I’m about halfway through Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis, a very well regarded author who’s won just about every award you can win in the field of science fiction. I used to read science fiction continually and omnivorously, but that was several decades ago, and now I do so only rarely. I’m reading this because of a rave review (in Russian) by Anatoly, whose literary judgment I tend to trust. This time I’m afraid he led me astray.
I’m not blaming him, mind you; his only sin is one of excessive enthusiasm, and that’s not only the most venial of sins but one I’ve been guilty of myself far too often to even look askance at. I’m not sorry he got me to give it a try, because it’s a good read and any science fiction fan would enjoy it (it did, after all, win both the Hugo and Nebula awards). But Anatoly called Willis one of the best authors he had read in recent years, recommended the book not just to sf fans but to “lovers of good literature in general,” and said the book was “a genuine tragedy, without any discount for genre… a very, very good novel [настоящая, без всяких скидок на жанр, трагедия… очень, очень хороший роман].” And that’s just not true. As I say, it’s a good read, but it’s basically a mixed salad of academic humor (professors concerned only with their specialties, scheming heads of departments, etc.), young adult adventure (our plucky heroine must confront the unexpected in fourteenth-century England), Oxford mystery/thriller a la Inspector Lewis, and just plain sitcom (various characters exist only to provide easy jokes at regular intervals). The characters are one-dimensional, each concerned about one thing to the exclusion of everything else (I must get to my dig! I must practice my bell-ringing! I must watch over my son like a mother hen! I must worry endlessly over my student!), and the plot is drawn out to a ridiculous degree, every action being repeated over and over and over (it’s not enough that a character who has crucial information is delirious and unable to provide it—the character who needs the information has to be repeatedly shown visiting him, asking his questions urgently, and getting delirious responses). It could have used some ruthless pruning, and once again I lament the abdication by publishers of the editorial responsibilities they used to assume as a matter of course.
But none of this would drive me to write about the book here; what bothers me with my language hat on is the translator implanted in our plucky heroine, a graduate student sent back in time as part of a regular program of exploring the past. She has, of course, studied Middle English, French, and Latin (as well as every practical skill she could conceivably need), but just in case the locals don’t speak the dialect she’s learned, she has this translator thingie—a wise precaution, as it turns out. At first she can’t understand anyone (and the bits of dialect she hears are rendered in a clever sort-of-transcription through which you can sometimes make out what’s being said), but as the translator absorbs more of the speech around her it starts working and she hears what people are saying in Modern English.
Except not. For some reason, it doesn’t translate into modern Modern English, it translates into Historical Novelese (described in this 2006 post). What she hears, via this translator thingie, is full of words like “fain,” “broidery,” “bade,” and “Oxenford.” One character says “Found you aught that might tell us of the lady’s identity?” and the response begins “Nay…” (There are also sentences like “She will no doubt have a relapse,” so it’s not that the thing isn’t capable of truly modern translation. It just enjoys Ye Olde Englisshe Feelynge, I guess.) And what really takes the cake is that Willis does not understand the words “hence” and “thence,” taking them to mean “hither” and “thither” (cf. “when we came hence [to this house]” and “and brought you hence [to this house],” and “Can we go thence [=there] now?” and “Why would you go thence [=there]?”). I am mildly shocked that an award-winning author does not understand these frankly pretty simple and common words, and even more saddened that no one at Bantam noticed the problem.