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August 5th, 2013 / 8:01 am
Craft Notes

Another way to generate text #8: Writing through a foreign language dictionary

Cassell'sI’ve spent this summer studying French, and while flipping through my copy of Cassell’s French Dictionary, I realized it contains un roman caché, just waiting to be libéré.

Here’s all one needs to do:

  1. Flip to any random page on the foreign language side of any foreign language dictionary*. For instance, I just opened my Cassell’s to page 593 (in the French half).
  2. Copy down all of the English on that page, ignoring the French. (Republicans should totally love this technique!)

*You don’t need to use any particular language or dictionary. And the more dissimilar the other language is from English, the more varied the English-language results will be—see below for more on that. And of course you can use this technique using any dual-language dictionary, not just English–X, but I’m assuming English as our baseline since HG is (mostly) an English-language site.

Here’s all of the English on Cassell’s page 593:

  • kindly return the letter, please forward, please close the door;
  • prior (superior of a convent), prioress, priory;
  • primage (allowance paid to the captain of a ship);
  • primary, elementary school, elementary type of mind, primary winding;
  • primate, metropolitan, pre-eminence, primacy;
  • primates;
  • primatial;
  • primacy, primateship;
  • primacy, priority, pre-eminance, the lead (at cards, dice, etc.);
  • premium, subsidy, bounty, bonus, prize, prime (first canonical hour succeeding lauds), prime, free gift, prime wool, pebble, drawback, debenture, option market, call, buyer’s option, call, seller’s option, entitlement bounty, gratuity on discharge, to be much in demand, at a premium, first, accented, at first, at the first blush, at first sight, suddenly, at the first attempt;
  • to surpass, to excel, to give a prize or medal to (at an agricultural show, etc.), he excels all the others, prize-winning novel, to play first, to lead (at tennis, etc.), to excel, he excels in everything;
  • impulsive, spontaneous, quick;
  • the French are, as a rule, ready-witted;
  • early vegetables, fruit, flowers, etc.; early sentiment, love, etc.; freshness, bloom; you will be the first to get the news; to serve up a dish of early vegetables;
  • primula, cowslip, primrose, oxlip, bird’s eye primrose, polyanthus;
  • first day of decade in calendar of first French republic;
  • primiparous, primipara;
  • first, early, primitive, aboriginal, pristine, primitively, originally;
  • primitiveness;
  • first, in the first place;
  • primogeniture;
  • primordial, of prime importance;
  • prince, to be a good fellow, arbitrary act (committed by a sovereign), to live like a prince;
  • first edition;
  • princess; yes, my charmer;
  • princely, like a prince;
  • chief, most important, head-lessee, chief thing; principal, chief, or essential point; principal, capital (money), chief, head, chief partner, headmaster (of a college), chief personages (of a town, etc.); to pay both principal and interest; the main thing for you is to take care of your health;
  • principalship, headmastership;
  • principally, chiefly;
  • principate, sovereignty;
  • principality, princedom;
  • beginning, source, basis, origin, element, principle, principles, rudiments; as a rule, theoretically, to lay down a principle, unprincipled man, self-love is the motive of almost all our actions, to start from a principle;
  • petty prince, princeling;
  • springlike, vernal, youthful, early, spring materials, spring goods, soup made of spring vegetables;
  • spring, spring-time, prime, bloom; the morning of life;
  • having priority;
  • priority;
  • taken, captured, caught, seized, taken in, congealed, curdled, frozen; it is so much snatched from the fire; it took me two months; that man is the worse for liquor; well-proportioned man; the river is frozen; the sky is overcast;
  • estimable, worthy of esteem;
  • taking, capture, prize, hold, handle, purchase, grasp, grip, quarrel, close, pinch (of snuff, etc.); fighting, close quarters; writ of arrest, to lay oneself open to criticism, to give one’s enemy a hold over one, in gear, engaged;

… And here are some paragraphs written using the above. What I did was “write through” the language, using as much as I could but not feeling obliged to use everything (or to keep it all in exactly the same order); then I revised it once:

Kindly return the letter to the prior, or please forward it to the prioress, or at least please close the door or the priory. Prior to this, I was paid a primage (an allowance paid to the captain of a ship), even though I was much less a captain than I was the principal of an elementary school, being possessed of an elementary type of mind. Still, I was superior to all the other primates that surrounded me, being of a metropolitan origin—hence my title, “Pre-eminence.” I retained primacy in all matters primatial, such as holding the lead at cards, dice, etc. I never paid premium, and I always received a prize, provided that the games were held in the first canonical hour succeeding lauds. Also, I received several free gifts, such as prime wool and finely polished pebbles. I knew neither drawback nor debenture, only subsidy, bonus, bounty. I was much in demand, the first, accented.

All of this changed when I fell in love at first sight, blushing at the first blush. The object of my desire excelled, like some elegant prize beast awarded the first prize or blue ribbon or medal at state fair agricultural show; he excelled all others in manner of coat, skin, teeth, hair. Also he was clever; had he written a novel, it would have been a prize-winning novel. Had he picked up a paddle and tried his hand at table tennis, he would have led every match, regardless of whether he played first or last. One look at him and I knew he was most excellent thing on earth.

True, I was impulsive, spontaneous, quick. But the French are, as a rule, ready-witted. This is because we eat early vegetables—all of spring’s luscious fruits and flowers, etc. We have a primary love of freshness and that which blooms—hence our saying, “You will be the first to get the news, if you serve up a dish of early vegetables.” My personal favorites include primula, cowslip, primrose, oxlip, bird’s eye primrose, and polyanthus. I know I am not alone in this sentiment, which is why I am not alone in my dietary habits. Nor am I the only one who celebrates the first day of the decade on the calendar of the first French republic, the anniversary of the first “Spring Fling.” For although that ancient time was primitive and aboriginal, the world was then in its infancy, its foliage sublime. All pristine things are worth collecting. I resolved to invite my new-found love to this season’s Spring Fling, as well as to wear an outfit adorned with fruits and flowers. […]

… I won’t deny that the above could stand further editing, but it’s something that can be edited. Thus, there’s no excuse for writer’s block!

Problems: Like with most vocabulary-motivated techniques of this sort, the list of words pressures the text to veer off in many different directions, providing little base coherency. That’s fine if you don’t want coherency—but if you do, you’ll have to supply that yourself. The love plot I introduced above is one example of how the text can be glommed around a scenario and characters. Also, I used the paragraph structure to organize the text further, focusing each paragraph around a different sub-topic.

Lest you doubt this technique’s efficacy, I used something like it to write my short story “A Sad Story of Factory Girls,” which was published several years ago in Caketrain 7 (PDF), then ended up in my prose collection, Amazing Adult Fantasy. In that case, I filched verbs and verb phrases from a Chinese-English dictionary:

  • to be as busy as ever
  • to be absorbed in one’s studies
  • to be deeply attached to one’s school
  • to study assiduously
  • to delve into one’s books
  • &c.

(I’m approximating from memory as I don’t have either the dictionary or the list I made in front of me. Also, I didn’t encounter the phrases in this order.)

I knew less about literary structure and form in those days (c. 2004), but I knew I needed some way to organize this found material. The breakthrough came when I gave each sentence a common subject:

He was as busy as ever. He was absorbed in his studies. He was deeply attached to his school. He studied assiduously. He delved into his books. He used his brain. He had the ability to speak fluently. He had clever enunciation. He lived simply and frugally. He was willing to do hard work. He was engaged in two trades at the same time. He was born in misery but brought up in happiness. He was Rhesus negative as a baby. He was short for his age, as a baby. His head was too big in proportion to his body. He wore rimless spectacles. He wore straw sandals. He was a rosy-cheeked, handsome young man. He was a habitual smoker. He went to bed if he felt sleepy. He behaved pleasantly toward everyone. He showed sincere feeling and expression. He didn’t stand on ceremony. He was overly modest. He laughed easily. He laughed like a horse. He split his sides with laughter. [“A Sad Story of Factory Girls,” opening paragraph]

I used the pronoun “he” because it provided a minimal common subject, thereby allowing the uniqueness of the verb phrases to shine through. The repeated anaphora also helps highlight how it’s the rest of the sentence that keeps changing throughout the piece, focusing the reader’s attention there. This is, at heart, an application of Viktor Shklovsky’s principle of “differential perception,” which I wrote more about here and here. (And, yes, later in the story I worked in some alternatives to this repetitive structure, both to take advantage of the reader’s growing expectations, as well as to refresh the pattern.)

Well, I hope this idea helps you with your own writing. I’ll look forward to reading your thoughts in the comments, as well as any literature that results from the technique …

Bonne chance!

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