Dune: Did Frank Herbert grok Bosnian/Serbian/Croatian?

Dune a novel by Frank HerbertThe following excerpt from the first Dune novel (pg. 309) has certainly raised eyebrows of readers of the English version who are also fluent in any south Slavic language.
Deep within the cave, someone began chanting:
"Ima trava okolo!
I korenja okolo!"

Jessica translated silently: These are ashes! And these are roots!"
The funeral ceremony for Jamis was beginning.

The Fremen chant is in Serbian/Croatian/Bosnian. These closely related languages have their differences, which would not affect the above text - it would be the same in an any of them.

At first glance, the translation is deeply flawed, as the word "trava" in this form refers to grasses or herbs, while the form for ashes in the above languages would be "pepela" (from the infinitive "pepeo"). There are few solutions to this puzzle.

1. Lady Jessica made an error

Taking the contemporary meaning of the chant in Croatian/Bosnian/Serbian, Lady Jessica should have translated the chant with:
There are grasses/herbs around! And [some] roots around [too]!

This "mistake" is of no consequence later in the book, there are no incidents involving error of translation between Jessica or Paul on one hand, and the Fremen on the other.

As a device to show Jessica as capable of error ("only human" in the contemporary meaning*) it would be lost to the wast majority of readers who lack familiarity with Balkans linguistics. Therefore, we have to consider the next possibility:

2. Frank Herbert made an error

Another option is that the writer, Frank Herbert, intended the translation as "original," the "true" meaning conveyed by Jessica intended to be understood by English-language speakers, and then precluded it with a foreign-language translation to make it more exotic. In that case, he should have put the Fremen chant as
"Ima pepela okolo!
I korenja okolo!"

However, there's also a third option that would put at ease the mind of Dune fans, some of whom consider Herbert infallible.

3. Nobody's fault

No mistakes were made: Herbert grokked his Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian, Jessica's Fremen was impeccable. However, considering that the action takes place in the year of 10,191 A.D. A.G. (~ 21,264 A.D. - thanks SandChigger), it would be wise to suggest that the languages changed in the meantime, especially through mixing and matching of populations and cultural influences across various planets.

It is well-known fact that the meaning of some English words has changed in little over 400 years, from the time of Shakespeare or the King James Bible. For instance, the werb "to let" meant "to hinder", "awful" meant "deserving of awe," and "notorious" meant "famous". Or consider that in contemporary mainstream slang a person can at the same time be considered cool and hot.

* No pun intended, but the word human in the Dune novels is used to designate those with elite capabilities from the rabble, as in the "humanity test" involving the Gom Jabar.


Развигор said...

Please write if you happen to have a Serbian translation of Dune at hand. How was this segment translated there?

SandChigger said...

A user with the monicker of Miss Kazan posted about this last year on the DuneNovels forums:

"Where did Frank get his Serbian from?"

She called it a "mistranslation" as well. It's not.

The language is Chakobsa (not Fremen, which is future Arabic), and it's a historical accident that it so resembles modern Terran Bosnian/Serbian/Croatian in form & meaning. Convergent linguistic evolution, nothing more.

No, I'm not one of those who thinks Herbert was infallible. (Unless we're talking about his books in comparison with the McDune crap squeezed out over the last decade by Number One Son with hack Kevin J. Anderson, in which case, yes, he was a literary god.)

Here's what I think happened. Herbert wanted something exotic-looking and fairly unfamiliar for the Chakobsa, but he didn't want to put the effort into developing a whole new language. He wasn't J.R.R. Tolkien, after all. (Just as his son is certainly no Christopher Tolkien!) So, he just looked around on his shelves and ... grabbed the lines from a book on Serbian. He was being lazy, plain and simple. And while the detail of there being an exotic language involved was important, the details of that language weren't.

The real, Serbian meaning wasn't important, because once he used it, it became Chakobsa, not Serbian.

(Unrelated nitpicks: the gom jabbar tests real humans from animals; it's not really about the elite vs the "rabble". And it's 10,191 A.G., not A.D. It's 21,000 or more years in the future. But don't feel bad, if you have a look at that thread I linked to above, you'll see that even Frank Herbert's grandson can't keep the chronology straight.)

Развигор said...

SandChigger: thank you for your valuable contribution. I'll post my full response in a future 'official' post.

Just us - Just me said...

Hey! Nice article.
I was actually dissapointed when I found out Herbert didn't create his own language but used words and elements from existent languages on Earth today.(I was only 11 when I read the book for the first time so you can imagine it burst my bubble to find out it's not perfect years later).
Frankly, I doubt Jessica made a mistake in her translation. It wouldn't really make sense, would it? I think Herbert got his Slavic language wrong. You know how English native speakers are with Slavic languages. A real headache. I said the word Rusalka maybe 100 times to someone and then saw that he wrote it Rusulka. And he couldn't guess what the plural was either.

Ryan said...

It could be a combination of 2 and 3: Herbert expected languages to change over time, so when writing in Fremen he played fast and loose with root language meanings, neither wanting nor expecting it to come out perfect.

Ryan said...

Also, I stumbled on this forum looking for an Arabic translation of Dune, but I can't find one. Is there a political reason it hasn't been translated, or is it just that there are so many Arabic words in it that keeping the translated vs. original words straight would be difficult?

Развигор said...

Thanks Ryan. I will investigate about (non)translation of Dune in Arabic. Seems like a very interesting topic on its own right.

Теоретичарот (Иван М.) said...

I have all the Dune books in Serbian. I checked this part and it is translated exactly as it appears in the English version.

The Serbian translator made no attempt to fix Jessica's/Herbert's mistake... if it was a mistake. :)

Anonymous said...

Serbest in Turkish means free man. Serbia was one of the first countries to abolish slavery and feudalism.

Anonymous said...

And women in Serbian society have very strong position. In deed, very often, after a death of a father in a war or a rebellion against occupier, a mother would become a patriarch.