One thing I really like about the Imperial Radch books is the way they use language. Like many SF works, the need to develop a complete conlang is avoided by the convention that the work is a ‘translation’ from an original story in Radchaai. This is most obvious through the way the book uses ‘she’ pronouns and ‘person’ throughout except when Breq is speaking to someone in a language with gendered grammar.

But one thing I didn’t initially realise is how it affects the songs. Three of the songs used in the book are based on real songs, but rewritten as if ‘translated’ from the Radchaai language rather than using the original words.

For example, l’homme armé (’the armed man’) is a French song which goes like this (choral performance here):

L’homme, l’homme, l’homme armé,
Ll’homme armé,
L’homme armé doibt on doubter,
Doibt on doubter.
On a fait partout crier
Que chascun se viegne armer
D’un haubregon de fer.
L’homme, l’homme, l’homme armé
Ll’homme armé,
L’homme armé doibt on doubter.

Wikipeda offers this English translation:

The man, the man, the armed man,
The armed man,
The armed man should be feared,
should be feared.
Everywhere it has been proclaimed
That each man shall arm himself
With a coat of iron mail.
The man, the man, the armed man,
The armed man,
The armed man should be feared.

This fits the original tune of the song and the English sentences are pretty similarily structured to the French ones.

But Breq’s translation goes like this:

The person, the person, the person with weapons.
You should be afraid of the person with weapons. You should be afraid.
All around the cry goes out, put on armor made of iron.
The person, the person, the person with weapons.
You should be afraid of the person with weapons. You should be afraid.

The basic meaning of the song is the same, and the lines can be matched up, but the grammar has been changed in each sentence - and because this is Radchaai, the armed man has become an armed person. You can imagine that this song has been translated by someone from a different language with no awareness of the French song, without trying to make it scan as a song (or at least not the same song) in English.

At least a few of these songs are based on Ann Leckie’s experience as a shape note singer, as she discusses here.

I love singing! I especially love singing with other people—choral singing is a blast. I think it’s a shame that so many people I meet have such an ambivalent, fraught relationship with singing. It’s such a personal kind of music, one nearly anyone can make, but there’s often a feeling that only certain people are allowed to do it. I’ve met way more people who claim they can’t sing than actually can’t. And I’ve met lots of people who actively discourage anyone around them from singing. Why is that? I wish people felt freer to sing, and freer to enjoy people around them singing.

It’s one of the things I love about shape note singing—there’s no audition, no question of whether or not your voice is good enough, or whether anyone has talent. You love to sing? Come sing! There’s no audience, we’re just singing for the pure joy of singing. Granted, the music itself might be something of an acquired taste. Still, if the idea intrigues you, visit fasola.org and see if there’s a singing near you.

I didn’t know right away that One Esk would want to sing. But the moment I realized that it would be able to sing choral music all by itself the idea was pretty much inescapable.

As for music that I found inspiring, there would be two different sorts. Music that I listened to while writing or plotting, and music that I included in the story itself. Of the latter, there are three real-life songs in Ancillary Justice. Two of them are (shockingly enough) shape note songs—“Clamanda” (Sacred Harp 42) and “Bunker Hill” (Missouri Harmony 19). They’re songs that, for one reason or another, I connect with these characters and events.

The third is older than these two by a couple of centuries, but it shares their military theme. It’s “L’homme Armé,” and it seems like every late fifteenth-century composer and their pet monkey wrote a mass based on it. I exaggerate—I don’t think we have that many surviving Missas L’homme Armé by pet monkeys. But it was a popular song in its day.

Clamanda is rendered as Oh, have you gone to the battlefield. The second verse of the original song goes:

Oh have you ventured to the field,
Well armed with helmet, sword and shield?
And shall the world, with dread alarms,
Compel you now to ground your arms?

In English, this rhymes and has a particular meter. Here’s Breq’s version:

Oh, have you gone to the battlefield
Armored and well-armed?
And shall dreadful events
Force you to drop your weapons?

It’s got its own style but it clearly doesn’t fit the rhythm or rhyme scheme of the original song - but translated from Radchaai by a modern translator, you wouldn’t expect it to. You get the sense that the translator is translating the literal meaning of the song but not capturing the way it’s actually sung.

Simiarly, Bunker Hill originally goes:

Death will invade us by the means appointed,
And we must all bow to the King of Terrors;
Nor am I anxious, nor am I anxious,
If I am prepared, what shape he comes in.

The book translates Breq’s rendition of it as:

Death will overtake us
In whatever manner already fated
Everyone falls to it
And so long as I’m ready
I don’t fear it
No matter what form it takes

Anyway I didn’t realise this at first but I really like this idea - making your book “feel like” it’s been translated imperfectly, and talking about language - as a way of hinting at linguistic diversity without having to go through the considerable effort of developing multiple fleshed out conlangs.

Note from 2020: The original version of this post inspired a fandom meme in the form of Radchaai Pop Songs, which applies this technique to various modern pop songs. This was my entry.