Translating into your created language

This is step 5 of our writer’s approach to language creation. It’s the funnest and the hardest part–actually getting your hands into a translation text and learning how language works.

First…setting expectations. Translating takes a really, really, really long time. It’ll be quicker the further on you go, but don’t expect to complete more than a few sentences every hour when you first get started. You’ll be spending a lot of time with the translation text you choose, so here are some thoughts on that important decision:

You might want to pick something shorter and easier so you can have the sense of accomplishment that comes from completing material. But you don’t necessarily want to pick something that’s too short and too easy. I don’t know about you, but I get bored quickly reading, say, children’s books! Plus, if your material is too simple, you won’t learn nearly as much about how sentences are put together. Don’t go trying to translate Godel, Escher, Bach right away, but I do think it’s beneficial to pick something that you are genuinely interested in to look at for the next 20 hours of work.

So what kind of materials are happy mediums between easy and fun? I can only speak for myself, but these are materials I gravitate to when I’m first translating:

  • Songs and poetry. This might seem surprising, because non-prose forms have such unusual formats. But actually, it can free you to some extent from being trapped in English’s word orders, and the phrases are usually already “chunked” up nice and easy for you, even if the word order is a bit weird. It’s just psychologically easier to focus on translating I know when that hotline bling, even if you have to furrow your brows a bit over how the hell you’re supposed to convey the sense of hotline and bling for an Age of Sails-era conlang based on Dutch, than to focus on translating It’s often interesting to think about how the culture you’re writing would express some of the concepts in songs and poetry….
  • A similar chunking consideration applies to materials that include lots of dialogue. Especially if you’re interested in developing your conlang’s pragmatics and discourse norms, a play or movie script could be interesting, and also typically gives you the chance to do some fun localization into the culture you’re conlanging for.
  • Try your own writing! You know what you meant when you wrote it, and a lot of people enjoy re-reading their own prose. Plus, you can engage with your characters and world at the same time as you engage with your conlang.

Once you’ve selected a text, what tactics can you use to make translation work easier? Chunking–I mean the process of separating out the parts of a sentence and handling them one by one–is going to be your number one helper. It can even help to physically print out a page so you can draw lines between the phrases of the sentence.

Sentences are made up of elements like noun phrases and verb phrases (a noun or verb and all its adverbs, adjectives, etc) and adpositional phrases that start with a preposition or end with a postposition and describe a location. Sentences and phrases can both be compound, connected by a conjunction like and, but, or yet in other ways. And soon you’re going to realize that there are a lot of confusing places to chop up your sentences, such as at relative clauses (as in the duck who was mayorand complement clauses (as in I think that this duck should be mayor).

When you first start translating, it’s going to mean putting into practice a lot of English grammar knowledge you might have only ever applied in theory, and learning about how linguistics conceptualizes these ideas so it can apply them to all types of languages. Don’t get discouraged if a sentence just seems to make no sense! As you research and get familiar with linguistics terms, you’ll soon find texts that looked impossibly complex resolve themselves, like a puzzle falling into place.

And getting familiar with English text in this way comes with a bonus–the clarity this gives to your analysis of your own writing can’t be overstated. It will help a ton to avoid common grammatical errors and make your writing more concise, sensical and vibrant.

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Making your own language: the word list

We made it all the way to step 4 of the writer’s approach to making your own language! Step 3 was a big one, so let’s take some deep breaths together, and keep that PDF open if you need to review.

Now it’s time to have some fun. What should be on your initial word list? This post will go over some recommendations if you’re not sure where to start. (Hello also to non-beginners–this post might also be useful if you’re thinking of starting a new language and want to approach lexicon generation systematically.)

You can, theoretically, just start with the very first word in your translation text. But this will create some problems for your language:

  • Some words tend to come in sets, and if you take them one by one, you can’t make nice sets.
  • Your word list (or lexicon) will be more sophisticated the more you avoid one-to-one correlation. One-to-one correlation is a danger of any method you use to make words for your language, but translation can be especially bad for this. (More detailed suggestions for this problem in a future post.)
  • You might not get to fun stuff for a while.
  • In a lot of sentences, the first word isn’t a “content word” but a “grammatical word”, so you might not even need it in your language. (e.g. many languages don’t say the it in “It rains.” That it means nothing.)

Here’s some stuff you could choose to do for your initial word list:

If you’ve gone through step 3, you should know how you’re going to handle your nouns and verbs. Doesn’t have to be too complex–it’s just so you have somewhere to start. If you have agglutinative or fusional paradigms, I recommend coming up with at least four or five different “test words” and running them through your paradigms. This test drive will ensure the paradigm you make is sturdy and doesn’t break if you put a noun in it that, say, ends with a vowel. I also often find that paradigms that sound good with the first noun I come up with sound awful with the third one and I decide to change them, so don’t be afraid to make sweeping changes to suit your aesthetic preferences.

You may have finished step 3 by creating your pronoun set. This is worth doing early; non-personal pronouns tend to be a tough part of speech for English speakers when they first tackle translation. The primary pronouns we discuss in step 3 are:

  • Personal (I, you, he/she/it, we, y’all, they)
  • Interrogative (what, where, when, who)
  • Indefinite (somebody, something, everywhere, nowhere)

The next step will be to start translating. Tips and tricks will be upcoming, but if you decide you’re good to go right now, best of luck! You should have all the tools you need to try your hand. There’s no minimum number of words you need to have in your word list before you start translating.

Or, since it’ll be a while until that post, we can have a little fun. What’s a semantic domain you’re interested in? To get a taste for how your language feels and sounds, and to test your ability to research words in your inspiration languages with tools like Wiktionary, you could try making a word list of, say, 10 words (this will be harder than you might think) from a domain that interests you. These are some classic semantic domains I often start with that are interesting cross-linguistically:

  • Family members
  • Colours
  • Body parts
  • Cursing
  • Sex and romance
  • Animals and plants (what animals and plants are in your region?)
  • Any traditional vocabulary your culture employs (knots? papermaking? animal husbandry?)
  • Words used as names, especially the names of your characters!
  • Words you can use to make place names