topnav

Series Info...Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #151:

Transcreation

by Shannon Appelcline
2004-07-22


I learned a new word the other week. Transcreation. It came from this press release, which describes how a company (Gotham Comics) is recreating Spider-Man in an Indian background. Here's a blip from the release:

Spider-Man India interweaves the local customs, culture and mystery of modern India, with an eye to making Spider-Manís mythology more relevant to this particular audience. Readers of this series will not see the familiar Peter Parker of Queens under the classic Spider-Man mask, but rather a new hero Ė a young, Indian boy named Pavitr Prabhakar. As Spider-Man, Pavitr leaps around rickshaws and scooters in Indian streets, while swinging from monuments such as the Gateway of India and the Taj Mahal.

Of course, the press release then continues on, with the arrogance typical of the genre, to say, "Unlike traditional translations of American comics, Spider-Man India will become the first-ever 'transcreation,' where we reinvent the origin of a Western property like Spider-Man so that he is an Indian boy in Mumbai and dealing with local problems and challenges".

It's arrogant because, you see, even if the word transcreation is new, transcreations have been going on for thousands of years, pretty much since the birth of literature, and as such they're a tool you can use when creating your own stories within online games.

Transcreation of Plot

The most popular recipient of transcreation is plot--perhaps because there truly are a limited number of plots (2 or 3 or 30 or whatever, depending on whom you talk to), perhaps just because we cling strongly to plots we already know. And, the most transcreated plots are undoubtedly those of William Shakespeare.

Consider the 1961 West Side Story, which is Romeo & Juliet transcreated to the gangs of New York or the 2000 Hamlet, which adapts Shakespeare's play of the same to a futuristic New York or the 1985 Ran, which translates the story of King Lear into Japanese Feudalism.

However, to a certain extent these adaptations of Shakespeare's plays, though common, are the least interesting transcreations you can find--because they are usually unerringly faithful to Shakespeare's original script, line-by-line.

More frequently (and more interestingly), however, transcreation of plot takes as its foundation a well-known plot, then expands upon it in different ways.

Recently, I was reading the second volume of Eric Shanower's brilliant Age of Bronze, which recounts the story of the Trojan War. In this volume Artemis, the Goddess of the Hunt, demands the sacrifice of Agamemnon's daughter, Iphiginea, so that the winds will be calmed and the ships may sail to Troy. After the sacrifice, Odysseus describes it such to the mother, Klytemnestra:

"Your daughter was glorious the way she knelt at the altar. The knife descended. Suddenly a thunderclap stunned us all. When we recovered, a beautiful doe lay before the altar, panting out her lifeblood."

I was immediately stuck with the similarity to Abraham's story in the Bible:

And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son. And the Angel of the Lord called unto him out of heaven, and said, Abraham, Abraham: and he said, Here am I. And he said, Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him: for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son, from me. And Abraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold before him a ram caught in a thicket by his horns: and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt offering in the stead of his son.

Other than the Judeo-Christian god being a little more chatty than his Greek counterpart, the plots of these two incidents are stunningly similar, from the request of the father's sacrifice by a god, down to the replacement of the male/female deer for the son/daughter (though, in Age of Bronze we must sadly acknowledge that this alledged substitution is merely a story told to give the mother comfort, though it was presumably taken more as fact in the earlier stories of the Trojan War).

One doesn't need to go far to find other transcreations of plot, the most famous probably being the story of the flood, which shows up in the Bible and also The Epic of Gilgamesh. More such transcreations can be found up and down throughout history.

Moving back toward Spider-Man, with whom I began this article, I can remember seeing at least three very distinct transcreations of his origin story: in Amazing Fantasy #15, where he was a teenager in the 1960s, in Ultimate Spider-Man #1-7, where he was a young teenager in the late 1990s, and in Spider-Man: The Movie, where he was an almost-adult in the late 1990s. Though not as dramatic as the Indian Spider-Man (or as the much more mutated stories found in antiquity), this is yet another example of a base plot being adapted for different times and places.

In roleplaying games, transcreation can be a bit more difficult for one reason: suspension of disbelief. A few years ago the gamemaster in our local, long-running RuneQuest campaign transcreated the plot of Ran (which itself is King Lear, you'll recall) for use in his RQ game. It was an exciting story, of the differences between family, and it resonated. But, at the same time, we were all aware that we were taking part in a story that was somewhat outside the story of the RuneQuest game itself. Recently, when we returned to those realms seeking assistance in a huge battle to come, we still referred to it as "Lear Land". Though a good story, it did cost our campaign a little of its realism.

The goal in transcreating plot for a roleplaying game, then, must be not just to use an old and evocative plot, but also to disguise it a bit, to try and make it a truly coherent part of your game. Perhaps you'll want to change it just enough so that players assumptions about the original plot will fail, thus making it an entity of its own.

(And as a quick caveat, credit where credit is due. If you're disguising a classic plot or modifying it, it's to maintain suspension of disbelief, not to deny credit to the original idea holders.)

However, don't let these concerns cause you to shy too far away from transcreating a plot. If a story has remained in our folklore for five hundred years, or a thousand, or more ... there's a reason.

Other Transcreations

Plots are probably the most transcreated element of storytelling--but not the only one.

Theme is probably next up, and I'm not sure if it's a really a transcreation, or, literally, just variations on a theme. Nonetheless, when looking at old stories, it's worthwhile considering what they're reallying say--as well as how they say it. Did a particular message have an impact in a story? Could it again?

Characters are probably a more popular transcreation, but at least as dangerous to suspension of disbelief as plot. Michael Moorcock has made a cottage industry of it, through the stories of his Eternal Champion ... and Eternal Companion and Eternal Lover and Eternal Dog Spot. Similar archetypes are very explicitly repeated story and story. Likewise you could take a notable historical or literary character and use them as a basis for a character of your own.

A few modern comic writers have gone a step forward, using transcreations not just as archetypes, but rather as literal characters. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen by Alan Moore, for example, features Captain Nemo, the Invisible Man, Mina Harker, and other pulp heroes, while in Planetary by Warren Ellis, a similar set of pulp folks is used (including Tarzan, Tom Swift, and the Shadow), though these are mildly disguised with new names, presumably for trademark reasons.

Background and Setting are both less frequently transcreated because they tend to be more closely tied to the stories that they're the basis for.

A Few Final Notes

Gotham and Marvel Comic's decision to transcreate Spider-Man is simply a business decision: a way to sell more comics in India. That's probably the main purvue for transcreations of modern stories. Because of intellectual property rights, you'll want to stay away from anything newer than a hundred years or so.

However, that are thousands of years of public domain that can be considered, from Gilgamesh to Dracula. And, if you're considering transcreating these plots, characters, and themes, it won't just be to make a buck, but rather because you feel like they still have meaningful things to say--that they're still important for the modern day.

You should never let it interfere with your unique storytelling, with the belief in your own unique world, but barring all those restrictions, transcreation can be another interesting tool to put into your storytelling toolkit.

[ <— #150: Strategy & Tactics | #152: Some Thoughts on Artificial Intelligence —> ]