those dialogues then get them to help you out with correct idioms/translations later?

Yeah, that's pretty much what I'm doing.

I think that if you are feeling really uncomfortable with the level of (realistic) racism, it wouldn't be a bad idea to put a forward or an afterward explaining about your research, that you don't think these kinds of ideas are ok, and that the characters live in a different historical moment. I've seen stuff like that before and always appreciated it.

The research you're doing on Chinese sounds fascinating -- that is always my favorite part of cross-cultural interactions in books and I get so disappointed when people cheap out on it (like, "These people from different places just magically understand each other!") Good luck with it!

I like the afterword (or foreword?) idea too. I've also just read a book with 19th century characters that think and act like 21st century characters and MY GOD IS THAT ANNOYING AND DISCONCERTING. I kept saying "REALLY? OH REALLY?" to the book. So yeah, you gotta make the characters earn the right to their liberalism.

As for the language thing, Elizabeth Peters had to deal with something similar in her books set in 19th century Egypt. For ancient Egyptian, she used the 19th century transliterations of names, like Khuenaten instead of Akhenaten, and as the series progressed into the 20th century she had her Egyptologist characters change to the modern spelling.

By the way tenebris reads this journal and might be someone to ask since she's a linguistics person, and ditto oxymoron67 of course.

The Sherlock Holmes story about the face in the window that turns out to be a little black girl in a mask (The Yellow Face) was always interesting to me because it's an example of an actual period non-racist as opposed to a person written to be in a certain period but with transplanted 21st century morals.

About researching immigrant nuances, when time comes to write them, can you put out notice at, say, a local college to see if anyone would go out for coffee and a chat about that particular ethnic background with you? I know it won't give you exactly what you're looking for (assuming no one locally is actually a Chinese immigrant to Victorian England, hooray for time-travellers), but... When I read books with badly researched Russian characters in them, I always think that all the author had to do was go looking in their local immigrant community for someone willing to give them two hours of their time. I would've in a heartbeat.

Heh. I get a similar feeling anytime I hear a really awful Southern accent in a movie.

I do wonder if there's really any substitute for that particular time and place in history, though. The university where my mother works has more of an international community than any other school in town, probably; she suggested that I talk to someone there.

Posting from work, pardon the quick response

Oh hey, I'm a linguistics professor...

Okay, actually, I just taught 101 for a while. But it's what I'm doing my PhD on, so let me see what I can offer. Chinese isn't my speciality, but hell, I've got friends who speak it, and I know some general resources. For instance, here's an archive of people of different accents reading the same English paragraph, with linguistic notation showing differences in pronunciation and what from the original dialect may influence their English. It's subdivided a couple of different ways, so you might be able to get a sample of something you'd like. It's all modern, but it's a good approximation. Tone is going to be important, and that's good to hear rather than read.

You may also want to look into "pidgins," which are trade languages that form between mutually unintelligible strands of communication. The word "pidgin" itself comes from one of these Chinese trade languages. There's a good chance they got documented, too, just for curiosity's sake, and it may give you a better flavor of the language at the time.

I sort of second talking to someone who knows Chinese...except for the fact that cultural attitudes are really influential on how people view their language and the languages around them, and I don't know how helpful that'll be. For instance, a friend in Singapore told me that calling it "Mandarin" confused her, because that designation is foreign to her--it's Chinese. The other ones get names; Chinese is Chinese is Chinese, so to speak, even though her mother speaks Shanghaiese. So. Something to take heed of.

Let me know if there's anything else I can help with :)

Re: Posting from work, pardon the quick response


except for the fact that cultural attitudes are really influential on how people view their language and the languages around them

This is why I was thinking of someone more like a professor, who knew the history of language as well--I mean, I'm a native speaker of English, but I wouldn't necessarily be able to help someone with correct Elizabethan English. My understanding is that there's a modern Shanghainese slang dialect as well... and I'd have to watch out and make sure I wasn't using that.

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Oh, that would be awesome, thanks. Let me come back to you when I have something specific to work with.

Do you have any good book recommendations on the Chinese language issue? I took a Modern China and Japan history class this last semester, and that came up in discussion with my professor when I was writing a paper on Shanghai, but he never found the book he had mentioned. (And I sold my textbook so I can no longer even recall when the date was that the Chinese government sort of disbanded all the localized dialects.) =/

I have nooooo ideaaaa. I mostly read up on various websites, to the point where I realized that I couldn't reliably do it on my own without actually starting to learn Chinese in two different romanized dialects. Another eight years would pass, and I'd still not be done writing this thing.