Takifugu sushi rhyming slang

POETRY

If you cook it, it tastes like fish…

ANATOMY OF A GHOTI

Fugu poem2

Open your ears. All we need to do is keep talking, and listening.

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Parlez-vous les kangourou?

ANSWERS TO CORRESPONDENTS

Is it possible to write animal language? This was a question asked directly of me on Quora, and it’s all down to interpretation. After all, no matter what anyone says, they have no control over how that message is received, but that’s a larger sphere for another discussion.

There’s a story (possibly apocryphal), of an explorer pointing to an animal he’d never seen before and asking a native what it was: “Kangaroo”. But ‘kangaroo’ simply meant ‘I don’t know.’ Do animals want to tell us something? All rabbits look like they have something on their mind, all the time. Is it possible to write animal language?

Apps for catsApps for cats

It’s something probably within near-reach of current technology, but while it remains theoretical, there’s always the fictional. Is it possible to write animal language(s)? I gave it a go, because someone had to let everyone know what the animals are thinking on this home world we all share. They were here first. It’s theirs, and we are only guests, with a moral responsibility to clean up our mess.

As this question was requested directly from me, I shan’t shy from mentioning my science fiction novel, which is central to my answers (it may be because I wrote that book that someone asked me specifically).

Cyrus Song has two main premises, and it’s a tribute to two people who’ve been influential on me in my literary and scientific lives: Douglas Adams and Stephen Hawking. It was the famous quote by the latter, sampled on Pink Floyd’s song ‘Keep Talking’: “For millions of years mankind lived just like the animals. Then something happened which unleashed the power of our imagination: We learned to talk…” Of course it refers to humans, but I turned it on its head and wondered what it would be like if we learned to talk with the animals. Incidentally, the alternative title to that Pink Floyd track is ‘Cyrus Song’, Cyrus being a name for our parent star, Sol.

Then I had Douglas Adams and his original invention of the universal translation device: the Babel fish, which eventually disproved God in The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I put that to use as a quantum computer program in Cyrus Song, to come up with a universal translation device for animals. Cyrus Song is clearly fiction, but my near-future sci-fi will always have a grounding in current science, at least scientific theory. I like to think my science fiction is plausible.

We already have universal translation, and can hear most human languages translated to our own as we speak through a device or algorithm. We’re on the verge of quantum computing and the vast power they represent, unimaginable in current computers. And we’re already setting AI to task on working out the really difficult questions we can’t yet answer, because our brains can’t process the huge amounts of data (a cure for cancer, the search for extraterrestrial life). With a greater human awareness of the other people we share a home with, humans are researching animal communication more (we know that much of what they say it outside our audible range, that whales and dolphins have incredibly complex languages, and that some animals can use a form of telepathy) and could yet build that tower of Babel.

I predict that something like the Babel fish could be with us in about five years, but for now it’s imagined as one possible answer to mankind’s biggest questions, of life, the universe and everything. I figured if we could talk to the animals, we might change.

I believe that humanity is at a pivotal evolutionary point, where we could equally save or destroy ourselves with the science and technology we’ve made. With the world seemingly just waiting for WW3, the only saviour I could see would be the sudden intervention of a common foe, to unite previously warring factions.

The same science and technology could take us to the stars, leaving this planet for those who were here before us. We have a lot of mess to clear up first, and for now we’re stuck here. So instead of a common foe, I see a common interest which we can all unite behind as one race, the human race. That’s our shared home. And when we look around, the answers we’re looking for are everywhere.

Is it possible to write animal languages? I did my best to interpret what I think they’d like us to know. If we take the time to listen, we might be better guests in their home.

Cyrus Song (with perfectly plausible answers to the questions of life, the universe and everything) is available now.

Deutsch sprechen? 99 Luftballons…

THE WRITER’S LIFE

99 Luft Balloon

BlenderArtists.org

I’m about one fifth of the way with writing my new book, which covers a lot of things, among them language and translation. In the book, my protagonist – Mr Fry – is searching for the answer to life, the universe and everything (aren’t we all?). We all know the answer is 42, but in order for an answer to make sense, we first need to make sure we ask the right questions: This is a point Douglas Adams made in The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy; and Cyrus Song is part Douglas Adams tribute.

In one Cyrus Song plot thread, Mr Fry is talking to animals, using a computer program called The Babel Fish: Clearly based on Douglas’ real fish in Hitch Hiker’s. Just like humans, animals speak in different languages. In another plot thread, our hero is contemplating what it might be like to speak to historical scientists, to see what they might make of life in the 21st century. Because finding answers which make sense, depends not only on how one poses the question, but to whom.

The book’s going well: Feedback from test readers is very good, and the actual writing process is a relatively smooth and fun one. It’s a book with a lot of deep messages but it’s also a sci-fi comedy tribute to one of my heroes. I’ve been compared to Douglas in the past, and to Roald Dahl, and Paul Auster. One magazine sub-editor compared me to Jane Austen, Enid Blighton, and Charles Dickens, all in one email. It’s all chronicled on this blog and I have documented proof filed away. It’s nice to know I can’t be pigeon-holed as a writer. But I suppose it would be difficult to categorise me, when I’ve won an award for a children’s story, and repulsed people with the beauty of COGS. But most of all, I’m a sci-fi writer. Cyrus Song is still on schedule for the end of the year, either self-published, or through an agent or mainstream publisher; depending on which suits me better. Getting the right agent or publisher vs. DIY is just the same as the question and answer thing above: If the correct questions are asked of the most appropriate partner, the answers will make more sense. Time and circumstance will dictate the publishing process of the book.

In a slightly tenuous link, one of my favourite songs of the 80s is an excellent example of how something can be totally different in another language: Of course it’s different; it’s in another language. But what I mean is, the meaning of a thing, in this case, a song, can lose much in translation. The song I’m referring to is 99 Red Balloons, by Nena. Most of us could sing an approximation of the English lyrics:

You and I in a little toy shop
Buy a bag of balloons with the money we’ve got
Set them free at the break of dawn
‘Til one by one they were gone
Back at base bugs in the software
Flash the message “something’s out there!”
Floating in the summer sky
Ninety-nine red balloons go by

Ninety-nine red balloons
Floating in the summer sky
Panic bells, it’s red alert
There’s something here from somewhere else
The war machine springs to life
Opens up one eager eye
Focusing it on the sky
Where ninety-nine red balloons go by

Ninety-nine decision street
Ninety-nine ministers meet
To worry, worry, super scurry
Call the troops out in a hurry
This is what we’ve waited for
This is it, boys, this is war
The president is on the line
As ninety-nine red balloons go by

Ninety-nine knights of the air
Ride super high-tech jet fighters
Everyone’s a super hero
Everyone’s a captain Kirk
With orders to identify
To clarify and classify
Scramble in the summer sky
Ninety-nine red balloons go by

As ninety-nine red balloons go by

Ninety-nine dreams I have had
In every one a red balloon
It’s all over and I’m standing pretty
In this dust that was a city
If I could find a souvenir
Just to prove the world was here
And here is a red balloon
I think of you, and let it go

These are nice lyrics and set to a catchy musical score, we have a proper “Choon”. But the English lyrics are not a direct translation of the original German words. In fact, the English wording is quite different, so that the words fit the tune. And we all know the song: It’s good. But when we hear the original German song and translate directly, the lyrics are something quite different:

German Lyrics

Direct Translation by Hyde Flippo

Hast du etwas Zeit für mich
Dann singe ich ein Lied für dich
Von 99 Luftballons
Auf ihrem Weg zum Horizont
Denkst du vielleicht g’rad an mich
Dann singe ich ein Lied für dich
Von 99 Luftballons
Und dass so was von so was kommt

Have you some time for me,
then I’ll sing a song for you
about 99 balloons
on their way to the horizon.
If you’re perhaps thinking about me right now
then I’ll sing a song for you
about 99 balloons
and that such a thing comes from such a thing.

99 Luftballons
Auf ihrem Weg zum Horizont
Hielt man für Ufos aus dem All
Darum schickte ein General

‘ne Fliegerstaffel hinterher
Alarm zu geben, wenn es so wär
Dabei war’n da am Horizont
Nur 99 Luftballons

99 balloons
on their way to the horizon
People think they’re UFOs from space
so a general sent up

a fighter squadron after them
Sound the alarm if it’s so
but there on the horizon were
only 99 balloons.

99 Düsenjäger
Jeder war ein großer Krieger
Hielten sich für Captain Kirk
Das gab ein großes Feuerwerk
Die Nachbarn haben nichts gerafft
Und fühlten sich gleich angemacht
Dabei schoss man am Horizont
Auf 99 Luftballons

99 fighter jets
Each one’s a great warrior
Thought they were Captain Kirk
then came a lot of fireworks
the neighbors didn’t understand anything
and felt like they were being provoked
so they shot at the horizon
at 99 balloons.

99 Kriegsminister –
Streichholz und Benzinkanister –
Hielten sich für schlaue Leute
Witterten schon fette Beute
Riefen Krieg und wollten Macht
Mann, wer hätte das gedacht
Dass es einmal soweit kommt
Wegen 99 Luftballons

99 war ministers
matches and gasoline canisters
They thought they were clever people
already smelled a nice bounty
Called for war and wanted power.
Man, who would’ve thought
that things would someday go so far
because of 99 balloons.

99 Jahre Krieg
Ließen keinen Platz für Sieger
Kriegsminister gibt’s nicht mehr
Und auch keine Düsenflieger
Heute zieh’ ich meine Runden
Seh’ die Welt in Trümmern liegen
Hab’ ‘nen Luftballon gefunden
Denk’ an dich und lass’ ihn fliegen

99 years of war
left no room for victors.
There are no more war ministers
nor any jet fighters.
Today I’m making my rounds
see the world lying in ruins.
I found a balloon,
think of you and let it fly (away).

(Source: Thoughtco.com)

So we can see how much was changed in translation. And it does demonstrate the point nicely, that something can have a different meaning if you listen to it differently. As Mr Fry says in Cyrus Song, “To see more clearly, listen.”

And I have been asked if there is indeed an answer, to life the universe and everything: Is it in the book? Will it make sense? To answer those questions in turn: Yes, yes, and yes.

My first three books are available now.

Post Script: After posting this, I watched today’s Pointless on BBC1, where a question concerned books: Name the book which these characters appear in, one option being: Arthur Dent, Ford Prefect and Zaphod Beeblebrox. To which the contestant answered, “Pride and Prejudice” (by Jane Austen, of course). Maybe it was one of them who compared me to Jane Austen or Douglas Adams.