Lost in Translation: Spock v Hemingway


Last week I shared an article from the New York times about the link between words and neural pathways. Fascinating stuff, and initially I thought of the obvious – adjective use while writing, and how word choice can have such a dramatic impact on the reader.

Since then, I’ve been giving extra attention to word choice, paying attention to everything from Tweets, to the novels I’m reading. For some bizarre reason, eyebrows have made a near ubiquitous appearance in my reading this week.

I’ve seen furrowed brows, creased brows, contemplative brows and gathered brows.

I’ve even seen a Tweet by @RangeWoman_Inc where a character “. . . frowned like a man trying to unbend a corkscrew by telekinesis.” This passage doesn’t even have the word brow in it, but the words frowned and telekinesis conspired to make me think of brows.

Eyebrows seem to be a necessary indicator of how much concentration is being exhibited. But people do lots of things when they concentrate. I pinch my lower lip. My son sticks his tongue out. A friend purses her lips and makes a little tking sound. Why did eyebrows win?

Because it is more common. The above habits of concentration are the exception, rather than the rule. If I say someone stuck their tongue out, lots of things could be considered – concentration, yes, but it could also be a childish display, a bad taste, dismissal, silliness, and a number of other things. We’d need more context in order to determine the intent.

Brows are not so ambiguous.

Most writers strive to be original, as they should. But what happens if you stray too far outside of the norms? I was playing around with some passages, trying to determine just how far out of bounds one could go, and still maintain both clarity and brevity.

Then I saw this:

You know this. Don’t make me tell you.

And I realized there is a fine line between being original and losing things in translation. The clinical logic of a Vulcan aside, too many words can be as detrimental to writing as too few. (A quick aside – note how Spock’s brows give him the air of considering everything oh-so-carefully!)

At the risk of being shunned, I’ll ask you to consider William Faulkner. I’ll not dispute his rightful place in the literary canon, but he is a bit. . . wordy. His verbosity is a selling point for many, but for me, I’d rather grind sand into my eyes than read Light in August again. I’ve read it twice, the second time a failed attempt to revise my first impression.

In contrast, there is Hemingway’s Baby shoes. Six words. But they are six words that evoke emotion beautifully. Definitely original, but the whole story is told in words my four-year old can sound out and understand. They are accessible and successful because everyone knows what they mean.

Which brings me back to Spock. Did you figure it out?

For those of you needing help, here it is:

“My milkshake brings all the boys to the yard,
And they’re like
It’s better than yours,
Damn right, it’s better than yours,
I can teach you,
But I have to charge.”

Don’t sacrifice clarity for originality. Being original serves no purpose unless people can understand what you are trying to say.

 

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