Thursday, August 09, 2007

Phrasebook fiction

The bewilderingly odd and sometimes strangely evocative phrases that some phrasebook compilers apparently expect to be useful have caught the attention of many people besides me, although I do think the Andamanese one I found a year or two back takes the cake. However, until a few days ago, I had not come across phrasebook-based fiction. I can now report that there is at least one example of such a genre: Gene Wolfe's "Useful Phrases" (a short story in Strange Travellers):
Even so, many of the phrases thus translated struck me as peculiar. Who would wish to say "You no longer recognize her," "Mine is a similar address," or "I will tell the trees to be quiet"? I studied all these phrases diligently, however, so much so that I sometimes found myself murmuring in my bath, Pava pacch, tîsh ùtra. Neéve sort dufji. "How like a ghost are the fountain's waters! The flood carries away my riches." The paper is marvelously thin, and yet completely opaque; the print sharp-edged even when viewed through my best magnifying glass...

I addressed to him the phrase I had so often rehearsed: Semphonississima techsodeliphindera lafiondalindu tuk yiscav kriishhalôné! "How delightful to discover in the shrinking sea a crystal blossom of home!"

He dropped my advertisement and ran from the shop.
There would be no point in summarising the story - it's not about plot so much as mood. If it has a moral, it must be that you should keep phrase books of unknown origin for unidentifiable languages only if you want your life to become more exciting and dangerous.

1 comment:

Language said...

Another example is "Useful Phrases for the Tourist" by Joanna Russ; as this page says, "This short piece is a collection of phrases which you might find in any phrase book, but the ideas and images they imply tell the reader that they aren't for any human culture." (Sample: "You are not my guide. My guide was bipedal.")