Epigraphs, poetry, and rhyming in fictional languages

I have a great love of epigraphs. With my own work, I am particularly fond of fictional quotations or works from in-world sources. For example, The Tale of Telsharu opens with a poem, which purports itself to be a selection from the epic poem “Hanu Zan” by Fao Duman, who is, in fact, a fictional character, writing about one of the heroes of the Seventh Empire.

I first fell in love with the concept of in-world epigraphs as a teenager reading Dune by Frank Herbert. Each chapter of this classic science fiction novel begins with an quotation from a variety of sources, all from Herbert’s imagined future of mankind. Each epigraph gives new light to the chapter, or sometimes a counter-voice to what actually happens. They provide a rich sort of authenticity to the work, and they lend weight to the story.

When I set out to write the Hanu Zan poem (*gasp!* Yes, I am secretly Fao Duman!) I wanted it to match the flavor of the Seventh Empire, which has its roots in Southeastern Asia–Malaysia and India mainly, with some Chinese and Japanese influences. I began researching forms of poetry from these regions, and that’s when I came across the Pantoum, a fifteenth-century style of Malaysian poetry which is the base form of “Hanu Zan.”

With Buk Tu on its way to completion, I have come again to the epigraph. I considered writing another Pantoum-style poem. I also considered a continuation of “Hanu Zan.” After all, Sam and I are already planning to use the poem (and the character of Fao Duman) in the Hanu Zan short stories. But I quickly decided that this book deserved something new. Something of its own.

Back to research. Buk Tu has more Middle Eastern influences, so I started there. But I wasn’t happy with the styles of poetry that I found, nor what they are commonly known for in the real world. I didn’t want to drag any preconceived notions into our book. And the forms simply didn’t feel right to me.

So I went back to Southeast Asia. There were several forms that I considered using, including the Thanbauk, the Ya-du, and the Ruba’i. But eventually I settled on the Pathya vat. It is a Cambodian style of verse, consisting of four-line stanzas in which lines two and three rhyme, and line four starts the rhyme for the next stanza.

I’ll be honest with you, I was not sold on the idea of rhyming poetry, which is why I struggled against several of the forms that I found. My objections are varied – first, I struggled with rhyming poetry when I had to write it during college, and was reluctant to subject myself to it again.

But more importantly, I struggle with the concept of rhymes when the poem is written in-world. Keep in mind that the people of the Seventh Empire do not speak English. When you read The Tale of Telsharu, we hold to the concept that this is a “translation.” That is actually our justification for using in-world vocabulary. We’re basically saying, “There is no English equivalent of this word” or sometimes “The equivalent of this word sounds dumb in English, so we’re leaving it as it is.” Take Khudang-yun for example. The exact translation of it would be “the divinely appointed man or individual.” As much as a mouthful as Khudang-yun can be, it’s a lot better than spelling out “The Divinely Appointed Individual” all the time.

So, keeping in mind that the poem should be considered an English translation of an in-world poem, I initially objected to a rhyming poem. I’m not saying that rhymes cannot be translated. It’s hard, and it’s hard to keep the original meaning of the poem. I greatly admire such translators, who I believe to be equal or greater in skill to the original poets. With that in mind, dear readers, you will simply have to consider me a very skilled translator when you have the opportunity to read the epigraph of Buk Tu.


About vmech
Writer, Taekwondo instructor, and adoption advocate. Author of THE TALE OF TELSHARU and THE SCOURGE OF NARAK.

3 Responses to Epigraphs, poetry, and rhyming in fictional languages

  1. I COMPLETELY agree that the in-world epitaph made a distinct impression in Telsharu, and I’m very excited to hear you’ve put your head to work on another! It really does immerse us readers in the Seventh Empire right from the start! ;D

    On a side note, I’m reading the Lord of the Rings (yes, again…) and Tolkein has many, MANY poems that are “translations” from various Elvish languages (usually). Nearly all of them rhyme. And, those that don’t still hold very true to rhythmic patterns. Yet they all feel “translated”. So, don’t stress yourself that it will be too rhymed to sound authentic–like you said, it just takes an amazingly skilled translator. And, who better than the tongue’s originator(s)? Can’t wait to read it!

  2. vmech says:

    A very valid point, Manda! Of course, Tolkien was a man of many skills, to which Sam and I can only aspire. I hope that you will enjoy the new epigraph, and that it will add to Buk Tu as much as the poem did in TELSHARU.

  3. Pingback: Research for your novel « Valerie Mechling & Samuel Stubbs

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