Thursday, June 27, 2024

Language in Historical Fiction

I've just finished watching Season Four of THE CHOSEN, the streaming series about Jesus and his followers. (It seems likely the title refers to the latter.) I find it captivating, although naturally it's not perfect. In the first season, the Roman soldiers sometimes act like the Gestapo in a Nazi-occupied country, whereas from what I've read, the Roman occupation was more like the British Raj in India. The Pharisees are portrayed as if they wielded official authority, when in fact they were a self-appointed religious-political pressure group promoting strict observance of the Law. What the series brings to mind for me at the moment, though, are linguistic issues. How should characters in a historical novel or film talk in order to seem approachable by modern audiences yet also quasi-authentic or at least not blatantly anachronistic?

If a historical person's speech includes jarringly contemporary slang -- unless it's humorously meant as parody, of course -- it throws the reader or viewer out of the story. On the other hand, characters who speak "forsoothly" can feel emotionally distant rather than engaging. Worse, some writers have a tenuous grasp of archaic language and season their texts with random peppering of "thee," "-est," "-eth," etc., with no regard for the actual grammar of premodern English. Obsolete words can lend the narrative an authentic flavor but, if the meanings aren't obvious from context, may confuse the reader. I admire the way Chelsea Quinn Yarbro's Count Saint-Germain novels refer to clothing and some other everyday items by the terms used in the respective historical periods rather than substituting modern approximations. But, then, Yarbro is an expert with many decades of experience, and even so, I'm not always certain what a particular article of clothing looks like; her skill, fortunately, always gives the reader enough to go on with.

Then there's the issue of narrative and dialogue meant to be understood as translating from a foreign language. Some old war movies show enemy soldiers speaking with German accents, as if they're foreigners to themselves. The new miniseries adaptation of SHOGUN makes the bold decision to have Japanese dialogue spoken in that language with English subtitles, immersively realistic but rather demanding on the audience. The filmmakers do give us a rest by letting the European characters talk to each other in English when they're presumably speaking Portuguese. In my opinion, THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER made an excellent choice with scenes on the Russian submarine. For the first few minutes, the actors speak Russian with subtitles. Then we have a conversation when the captain (Sean Connery) is reading aloud from a book written in English. His spoken dialogue segues from Russian into English, and thereafter Russians talking among themselves do so in English "translation." When foreign languages in historical fiction are "translated" into English, as in most novels and movies, it seems appropriate to render casual speech from the supposed original language into colloquial modern English rather than making the characters talk in an unrealistically stilted, formal style. With one precaution -- the writer should take scrupulous care to avoid anachronistic references, such as metaphors based on technology that didn't exist in the particular past era, e.g., "like a broken record" before the 20th century. But how far should the dialogue go in the direction of informality to be accessible without the intrusion of jarringly modern slang?

I'm ambivalent about the way THE CHOSEN handles that question. Mostly I like the casual, colloquial dialogue, but sometimes the characters use trendy phrases that I think make them sound too much like contemporaries of our Gen-X children. I don't object to words such as "okay," though. That's been around since before the mid-19th century. As for accents, it puzzles me that the locals speak with what I guess is meant to be a Middle Eastern accent, again as if they're foreigners to themselves. Logically, the Jewish characters should speak unaccented English and the Romans, as the outsiders, should have an accent -- maybe a hint of Italian? I winced, by the way, when a Roman soldier stumbles over the name "Peter." It's Greek, the common language of the eastern Roman empire; of course he would know it means "rock"! (Furthermore, for maximum realism the disciples should address Peter by the Aramaic word for rock, Cephas.)

The regional and class issue should also be taken into account, in my opinion. Dorothy Sayers, in the introduction to her radio play cycle THE MAN BORN TO BE KING, discusses accents in this context. Should Jesus and his disciples speak more correctly than the working-class people around them, as if the disciples weren't part of the same population? Jesus and his mother need to share the same accent, but would it make sense to have them talk differently from his followers? Sayers also brings up and dismisses the complication of regional dialects. THE CHOSEN doesn't allow for that, either. I wish they'd taken into account the fact that Jesus, his mother, and several of the disciples come from Galilee. Since inhabitants of that area were considered uncouth by people from around Jerusalem, the dialogue should reflect that difference. I'd like Jesus, Peter, et al to have a distinct regional accent, maybe a tinge of Scottish or Irish, something I've never seen in any film version of the Gospel story. I wonder how THE CHOSEN will handle the moment during Peter's denial scene when a bystander recognizes him as a disciple by his Galilean accent?

Writers of fiction set in past eras or foreign cultures need to strike a delicate balance between annoying purists and baffling casual readers.

Margaret L. Carter

Please explore love among the monsters at Carter's Crypt.

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