A peek at the process of finding Igbo terms for glamour

Last week, I posted a call for help finding a native Igbo speaker that could help me with some terms for glamour in Of Noble Family, the final Glamourist Histories novel. Thank you all for sending a bunch of generous folks my way. I wound up working with Ebele Mogo, president of the Engage Africa Foundation. She’s also an author, which is always handy.

Ebele has given me permission to post our emails about the project, so you can see how this sort of process goes, and why I think it’s so important to work with someone from the culture you’re trying to represent.

First let me provide some background on the project, before I get to the specific things I need help with. I write historical fantasy novels that are set in the early 1800s. They are sort of like Jane Austen, with magic and I work very hard to be as accurate as possible aside from the inclusion of magic.

In this version of the world, everyone can do something called “glamour.” It’s an illusionary form of magic that can create images, sound, and scents but nothing tangible. Technically, although these words are never in the text, what they are doing is manipulating waveforms, so the visual illusions are a manipulation of the electromagnetic spectrum, then sound waves, etc.

In England, young ladies of quality are taught glamour the same way they are taught painting, music, and needlepoint. It’s seen as a womanly art, and the language used to describe it is related to textiles and often uses French terms. Different cultures have different relationships with it.

So– In the novel, my main character, Jane who is a white British woman, is talking to Nkiruka, an enslaved African in Antigua about glamour. The discussion is about the limitations that the British idea of glamour as a textile place on the art form. Nkiruka says that glamour has its own words, instead of borrowing. Which means… that I need words that don’t mean something else. It’s fine if they are compound words, but totally made-up terms would also work for my purposes.

What I’m going to do is give you the words that I came up with through an online tutorial and Google translate. I’ll provide the context and also the definition that the term should have. If you want the entire book, I’m happy to send that along as well.

“Yes. I use agakọ iteto and then agba gbanwere.”

  • agakọ iteto — Is a technique to blend two pieces of glamour by interweaving the waveforms.
  • agba gbanwere — Is a technique in which the glamourist pulls on the waveform to smooth the peaks and valleys, thus shifting it to a color lower in the spectrum

Nkiruka stretched a piece of blue-white glamour between them. “Look. Use a ewute iteto with your Hobbson’s Pleating. Is so snow look?”

  • ewute iteto – This is essentially a diffusion filter, that makes the illusion look soft and foggy.

She looked frankly baffled. “No. Only one mkpụrụ obi ikuku — ether.”

  • mkpụrụ obi ikuku – The ether – Where the magic comes from. Early physicists  believed that the world was broken into elements with ether being the highest element. Although this theory is discredited now, the original definition meant “A substance of great elasticity and subtlety, formerly believed to permeate the whole of planetary and stellar space, not only filling the interplanetary spaces, but also the interstices between the particles of air and other matter on the earth; the medium through which the waves of light are propagated. Formerly also thought to be the medium through which radio waves and electromagnetic radiations generally are propagated” (OED). Today you’ll more commonly see it as the root of “ethereal,” and its meaning is similar.

Please let me know if you have any questions or would like an electronic copy of the novel. Thank you very much for your time and attention.

Ebele wrote back very quickly and explained her process for thinking up terms. I’m cutting our socializing, but leaving the rest of the emails intact. One thing that I really want to point out as you read this, is the way she talks about Igbo. This is why just using google translate to come up with words for a magic system doesn’t work. Sure, I can get words, but the culture and thought behind them can’t come from a computer.

So let me get this- you basically want to find the accurate words for the techniques for ‘glamourizing’ if that’s a word.
So with the part where you interweave the waveforms I suggest you use whole sentences instead of putting the words in the middle of the english sentence as it doesn’t always fit that way. This is because igbo is very poetic and so to translate a thought you have to create a whole sentence that captures the imagery not really the word. So we are translating imagery not words in most cases. I will try to explain below

For example in the first one, “Yes. I use agakọ iteto and then agba gbanwere.” you could say “Yes, m na-eke ya ka a na-eke ịsị aka, and then ị d? ya-ad? ka ịwedata ugwu dị na ya ka hancha dị na-ala”

All the letter i’s that have a dot under are long ‘i’s in Igbo. We have short and long vowels as igbo is very tonal.

m na-eke ya ka a na-eke ịsị aka means I will weave it like you weave hair which means  interweaving the strains

ị d? ya-ad? ka ịwedata ugwu dị na ya ka hancha dị na-ala means to pull and flatten the mountains on it so they can all be flat.

Okay then where you say a diffusion filter, again we will use a poetic translation
So for  “Look. Use ewute iteto with your Hobbson’s Pleating. Is so snow look?” you can say “Look. With your Hobbson’s pleating, use ugobu na-eme ka &#7885 dị ka mmadu jịrị anya na-ebe akwa ahu uz&#7885. Is so snow look?”

Which will mean use the glass which makes it look like someone is seeing through tears (we say glass for eye glasses, mirror, anything that has a lens and from my understanding of diffusion filters they are special lenses for the effect). So basically the ugbo which makes it look like you are looking through tears means the filters that make it blurry since seeing through tear-filled eyes has that effect.

Also where you say ‘is snow look?’ are you trying to say it in pidgin english? If so it would be- na so snow dey look? But maybe you aren’t.

She looked frankly baffled. “No. Only one mkpụrụ obi ikuku — ether.”

As for mkpụrụ obi ikuku I think it is okay and very beautiful. It means the heart of the wind literally which I think does a good job of capturing the thought here.

Let me know if this helps:)

Me again. One thing I’ll note is that although I worked with someone from Antigua on the dialect that Nkiruka speaks when speaking English, it sounded wrong to Ebele because it was a different dialect than the one spoken in Nigeria. Again, this is why you can’t just say “he spoke in a dialect.”

For the one with the Hobbson’s pleating, my description of a diffusion filter is misleading. I think looking through tears is spot on, but in 1818, they wouldn’t have had the context of a glass lens. Is there a way to make it just about looking through tears?

And the pidgin… She’s using Antiguan Creole English, which made sense to me since that’s where she learned English. I worked with an Antiguan writer on those lines.

Here’s Ebele’s response.

Okay so in that case I’d say “Look. With your Hobbson’s pleating, me ka ọ dị ka mmadu jịrị anya na-ebe akwa ahu uzọ. Is so snow look?”This means – ‘do’ or ‘make’ it like someone is looking through tear filled eyes.

I’m really pleased with the results of our conversation. Of course, I’m also painfully aware that there’s an audiobook looming. Might be time to talk about getting a different narrator…

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5 thoughts on “A peek at the process of finding Igbo terms for glamour”

  1. Very cool. So how did you find her? Did she have any clue who you were/what you do before your conversation?

    Re narrators, do you have a range of accents/dialects that you’re comfortable with? Would you do other more familiar but non-English/European phrases? (e.g. Russian? Japanese?) Are there narrators out there who could handle all the different languages, dialects, and accents in this book? Or would you share out the narration?

    1. I was mostly joking, actually. I’ve talked before about how I tend to write myself into corners where I’m forced to narrate a language I don’t speak. French was a nightmare. The way I handle it is to ask a native speaker to record the lines twice. The first time, really, really, really slow. The second time, at full speed as they would say it in conversation.

      I’ve recorded Ukranian, Polish, Russian, French, Japanese, Icelandic, Gaelic, Portuguese, Spanish, Latin, and random fantasy languages. The fact that I haven’t done Igbo isn’t the problem, it’s just my narrator brain knowing that this is coming.

      The dialect worries me more, because I’m afraid that no matter how much I study it, it will sound like a caricature.

      1. The best way to speak Igbo so that it doesn’t sound flat (for a non – native speaker) is to SING it. Don’t try to say the words as they’re very tonal and you could be saying something embarrassing.

        E.g. ‘Abàrà ya íkénna n’ihi na nna ya sìrì íké.”

        “They called him Ikenna as his father was very strong.”

        Same words, different intonation and you could be saying ‘They called him ‘Father’s buttocks’ as his father smelt buttocks.”

        Don’t panic though. Just listen to the words and sing them back and you’ll be fine.

        Can’t wait to read the book!

  2. That’s awesome. It also makes me feel less anxious about contacting authors in other countries, as was suggested during the WTO Q&A for my Afghan urban fantasy (although I’ve been considering setting it in the US instead, since it was assiduously pointed out that if I had to take anti-anxiety medication simply to talk about it in what was a safe space, the reaction likely to happen on the Internet, even if I did it “right”, would probably be detrimental to my mental health). It’s very cool to see that Ms. Mogo was willing to help you out, and makes me feel a little less scared.

    I also love the explanation of language and how different it is from English. Just the way she described how their language works… it sounds beautiful.

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