Jewish Journal

How do you say ‘wormhole’ in Hebrew?

by Adam Wills

January 6, 2010 | 5:19 pm

Why is English the go-to language for science fiction, even when it isn’t the writer’s mother tongue?

Israeli-born sci-fi writer Lavie Tidhar skipped an opportunity for “shameless self-promotion” on World SF News to mull this phenomenon, citing as example French, Finnish and Dutch sci-fi authors who are choosing to write in English. Tidhar, author of the English-language novel “The Bookman”—due out in the UK and Australia tomorrow, summer/fall-ish in the United States—uses his editorial (which Charlie Jane Anders blogged at io9) to look at the English-centric world of science fiction through a Hebrew lens:

So… why English? I ask the question not for myself but because a common argument – across languages, in fact, since I’ve heard it expressed with regards to any non-English language, from Hebrew to French – is that English is the language of science fiction.

What do they mean by that? Why can’t science fiction be written in other languages?

My own view, of course, is that this is (to borrow a term from that great showman, P.T. Barnum) complete hokum. Yet it is so prevalent, and I see it repeated again and again. Partially it is the terminology of science fiction – anything from wormhole to ansible, from warp drive to FTL, from “plugged in” to BEM to the “science fiction” itself. In Hebrew, for instance, science fiction was initially called mada dimyoni, or “imaginary science”, before being replaced with mada bidyoni, or “fictional science”, then shorthanded conversationally to madab, the sort of acronym Hebrew likes so much. English is the language of science fiction! And there’s something in that – when you even have to argue about which word to use for the English “telephone” or “computer”…

But consider.

One of the nicest words Hebrew doesn’t use is “sach-rachok” (try pronouncing the ‘ch’ as that sort of deep-in-the-throat sound). It means something like “speak-distance” and was an early word proposed, by that most venerable institute, the Academy of the Hebrew Language, for “telephone”.

Of course, it also sounded a bit silly, and no one wanted to use it, and Hebrew ended up borrowing the word “telephone” and making quite nice use of it after all.

But see, that’s the beauty of language – any language. Not just the act of borrowing (what is also called ‘loan words’) – the way English borrowed “amen” or “cabal” or “sack” from the Hebrew, or borrowed “algebra” and “bazaar” from Arabic, or “chocolate” from Nahuatl…

Languages always evolve, and they do so by borrowing, and by modifying, and by adapting, and by making up new words (neologisms). English does a lot of it… and so does any other language. Being a speaker of Bislama (the pidgin English – and now, sometimes, creole – of the South Pacific islands of Vanuatu), I was delighted recently to come across a new verb – gugelem. Which means, of course, to google! (as in, bae mi gugelem – I’ll google it).

The argument about vocabulary really doesn’t hold. Indeed, it should be one of the most fun parts of writing science fiction in another language – coining new terms or transforming existing ones to create a new language of science fiction.

And yet…

Here I am, “guilty” just as much for writing in English.

The thing is, I do love English. And by writing in English I can assure myself not only more readers, but also – and this is rather crucial, alas – better pay for my work. But I continue, albeit rarely, to write in Hebrew for the pure joy of it – short stories such as “Shira” (later translated and published in English in The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction & Fantasy, ed. Ellen Datlow), or “Chalomot Be’aspamia” (translated and published, as “Daydreams” in Apex Digest) – I even wrote an entire book in Hebrew, with Nir Yaniv, just for the hell of it – “Retzach Bidyoni”, or “A Fictional Murder” (itself a play-on-words on the Hebrew term for science fiction), a tongue-in-cheek murder mystery set in an Israeli SF convention, a la Bimbos of the Death Sun…

I’m even working on a book that incorporates at least segments of Bislama into the narrative – and would happily write an entire book in that language, if only there was someone to publish it…

For it is market forces that dictate the writing of science fiction, not “a limited vocabulary” or some mythical Campbellian (John, not Joseph) strictures; it is not lack of words but lack of finance that restrict, in many parts of the world, the writing of science fiction into the foolhardy act of a maddened lover. And yet there is a joy in it, a purity that can be captivating.

My love of Hebrew science fiction – however obscure the titles, however bad some of its early forms – remains alongside my love of English science fiction. And it shapes my own writing, whatever the language.

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