by guest writer Kris Schnee
©2008 Kris Schnee
When archaeologists find an artifact they cant explain, they may declare it was used for religious purposes. The object is mysterious because the context is missing; the archaeologists see a symbol but dont have the information to relate it to anything they know. That problem is similar to one faced by the anthro fandom, and it threatens to leave our group as an isolated, incomprehensible, forgotten culture unless we understand the concept of translation.
What does it mean to translate something? When we run text back and forth through a computer translator, the results are often laughably bad, because the machine seems to be basically looking up equivalent words one at a time and has little knowledge of each languages quirks or even its grammar. In contrast, what a human does when translating is to try to get at the ideas behind the abstract symbols that are words, figuring out what the text means instead of what it literally says. Translation is a creative process because it involves a number of conflicting goals. For instance, which is the better translation of The Canterbury Tales, originally written in 14th-century Middle English verse: One that preserves the rhyme-scheme but changes the specific words, or one that preserves the words but abandons the verse structure for prose? Theres not really an objectively right answer to this question. Different translators will make their own decisions on such problems as which words are equivalent, how literally to preserve them, whether to replace obscure cultural references, how to deal with untranslatable puns, and what details to emphasize. So, what translators do is a personal, subjective task that creates a new interpretation of the original ideas, rather than mechanically presenting the same ideas in a new form.
In fact, everything we do as creators of stories, art, music, even costumes is a form of translation. Each human mind has its own set of ideas, each of which is tied in with a unique, ludicrously complex set of experiences and other context. When a writer types The coyote built a spaceship, the sentence is an attempt to stuff an idea, existing in the writers mind as a pattern of neural activity, into a series of abstract squiggles. Those squiggles might get turned into spots of ink or Internet data packets (through a whole other series of packaging algorithms!), flung across unknown gulfs of time and space, and hopefully, maybe, causing something like the original idea to reappear in another human mind. Imagine, then, the excitement of an explorer who learns a lost language and speaks the names of forgotten gods; or of a child who fully appreciates what theyve accessed by learning to read. To cross that gap between minds is an incredibly complicated challenge that we dont usually appreciate, and the fact that we can communicate at all relies on our having some kind of shared mapping, shared experience for saying what the symbols mean.
What does all that have to do with the fandom? Everything! Imagine that youre an outsider to it, an explorer showing up at a furry convention or something, and that nobody will explain whats going on. Okay, you know what a convention is, but whats with the costumes? Whats the significance of terms like The Eye of Argon or yiff or FurryMUCK or Chakat? Is it mandatory to hug or scratch people or attend sketchy room parties? Whats the point of all this activity? Or, say you pick up a furry story collection and its riddled with obscure terminology and in-jokes. If youre already a science fiction fan you can understand what warp drive and lightsabers are without explanation, but what about SCABS or Metamor or Martian Flu? If newcomers cant easily understand whats going on within the group, if they dont have the information to relate what theyre seeing to things they already understand, then the fandom is as opaque to them as a foreign language, and theyre going to get frustrated and leave. And if the outsiders dont already have a background in Star Trek or attending conventions or anything of the sort, the concepts and expectations theyll have to deal with will be that much more baffling.
The anthro fandom remains a small group looked upon with suspicion and ridicule by the general public. There seem to be no financially successful furry publications on anything like the scale of Isaac Asimovs Science Fiction Magazine; nor is a great anthro painting likely to be hanging in a museum anytime soon in anything but a weird experimental exhibit. One reason for this failure so far to become mainstream is that its hard for anyone unfamiliar with this subculture to understand what it is and why it might interest them. What we have here is a failure to communicate!
There are ways to try to make the connection between our own interests and those of other people who might appreciate and enrich our group. One straightforward way is for people in all roles in the fandom to reach out more, to invite people to gatherings and show off some of the best work the group has produced. How about regular Whats this all about? sessions at conventions, well-advertised outside the conventions and meant to explain something of the unwritten rules? Yes, we can hand people an official list that says no weapons, no drugs, no public orgies but if thats the introduction people get, just picture what theyll think the fandom is all about! Much better would be to tell people, There are plenty of things to do here; some of them you should probably avoid, and youre really not required to participate in them. Want to play video games or something? By offering that kind of friendly introduction we can attract people who probably have a lot in common with us but dont yet know it.
More subtly, we should pay more attention to communicating our interests and ideas. Why exactly do we care about all this anthro stuff, anyway? Are we just nerds obsessed with cartoons, or do we have anything to say that might be of interest to other people? Is there some message, moral, or truth behind the things we create and talk about? Find your answer, and figure out how to tell the world!
Making the ideas contained in anthro fiction interesting and accessible to a wider group of people means more than removing jargon. Its time to ask whether some of our work has become stale and inbred, relying on past ideas as with an endless series of Star Wars spinoffs or Tolkien imitations. If the vocabulary and cultural context of our work is too focused on itself, it cant grow to encompass new ideas and stay relevant to people. It becomes a backwater, like some forgotten temple with carvings that no longer mean anything to anyone. Because stories, art and other creative works draw on universal human themes, we ought to be looking at how we can continue tapping into those and not get overly caught up in questions like what would furniture for centaurs look like? Because creative works help people to explore topics that are collectively on our minds (war, politics, terrorism, surveillance, energy, the environment ), we should try to apply more of our efforts to tackling them, which will help us be more relevant and interesting to the public. And if we believe we do have something unique and interesting to saya valuable viewpointthen we should fully use that strength by taking on big topics with it! Were wasting that perspective if we just write about a love story except that the people are all foxes or a wolf-guy goes to college with a bunch of other furries. Instead, we should be ripping deep, meaningful ideas out of the world and transforming them into something new and unique, where abstract questions like what does it mean to be human? take on new significance. If we can do a good job at this translation between contexts, getting people to look at real problems great and small in new ways, then we can really move people with our work. Then theyll repay the favor, by ripping abstract lessons out of what were saying and re-applying them to specific situations in their own lives. We will have made our little group important, relevant, and even useful. Thats a goal worth striving for.