An Esperanto Saga

At the turn of the year I decided, finally, to start using Duolingo to learn another language. I considered brushing up on Irish, French, or German – chronic rustiness has set in for all three – or delving into Italian, Latin, or Russian. But then I took a notion to try Esperanto, and the idea stuck.

So I’m learning basic Esperanto, to build on the impromptu lesson I got from a stranger on the streets of Galway once. It’s more out of linguistic curiosity than any practical ambition; obscure William Shatner films aside, I seldom encounter the language in social or cultural context. So it was an unlikely but pleasing coincidence to come across Esperanto in a comic book.

Saga, written by Brian K. Vaughan, drawn by Fiona Staples, and published by Image Comics, is a sci-fi adventure fantasy whose first two volumes (of eight published to date) I picked up on spec last week. It won’t be to all tastes – there’s graphic sex and violence – but it’s an uncommonly imaginative, funny, and unpredictable work for fans of heady, beautifully drawn graphic novels.

The main storyline follows Alana and Marko, lovers from worlds at war with each other, one a moon of the other. Alana’s home planet, Landfall, uses a language called Language – English, in the comic – while Marko’s home moon, Wreath, uses one called Blue which is actually Esperanto.

Marko speaks Language as well, but few people (or creatures) seem to know Blue except for the moon’s natives. This asymmetry can be bypassed with technology:

[click images to enlarge]

Frames from Saga comic: Marko says, "You don't have to do this. We just want to live our lives." A guard says to another, "Is that moony speaking *Language*?"

Marko says, "Mom, will you please let the translator rings do their thing? Alana doesn't know how to speak Blue yet."

Blue features liberally in Saga but is not translated in footnotes, so non-Esperantists must use context and educated guesswork to infer the meaning, or else patch the text into Google Translate. For the most part the sense can be grasped in situ.

For this reader, it helped that Esperanto draws on Romance languages. My knowledge of French would not have helped me much with the next line, but passive exposure to other languages did, along with the initial Duolingo training:

Two armed Wreath figures face the reader. The woman says, "KIE ESTAS MIA KNABO!"

(‘Where is my boy!’)

When Alana and Marko first meet, their sides are at war: Alana is a guard, Marko a prisoner. Widespread prejudices between the populations extend to their languages:

Marko, in a jail cell, says, "Bonvolu doni al mi mian ringoj!" Alana, outside, the door, replies, "For the last time, none of us speaks crazy. ..."

Marko to Alana: "Mi bezonas paroli kun vi! Mi ..."

‘Mi bezonas paroli kun vi’ was easy enough to work out, even without any Esperanto: bezonas ‘need’ is like French besoin; paroli ‘speak’ is like French parler ‘speak’, parole ‘speech’, etc. Kun ‘with’ parallels Spanish con, as in chili con carne ‘…with meat’. Mi is ‘I’ (pronounced ‘me’ in Esperanto); vi is ‘you’, close enough to French vous. And so on.

The same approach helped me work out utterances like these:

A horned prisoner says, "Marko estas perfidulo."

Alana, protecting her baby from an unseen assailant: "No." Marko, standing in front of them: "Haltu! Mi avertas vin, ne tuŝu min!"

(‘Marko is a traitor’; ‘Stop! I’m warning you, don’t touch me!’)

Sometimes the Esperanto is used sparingly, if incorrectly, and the meaning is obvious:

Marko's father sprinkles a blue haze over Alana's face and says, "Dormi."

Marko, as a young boy, rides a giant grasshopper-type creature and says, "...rapida..."

And sometimes it’s more extensive and takes some figuring out:

Marko as a young boy, his eyes clenched shut, says, "Mi malamas ĉi tion!"

Marko as a young boy, sitting on the ground facing his father, says to him, "Kaj mi malamas vin, ankaŭ!" His father replies, "Ouch. Mi iros ŝajnigi vi ne diris ke, pal."

Marko as a young boy says to his father, "Mi ne povas fari ĉi tion! Mi ne estas sufiĉe bona!" His father replies, "Marko, aŭskultu tre atente. Vi devas esti kuraĝa antaŭ ol vi povos esti bona."

‘I hate this! … And I hate you, too!’

‘Ouch. I’ll pretend you did not say that, pal.’

‘I can’t do this! I’m not good enough!’

‘Marko, listen very carefully. You have to be brave [kuraĝa ‘courageous’] before you can be good.’

These longer utterances give a flavour of Esperanto case endings, parts of speech, and the like, though it’s poorly translated in parts. Malamas ‘hate’ shows a common morphological pattern in Esperanto: addition of the prefix mal– to invert the meaning. Thus malbona is ‘bad’, malvarme is cold, malalta is ‘low’, malliberejo is ‘prison’.

A StackExchange user suggests that Vaughan chose Esperanto ‘to convey [an] atmosphere of strangeness’, ‘to represent how languages divide and unite people’, and ‘to provide a deeper experience for cryptologically minded readers’. It wouldn’t be the first time the language was used in sci-fi or weird fiction.

My knowledge of Esperanto is too rudimentary to properly assess how well it’s used in Saga, but reactions from better-informed readers seems to be: not so well. Still, after weeks of daily exposure to the language in a learning context, I loved seeing it used unexpectedly and uncompromisingly in a creative work.

26 Responses to An Esperanto Saga

  1. I’m using Duolingo now to practice and to improve me Italian. I hope, eventually, to use it for Spanish and French too. Irish is amazingly hard. Esperanto must be interesting.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Best of luck with your learning. I’m already looking forward to trying another language after Esperanto. Irish is tricky – its phonology and morphosyntax must seem counterintuitive to beginners, in many ways – but it’s a wonderful language once you get a feel for it.

  2. You mentioned that Esperantists have noticed how badly the language is used in this comic. For the benefit of your readers (and also for yours, as you are learning the language), I will point out the errors in the panels reproduced here.

    Some of the errors are basic.

    * “Bonvolu doni al mi mian ringoj!” — First of all, the -n ending, which marks a direct object, must be not only on the noun but also on all modifying adjectives. Here it is missing from the noun. Secondly, a noun and its adjectives must agree in number, with both carrying the plural ending -j. So, assuming that the object is meant to be the plural “my rings”, the sentence should have finished with “…miajn ringojn!”

    * “Dormi.” — The verb form in -i is the infinitive. What would be needed here is the imperative form, which ends in -u. So the command “sleep” would be “dormu”.

    * “…rapida…” — The ending -a is for an adjective. What is needed here is the ending -e, which is the adverb ending. Presumably the character is telling the the creature he is riding to go rapidly.

    Then there is one segment that is so terribly wrong that it almost defies explanation.

    “Mi iros ŝajnigi vi ne diris ke, pal.”

    If we assume that the intent of the sentence is to express “I’m going to pretend that you didn’t say that”, then here is what’s wrong with it:

    1) The verb “iri” (“to go”) is not used in combination with other verbs as a means of expressing futurity, as in “I’m going to [another verb]”. You’d just put the other verb in the future tense, by attaching the ending -os to the root.

    2) The verb “ŝajnigi” means “to pretend” in the sense of “making (something) seem (to another person)”, mainly to trick that person. For instance: “ŝi ŝajnigis ke ŝi ne aŭdas” (“she pretended that she didn’t hear”). If you wanted to use that verb to say that you’re going to make something seem a certain way to yourself, you’d have to say something like “mi ŝajnigos al mi”. But, more likely you’d use a different verb, perhaps “imagi” (“to imagine”)

    3) The conjunction “ke” has to be used between the clauses “I’m going to pretend” and “you didn’t say that”. So we’d have “Mi ŝajnigos al mi ke vi ne diris tion”, or, as I would prefer, “Mi imagos ke vi ne diris tion”.

    4) The use of the word “ke” at the end of the clause shows that the writer did not grasp the distinction between the conjunction “that” (“ke”) and the demonstrative pronoun “that” (“tio”; which would here be “tion”, because it is the direct object of a verb).

    On the other hand, there is at least one sentence that is written perfectly:

    “Vi devas esti kuraĝa antaŭ ol vi povos esti bona.”

    This sentence shows some sophistication, because it reflects the knowledge of two features of Esperanto that someone translating word-for-word from a dictionary would not be aware of:

    1) The word “antaŭ” is a preposition, meaning “before” (both in the temporal and physical senses). Because it is a preposition, it introduces a noun or a pronoun, e.g.: “antaŭ la prelego” (“before the lecture”). In order to introduce a clause, we need not a preposition but a conjunction; and the conjunction version of “antaŭ” is “antaŭ ol”.

    2) Future time must be expressed with the future tense. In English and in many other languages, the present tense can be used when one is talking about the future. For instance, this sentence in English would end with “…before you can be good”, with the present tense of the modal verb “can”. However, in Esperanto we need to put the verb “povi” (“to be able to”) into the future tense in order to express this thought.

    This sentence shows the touch of an experienced speaker of Esperanto; by contrast, much of the rest of the Esperanto text is done carelessly and crudely.

    Anyway, I have been speaking Esperanto for almost thirty years; and I would be willing to answer any questions that you might have as you proceed in your learning.

    And that goes for anyone else reading this post who has taken up Esperanto. Please feel free to write to me at the e-mail address, or to send me a message in Facebook Messenger.

    Al mi ĉiam plaĉas helpi lernantojn. Tiel ni pluvivigas nian lingvon.

    This says: “I am always pleased to help learners. That’s how we keep our language alive.”

    (And that verb in the second sentence is especially Esperanto-y! The verb “vivi” means “to live”; “pluvivi” means “to live on; to continue to live”. The ending “-igi” means “to cause to”; so the verb “pluvivigi” means “to cause to live on”.)

    • Stan Carey says:

      Thank you, Ferdinand, for a very helpful and interesting critique of the Esperanto shown in the images. I had identified some of the mistakes when reading the comic (Dormi → Dormu, for example), but was at a loss with many of the others, as I’m very much a novice. It makes me wonder why a translator was not hired: this would not have been especially expensive, and it would have improved the result immeasurably.

    • This is an excellent explanation, thanks for taking the time to write it. It’s cool that the comic used Esperanto so extensively, it’s a shame that it was a Google Translate job.

    • Great analysis and explanation! Thank you!

      • Oh, it’s my pleasure.

        Because Esperanto is not taught in schools or universities, most people who learn the language do so on their own. So anything that is published in Esperanto takes on a significance that is greater than the equivalent text would have in another language.

        And so we experienced users have a responsibility to offer corrections to poorly done examples, so that those examples do not adversely influence new learners.

  3. I adore esperanto and the idea behind its creation. I tried to learn it about 20 years ago and was progressing well, at first on my own with a book, later with a home/distance course. Unfortunately life got in the way; divorce, cancer, job layoffs, multiple moves, death in family (all the above in a span of maybe 5 years), and I got derailed. I got on track again briefly about 6-7 years ago when I discovered a local esperanto meet-up group, and we had a few meetings. There were some very fluent speakers there, and others of us just beginners trying to put together sentences. The group disbanded, I don’t know why. For me personally, the hardest part about learning the language was when the book introduced the topic of direct and indirect objects, and the fact that (IIRC) direct objects have an “N” at the end. Oy! OK for reading not OK for speaking! Learning to speak it is on my bucket list. I LOVE the comic strip and understood most of it!

    • Stan Carey says:

      I love the idea behind its creation too, even if the historical context has left it with certain features I’d rather it didn’t have (e.g., some female nouns are just marked versions of male ones). It’s nice to mention it here on the blog and (a) attract comments from new faces and (b) discover that some familiar names, like yours and Ferdinand’s, have experience with it.
      The Esperanto playwright I met by chance in Galway was in town for a conference on the language, so I have an idea of its enthusiastic membership, but it can be hard for a social group to sustain itself indefinitely. Speaking it is a good thing to have on your bucket list!

  4. Bill Chapman says:

    Esperanto Conference in Aberystwyth, Wales: The 99th British and 3rd Pan-Celtic Esperanto Conference combined will take place at The Morlan Centre in Aberystwyth from Friday, April 13 to Tuesday, April 17 2018.

    There will be guided visits to different parts of Ceredigion as a way of showing this part of Wales to visitors from overseas in particular.
    For details go to or contact Tim Owen on 0773 7410480

    • Stan Carey says:

      Bill, it would have been polite of you to address what I wrote, or even just say hello, before promoting your conference at length. I’ll allow it this once, having edited your comment to omit many details that are available on the website.

  5. MOD says:

    I can’t offer anything on the Esperanto but nit-picking comes in many flavours; Saga is actually up to 49 issues, as of February. I think you might be referring to collected volumes (trade paper backs, TPBs), where it has reached number eight.

    It might seem pedantic, but the higher figure of issues gives a better indication of the wealth of material that awaits potential readers. And I agree with you completely – it is a brilliant read.

  6. Just to mention that until I read your post, I had never heard of Duolingo. I checked it out today and am so happy to be doing even the most basic esperanto exercises! Thank you so much for the wealth, depth and breadth of your blog. I don’t comment often but I read them all. Including the book spine poetry :)

    • Stan Carey says:

      Well, this has just made my morning. Thank you. I’m delighted you got started with Duolingo. With your background in Esperanto you’ll fly through the early stages, but hopefully it will start challenging you before long.
      And I know it’s been ages since I did a book spine poem. No promises, but I’ll try to make a new one soon. :-)

    • As far as the features you mentioned, we have that in English as well, for example man and woman, waiter and waitress and so forth. It is what it is and I don’t think that when Zamenhof created the language, he meant it in any way to be sexist. Esperanto is an extremely simple and elegant language, and it amazes me how he created it with incredible logic and consistency. I would challenge anybody to do it better.
      On another note, regarding the dissolution of the esperanto meet-up, maybe it was because we really didn’t have that much in common except that we spoke the same language (or tried to). That would be like throwing a bunch of people who speak English into a room and expecting them to get together on a regular basis if they don’t really have common interests. I’m not saying you can’t find some common ground but you have to have stuff to talk about. Plus, with different levels of expertise spanning the spectrum from beginners to experts, that was just a difficult situation. Enter Duolingo!!

      • Stan Carey says:

        Oh, I’m sure it wasn’t intentionally sexist: he was applying a pattern typical of many other languages and cultures. Today we’re more aware of the imbalance, is all. I agree too that it’s an admirably consistent language, which certainly makes it easier for learners.

        • Well, what I meant is that he chose a pattern exactly for the purpose of making it easy, which is not necessarily why other cultures/languages made their word choices. Now although I’m no language expert, it seems to me that the words (for example) husband and wife have no etymological relationship, the way waiter/waitress do, and all other constructions that make it easy, let’s say, for an ESL speaker to intuitively see a pattern and recognize a word for what it represents. We DO, however, have the nice word spouse, which is gender neutral. I’m all for that, because it seems to keep everyone calm!

  7. languagehat says:

    It’s cool that the comic used Esperanto so extensively

    I disagree; I find it intensely annoying that Vaughan shows such utter disrespect to a language and its users as to think you can just fake it with such a half-assed amateurish version. It reminds me of minstrel-show versions of African-American dialect. If you’re going to use a language, have the decency, if you don’t know it well enough to write it correctly, to run it past someone who does.

    • Stan Carey says:

      That’s a fair point. It’s possible, though unlikely, that the circumstances of the comic’s creation somehow necessitated the shortcut. In any case the linguistic result is unfortunate, except that even in so error-laden a form it will probably lead some newcomers to investigate Esperanto for themselves.

      • I do notice that they don’t call it esperanto, they call it Blue. Maybe it is to Esperanto what Creole is to French. It is a dialect. Don’t be so hard on them; it’s just a comic. Comic strips in any language are not really the best examples of how to speak the language.

  8. Debilov 40 says:

    This is super cool. I think it would be easy to find Esperantists who would be glad to edit the Esperanto text. Just nip over to Reddit

  9. […] the comic Saga, whose use of untranslated Esperanto I wrote about recently, How to Be Both switches to Italian and lets the reader fend for themself. […]

  10. […] Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples, Saga, vol. 1. Delicate readers should skip this one. Alana has just given birth, and her partner, Marko, is […]

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