An Experiment in Immersive Storytelling
Behind the Scenes:
Languages, and a Friendly Coincidence
Italian, Slovenian, Latin, English, and Nonfluent English.
That's a list of languages I needed to make Absolution happen. The story required it—at least, the story as I wrote it. I don't speak Italian, Slovenian, or Latin. Of course, you didn't see Latin in the story—more on this below.
I'm a native English speaker with enough Japanese language ability to hold an everyday conversation. But the story wasn't set in Japan, and critical portions of it needed to be in languages related to the main character, Zarina's family history. Otherwise, it wouldn't have that personal connection. Unless I wanted to change a massive part of the story and figure out another way to set up a personal connection with Zarina, I needed to figure out how to fake languages.
I didn't have many tools at my disposal without tracking down professionals and paying for translations. I'll admit that I briefly thought about it but quickly discarded the idea because 1) it's expensive and 2) there's no way I would be able to quality check their work.
Perhaps we had better start from the beginning. I've mentioned this before, but when one undertakes storytelling, one should always consider the audience. In my case: Zarina was both the audience and main character. I knew going into this that she likely had reasonable access to fully understand anything in Italian because half her family is Italian. There's a danger there, too, because if I messed up the Italian and she knew it, it could break the immersion. But, I also knew that she was a good sport, and even if she spotted strange Italian things, she wouldn't pick them apart. This whole thing saved me from figuring out how to find someone who spoke 17th-century Italian and then convincing them to translate a bunch of creepy, fake journal entries for me.
It gets a bit more complicated than that, though, to be fully historically accurate. Italy has an interesting history regarding languages, and what we know as Italian now wasn't really used until the somewhat recent past. In fact, it didn't even exist before around the 14th century. What we know of as Italian originally developed in central Tuscany. It was first formalized in the early 14th century by works of Tuscan writer Dante Alighieri, written in his native Florentine. The use of Italian grew in the 15th century, and when the printing press was invented, the language had a bit of an explosion in growth. It eventually came to be used in courts, and the issue became one of politics in the 16th century as a debate raged on about precisely how (or if) the governing bodies should be involved in the establishment of a modern Italian literary and spoken language. And, there wasn't just one "Italian"—at least four different versions developed and were still in common use until the end of the 19th century.
Fascinating. And I just scratched the surface there.
At the time of the Absolution story, Giovanni Rosiello likely would have learned to speak, read, and write at least one of the versions of Italian floating about. However, as a member and leader of the church, he probably would have kept his own journal written in Latin. So, knowing this, why didn't I present Giovanni's journal in Latin to Zarina?
Learn to pronounce
1. the appearance of being true or real.
2. "the detail gives the novel some verisimilitude"
I only needed the appearance of reality, not complete authenticity. Besides, it's way simpler for a person to figure out the meaning of something written in Italian than in Latin. The translation tools are much more reliable, especially if it's modern Italian and not 17th-century Italian. So, if Zarina wanted to translate Italian herself, she could. Latin, though? Much more difficult.
As a writer, there are just some things you have to let go of because, as it turns out, your own research very likely puts you into a tiny percentage of people with deep knowledge about a particular subject—like when and where Italian vs. Latin was used in the Catholic church during the 17th-century. Giovanni kept a journal in modern-ish Italian. It's as simple as that.
At this point, you may be wondering how I actually translated it into Italian.
Again, it only had to be good enough for Zarina to suspend her disbelief for a while. I wasn't trying to forge a 17th-century journal and sell it to a museum.
If you happen to speak Slovenian, you may have noticed that some of it in Absolution is remarkably good, and other parts aren't so great. Sometimes in writing, coincidences come into play and make your life much easier. In this case, I just so happened to have a friend named Katja who spoke Slovenian. Her family is from Slovenia, and when I asked her if she'd translate something for me, she was more than happy to help. I told her what I was doing, the idea of Absolution, and she was excited to be a part of it. Katja didn't translate everything for me, though, and I took on some of the more minor or less important aspects of Slovenian parts and ran them through Google Translate.
That was easy.
"How you know I am not from USA?"
If you're a native English speaker and read that sentence, you immediately understand it's from a non-native nonfluent English speaker. What kind of accent did you assign that sentence?
I grew up speaking English and Spanish, but I'm decades out of practice with Spanish. As an adult, I have friends who come from all over the world and speak a wide variety of languages. About half of my family are native English speakers, and the other half are native Spanish speakers, and still others in my family speak Muscogee, but almost none of them learned it as their first language. Needless to say, I have a very clear understanding that English isn't the only language in existence and that non-native speakers of any language have little oddities that are incredibly difficult to learn but come naturally to native speakers.
Growing up in the American South, I can tell you with absolute certainty that some of the dialects there are so different from "standard American English" that they come across as complete gibberish to the average English speaker. Throughout my life, I’ve learned a lot about the type of mistakes non-native English speakers make compared to native English speakers. I took that knowledge and tried to build in a reasonable amount of those mistakes in the language used by the character Delilah, as well as touches of it in other parts—all, hopefully, without being too heavy-handed with it. It's all for more believability of the characters and the story world.
For anyone reading this who speaks Italian, Slovenian, or is exceptionally knowledgeable in Latin language history, you'll have to excuse any errors you find. But, if you do happen across any, I'd love to know what they are out of sheer curiosity. While I won't change the story because it represents what actually happened, I will add notes here if anyone finds translation oddities.