Title: They Still Write Poetry in the Fifty-First Century
Prompt (not used): Wherever fate demands me...I will go. -- Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda y Arteaga (1814-1873), 19th-century Cuban author.
Summary: “Today I looked out,” she reads, “and I saw my name among the stars.”
Author's notes: Thanks to my betas, 51stcenturyfox and forrent, who answered my cries for help and reassured me that space linguistics was worth writing about. You rock!
After they come back from 1941; after Jack dies and rises again; after Jack leaves them and then returns, Toshiko asks him: “When are you from?”
It is just the two of them in the Hub this morning. Owen is sleeping off a hangover and Gwen’s leg was torn up badly by a Weevil two nights ago, so she’s under orders to stay at home for at least a week. Ianto is upstairs, manning the Tourist Information Center. Jack is loitering by Tosh's desk in an attempt to avoid doing any actual work. “Don’t you mean ‘where?’” he asks her with a grin.
“Eventually,” she says. “But I think it would help me more to know when, first. I know you’re not from this century, and I know the name you go by isn’t really your name.” Tosh looks up at him and continues quietly: “I won’t ask what your name is, Jack; I know that isn’t mine to know. I just want to know what the future is like. So when are you from?”
The expression that crosses Jack’s face is one that Tosh recognizes as his decision-making expression. He only brings it out for very important decisions. (Less important decisions tend not to merit an expression of their own.) “Fifty-first century,” he says.
Toshiko considers this. Over the next few days, through careful questioning, she determines the following:
1. English is not even close to being his first language, and he understands far more languages than he can fluently speak.
2. At some eventual point in the future, English will develop and divide into British, American, and Australian. (“Not Canadian?” she asks him, and he shrugs: “I think it was a language for awhile. Then American ate it.”)
3. His home (a colony, somewhere out among the stars) was settled initially by speakers of what he calls Space-American, as distinct from Earth-American. Toshiko suspects he is simplifying; then again, it is three thousand years of linguistic history, so she supposes he’d have to.
4. The indigenous peoples of the colony (whom he describes as having flat noses like pugs, big long rabbit ears, six arms – “You haven’t lived until you’ve had sex with someone with six arms, let me tell you; it’s almost as good as tentacles” – and tending to be fluorescent pink) spoke their own languages.
5. Jack’s native language is what he calls a settler’s creole: “It doesn’t have any linguistic parallels yet,” he says. “It won’t until humanity reaches for the stars and then goes past them.”
“What about writing?” she asks him. “How have writing systems developed?”
Jack laughs at her curiosity and tells her about writing systems that would make the Mayan script look simple. Two centuries to decipher? Better make it six.
As a joke he gives her a book of fifty-first century writings that fell through the Rift, along with a handbook of useful phrases in the same language, and tells her to have fun. She asks Jack why they still had printed books that far in the future; he laughs and says that some things never went out of style, although he allows that these particular books were part of a charmingly retro trend that ended a few years after their publication.
The books are not in his native tongue, but he says it is one he speaks; some previous Torchwood employee has transliterated the curving script of the phrasebook into English characters, but any attempts at actual translation are scratched out, and a note is scrawled: Not nearly enough space on this page for errors. See notes. “Jack!” Tosh calls. “What language is this, anyway?” She holds up the book for him to see.
“Eikthali,” he calls back, or at least she thinks that’s what he calls back. “Why?”
“Curiosity, that’s all!”
Later, when Jack is busy pretending not to flirt with Gwen, Toshiko pulls Ianto aside. “Do you think you could do me a favor?”
“I suppose I could,” he answers with quiet humor. “Depends on what it is, doesn’t it?”
She hands him a slip of paper that reads Eikthali (Ayktholly? Eicthalli? spelling uncertain) translation notes, c. mid-20th Century; assorted texts, c. 51st Century. “Any available information on the Eikthali language that you can find in the archives. Someone started translating it years ago, and I want to try again.”
“Side project?” Ianto asks, raising an eyebrow.
Toshiko smiles. “Just a bit of fun.”
She is not a linguist by trade or by training, but she is persistent, and when you break it down enough, language is only a series of patterns. Everything is a series of patterns; the whole universe is patterns. Toshiko has always prided herself on being good with patterns (except, she thinks, when it comes to relationships; and even then it is the pattern that is flawed, not her observance of it). And, of course, it helps that someone else has already begun the work.
It takes the better part of two days, but Ianto brings her a large stack of documents and sets them on her desk. “For your side project,” he says. “Sorry it took so long. Turns out the translation notes were filed under the translator’s name.”
“Madeline Cranmer,” Tosh reads off the top paper. “Torchwood, 1938 to 1950. She lasted a long time.”
“She didn’t do field work,” Ianto says. “I hear that makes a difference.” He has a resigned expression on his face, as if he knew he had lost ten years off his life the moment Jack forced him out of the tourist office and into the Brecon Beacons.
She gives him a sympathetic smile. “How about you try and convince Jack to hire on some more field agents? Then you and I could stay here and do what we do best.”
“I’ve tried,” Ianto says, and she believes him. Jack likes things insular. “Let me know how your project goes.”
“I will,” she promises, and though she does no work on translation the rest of the day, she takes the files home with her and goes over them for most of the night. Toshiko is used to being overtired; she prefers being overtired but occupied to having slept all night but been idle. She does not deal well with idleness – she has spent too much time unable to do anything to ever willingly throw aside the chance to be productive.
Madeline Cranmer liked being productive as well, from the looks of it. She had started work on Eikthali in 1941: I doubt I will have much time to work on it, but we all need something to keep us sane. Working on it on-and-off, the transliteration alone took her until 1947, when there is a note that says, Unsure where to go from here – unsure if I am even correct in my assumptions. I hate to do it, but I shall have to ask J. for assistance. Then, on the next page: J. has teased me mercilessly about having to ask for help, but he teases everyone mercilessly, and I think he was flattered, besides; it is rare that anyone asks his service in anything other than
things that are inappropriate for me to write and throwing himself into peril. Disappointingly, he was not flattered enough that to tell me how he knows this language, but I will work out that puzzle later. First I must complete this one.
In the three remaining years of her life (her file reads d. 1 August 1950, bus accident, which Tosh thinks is an almost laughably mundane death for a Torchwood employee), Madeline translated perhaps 15 percent of the phrasebook, and her notes are riddled with question marks. This is why Toshiko spent so much time working on a translation program: so that, in the event there was something worth translating, it would not take eight-plus years. In fact, it is remarkably easy, once she scans in all the printed material. Using the phrasebook as a basis, she tweaks the program to transliterate the other book. With both as samples, she sets the translation program to work.
The phrasebook is easy, even for an unknown language: this is because she has a database full of alien pickup lines courtesy of Jack, and some of them are in the phrasebook. Tosh stops by Ianto’s desk in the tourist center on her way out to lunch, says, “My side project is coming along nicely” and “When you have some time to spare, tell Jack, ‘Ei-ktht nang fero; ktht-ai yun fero a.’ And let me know how it goes.”
He never actually does, not with words, but the next day he brings her a chocolate éclair with her coffee and gives her the name of a pastry chef nearby who would be more than willing to give her a free sample next time she stops in.
So, yes, the phrasebook is translated and accurate and maybe for Christmas she will give a copy to Ianto, assuming he and Jack are still together by then. She hopes they will be; someone on the team – someone who’s not Gwen – has to have some semblance of a love-life, and the two of them deserve a bit of happiness. But as for the other book (all that’s translated of the title is “The,” which confuses her, because she was almost certain that Eikthali didn’t have a definite article), Toshiko is finding it to be significantly slower going. The sections of it that are translated don’t make much sense, all fragments and repetition and—
That night Toshiko sits down and she resets the translation program, because it was set up to translate prose – to translate pickup lines and love letters and court documents, and no wonder it wasn’t making sense of the book before. Translating poetry has an entirely different set of rules.
It takes time for the translation to be complete; once the program is complete, Tosh goes back over the book herself, makeshift glossary in hand. It isn’t that she distrusts the program – after all, she wrote it herself – but she knows that poetry is a fragile thing and she wants to make sure she sees to any rough edges that need smoothing. (Two years ago she might have asked Suzie to help her; they didn’t get on very well, but one night with wine in hand, they stayed up till dawn, discussing Dickinson and Bashō, Whitman and Keats, Tennyson and Rilke. She tried not to think of it when she helped Ianto pack up Suzie’s belongings and move them to the warehouse. When Suzie came back from the dead, she didn’t have to try, because Suzie was obviously crazy and also intent on murder. But Suzie was the only one who was ever interested in poetry, so Tosh smooths the rough edges herself.)
When, finally, it is complete, Toshiko takes the book upstairs to Jack’s office. “Today I looked out,” she reads. “And I saw my name among the stars, and I saw the worlds, the many breathing, aching worlds, and I knew all things were within my grasp if I would only reach and close my hand. And today I looked in, and I heard my name upon your lips, and I did not need to see any more than this. Today I reached out and closed my hand around yours.”
Jack is silent for longer than she would have expected: this is his remembering expression. “Not a bad translation,” he says. “Good work, Toshiko.”
She smiles at him and holds out the book. “What does it sound like in the original?”
He reads it to her. Later, she finds Madeline Cranmer’s drawer and reads it to her, so she will finally know the completion of her work. Toshiko makes sure to read a little too loud so that, fifty years down the rows of drawers, Suzie can hear her too.