Another Word for World
By Ann Leckie (excerpt)
“Oh, Ancestors” cried the Sovereign, and smacked the groundcar steering in frustration. “I always say the wrong thing, I wish Timran hadn’t died, I wish I still had an interpreter.”Tears filled her eyes, shine in the dim light from the groundcar controls.
“Why are you swearing by Ancestors?” asked Ashiban. “You don’t believe in them. Or I thought you didn’t.” One tear escaped, rolled down the Sovereign’s check. Ashiban picked up the end of the old dishcloth that was currently draped over the girl’s shoulder and wiped it away.
“I didn’t swear by the Ancestors!” the Sovereign protested. “I didn’t swear by anything. I just said, Oh, Ancestors!” They drove in silence for a few minutes. “Wait,” said the Sovereign then. “Let me try something. Are you ready?”
“Ready for what?”
“This: Ancestors. What did I say?”
“You said Ancestors.”
“Now. Pingberries. What did I say?”
“You said – Pingberries.”
The Sovereign brought the groundcar to a stop, and turned to look at Ashiban. “Now. Or, Ancestors!”, as though she were angry and frustrated. “There. Do you hear? Are you listening?
“I’m listening.” Ashiban had heard it, plain and clear. “You said oh, pingberries, but the translator said it was oh, Ancestors. How did that happen?”
“Pingberries sounds a lot like… something that isn’t polite,” the Sovereign said. “So it’s the kind of swear your old uncle would use in front of the in-laws.”
“What?” asked Ashiban, and then, realizing, “Whoever entered the data for the translator thought it was equivalent to swearing by the Ancestors.”
“It might be,” said the Sovereign, “and actually that’s really useful, that it knows when I’m talking about wanting to eat some pingberries, or when I’m frustrated and swearing. That’s good, it means the translators are working well. But Ancestors and pingberries, those aren’t exactly the same. Do you see?”
“The treaty,” Ashiban realized. “That everyone thinks the other side is translating however they want.” And probably not just the treaty.
It had been CiwrilXidyla who had put together the first, most significant collection of linguistic data on Gidantan. It was her work that had led to the ease and usefulness of automatic translation between the two languages. Even aside from nearly every translation between Raksamat and Gidantan for very nearly a century. That was one reason why CiwrilXidya was as revered as she was, by everyone in the system. Translation devices like this little blob on a clip had made communication possible between Raksamat and Gidanta. Had made peaceful agreement possible, let people talk to each other whenever they needed it. Had probably saved lives. But, “We can’t be the first to notice this.”
The Sovereign set the groundcar moving again. “Noticing something and realizing it’s important aren’t the same thing. And maybe lots of people have noticed, but they don’t say anything because it suits them to have things as they are. We need to tell the Terraforming Council. We need to tell the Assembly. We need to tell everybody, and we need to retranslate the treaty. We need more people to actually learn both languages instead of only using that thing.” She gestured toward the translator clipped to Ashiban’s collar.
“We need the translator to be better, Sovereign. Not everyone can easily learn another language.” More people learning the two languages ought to help with that. More people with firsthand experience to correct the data. “But we need the translator to know more than what my mother learned.” Had the translations been unchanged since her mother’s time? Ashiban didn’t think that was likely. But the girl’s guess that it suited at least some of the powers that be to leave problems – perhaps certain problems – uncorrected struck Ashiban as sadly possible. “Sovereign, who’s going to listen to us?”
“I am the Sovereign of Iss!” the girl declared. “And you are the daughter of CiwrilXidyla! They had better listen to us.”