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In the Magic Tree House series, two ordinary English-speaking kids travel to different faraway lands through a portal. Every character they meet, whether it's ancient Greece or ancient China, speaks English. However, this series was aimed at little kids, and when you're writing for an older audience, do you have to explain away the language barrier conundrum?

More importantly, if your story employs lots of rhyming riddles and 'lost prophecies' from other worlds, would the story instantly lose its credibility if they all happen to be in English? (E.g., main character discovers lost scroll in Egypt. It's a rhyme in English!)

I know suspension of belief is required for all fantasy stories, but at what point do you try to explain the mechanics, and when can you just hand-wave it all under the rug?

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The notion of "willing suspension of disbelief" is one of the most misleading phrases in the literature of writing (right up there with "show don't tell"). It is very much worth reading Tolkien's On Fairy Stories, in which he offers an extensive critique of the concept.

Tolkien's argument is essentially this: a story involves immersing a reader in a sub-created world. Their participation and belief in the sub-created world depends on the internal consistency of the world, not on its correspondence to the real world.

Secondly, stories are lenses, not windows. They exist to focus the reader's attention on certain aspects of the human experience and one of the principal devices by which they do this is to simply omit many of the details of ordinary life that real people would have to deal with. Thus characters seldom eat except as something incidental to a meeting or a party. They virtually never have to relieve themselves (except in broad comedy). Virtually no use of computers in all of literature is remotely realistic. Crimes are not really solved in a day. Etc. etc.

A story needs to be self consistent. Whatever it says or suggests about the rules of the story world must be followed consistently within the story. If you decide to ignore language barriers in a story, go for it, but make sure that there is not anything else about the way the story is told that suggests that they matter.

Note that when I say "story world", I don't mean exactly what the folks who indulge in that odd hobby of worldbuilding mean. It is not about creating a world with self-consistent rules and then setting a story in it. It is much more about the conventions of the telling itself than the objective laws of a world, real or imaginary. It is a tacit compact between the writer and the reader that we are not going to concern ourselves with whole classes of practical problems that would otherwise slow down or get in the way of telling the parts of the story that we actually care about. This is not a rare or unusual thing. In fact, it is probably universal. Certainly no contemporary TV show could function without this convention. (In the real world, for instance, all the characters in any cop show would be invalided out with severe PTSD by the end of the first season.)

If you have not noticed that storytelling works this way, well, that just shows how ingrained this feature of storytelling is. We are not consciously aware of it most of the time unless it breaks down. But it is there in everything we read and watch if we only take a moment to look for it.

So, if you want to ignore the language issues, ignore the language issues. Just make sure that you tell the story in a way that people accept (without particularly noticing) that languages issues, like going to the bathroom, are not something we are going to concern ourselves with in this story.

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    As an example of this, Jane Austen's novels and the Horatio Hornblower Saga are set in the same time period, in the real world—but they focus on entirely different details. Marriage and the life of the nobility is barely touched on in Forester's work, and the Napoleonic Wars are barely touched on in Austen's. – Wildcard Apr 1 '17 at 1:52
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    And in neither one does any character ever go to the bathroom. – Mark Baker Apr 1 '17 at 11:16
  • Actually, I think in Hornblower they do. But I wouldn't swear to it. – Wildcard Apr 1 '17 at 19:05
  • I think most of your topic also falls under Aristotle's ideas in the surviving half of the Poetics about scope or completeness. Basically, focus on what you're going to focus on, move the plot, and leave the rest by the wayside. – lly Jun 16 '18 at 18:10
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Consider such works as 'Lord of the Rings'. Do you really think that anyone beyond the Shire would speak English, and yet they all do? (Yes there are other languages, but consider how they are introduced and used.)

Then think about sci-fi novels: set in the future and on other worlds and yet the language is still English that we can understand today (consider Shakespeare only died 400 years ago and how much the language has changed). Readers accept English without question.

I don't know the Magic Tree House and so can't comment on it specifically, but I do know that adults accept English speaking as the norm: see Star Trek and Doctor Who.

You just have to make it believable.

  • Or just publish the whole book written in your made-up language, with made-up symbols. :P xkcd.com/593 – Wildcard Apr 1 '17 at 1:53
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    But the Lord of the Rings does address this. First, there is an explicit conceit that the book we have is a translation of an ancient work in the original languages. Second, English is a stand-in for a common tongue spoken by many in addition to their native language (not, in the conceit, a coincidence, but rather the obvious thing to do). – mattdm Apr 1 '17 at 2:41
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    Similarly with Doctor Who: the TARDIS is said to telepathically translate everything into the appropriate language for each person. A plot point in one episode is when the TARDIS is having problems and an alien language is not translated. – DLosc Apr 1 '17 at 5:12
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Consider A Tale of Two Cities. It is about the French Revolution. It was written in English by an Englishman, Charles Dickens.

Dante's Inferno (and others in that series) were written in a poetic form called terza rima, which is not too hard to do in the original Italian, but is difficult in many other languages. Various translators have attempted solutions that carry the general concept of the scheme, without actually using terza rima. (Of course, if you believe that Italian is the sole language spoken in Hell, then maybe any translation strains credulity.)

In his own comments regarding LOTR, Tolkien remarked that he approached his publisher for a book about the Elven language (Tolkien's academic experience was in the historical use of language). But the publisher turned him down, noting that such a work would not likely be interesting to general readers.

Surely there are many other examples. Just do what you think will keep your readers interested.

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In reality, if you found an ancient scroll written in Old English from a 1000 years ago, it would probably still be unintelligible to the modern person!

If you worry about it, I'd give your characters some minor tech, talent, or magic to pave over it; a translator phone app, or a linguist that translates something that rhymes in ancient Greek to something that rhymes in modern English.

Or just ignore it, it is the kind of minor point an editor might want you to address, but might not: Good authors are paying so much attention to having every word be right and make sense they notice real issues (like this one) at a far higher rate than actual readers do. You may just be hypersensitive.

If the rest of your story is a good read, then your editor is trained to know what is important to readers that you should address, what might drop Suspension of Disbelief. And what issues are unlikely to cost the publisher any sales or result in a bad professional critique (same thing, costs sales).

If my editor flags something like that as too implausible or too convenient, then I definitely want to address it somehow. I would probably use a linguist, say this thing is a rhyme in ancient Egyptian that translates into non-rhyming English. If the fact that it rhymes is a clue, so it makes a character think of some other rhyming word that solves the puzzle, it would be harder for the character to come up with an answer. But that could be a good thing! He asks the linguist which words rhyme, for other words that rhyme in Ancient Egyptian, and thereby intuits the correct answer. The linguist does not have to be a part of the crew; it could be some university dude that looks at a picture of the scroll and does this work for the crew remotely by iPhone.

Of course, you don't have to worry about whether those are true rhymes in Ancient Egyptian; there are only a handful of people on earth (perhaps none) that might know enough Ancient Egyptian to be offended by you taking that particular fictional liberty.

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Perhaps you could invent some magic device that translates everything automatically for the characters, like the babble fish of the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy or the Tardis in Dr. Who...

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For a work composed in English but with characters who are speaking another language, I think it's fine to use not just English but idiomatic English. I've seen this in a number of historical novels that take place anywhere from Sparta to Nazi Germany.

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