J.R.R. Tolkien’s not the only novelist who invented fictional languages! In Harry Mathews‘s early masterpiece, the epistolary novel The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium, newlyweds Zachary McCaltex and Twang Panattapam, separated by the Atlantic, exchange letters in which they “try to trace the whereabouts of a treasure supposedly lost off the coast of Florida in the sixteenth century, while navigating a relationship separated by an ocean as well as their different cultures.”
Twang, who hails “from the Southeast-Asian country of Pan-Nam,” peppers her letters with snatches of her native language, “Pan.” Fortunately for her husband and the reader, she also translates it on the spot. I’ve collected all of the Pan and its English equivalents in the hope it will be of interest; it’s all after the jump.
“Slow, you may take-on my tongue, like I your.”
—Tro-tsi Twang Panattapam McCaltex (p. 92)
pristwe, -i, -ei
|think (pok atro: do not speak, but think)
kind of brush; tree
long farewell, death
I love (nob-lemum: for that I love)
I eat (nob lucrim: I ate)
eat (nob lucri: to eat)
now, for-this-moment; The Now
to be (?)
to be (nob-me: for to be, become)
be [imperative form] so, thus
capital of Pan-Nam
nose; Buddha’s nose; beautiful thing [if the body isn’t mentioned] [qualifier: for, have] O Being (pok-ma: no being)
not [negative] over (?), on (?)
I endure, I bear (it)
I shall bear
without end, endless, forever
running from, turning against; in the face of, in front of; confronted with
in flight of mud [when used in Twang’s village] / confronted with mud [when used in the capital] idea
I vomit; man; what man makes; to make
alas, sadness, woe; to laugh
to be similar, like (?)
Thus, letter 100, Twang’s penultimate letter to Zachary (p. 182), might be translated as:
7 Not Mud
Dear Beloved! Love body now vomits the demon. We are beautiful things, alas forever farewell. As all Laotians think, run from/confront now misery, thus: we shall endure eating eels in mud.
“Not Mud” I interpret to mean a particular month or stretch of time (i.e., “not during the rainy season”).
The real challenge in translating this letter is the fact that ticbaï means both “run from” and “confront”—obviously Mathews is being cheeky.
(Actually, the expression ticbaï lai offers some guidance: it means “fleeing from mud” when used in Twang’s village, but “confronting mud” when used in the nation’s capital. So it would seem that the word’s meaning depends on one’s power in relation to the obstacle—a mudslide can destroy a small village, but heavy rains are usually little more than an inconvenience in a large city. The question then becomes: where are Twang and Zachary situated in regards to the obstacles they face?)
[Readers will no doubt also want to see “The Cares of a Family Man” by Franz Kafka.]