Remember the babel fish from A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy? The little psychic parasite that spacefaring peoples put in their ears to translate the people around them? You’ve probably read/watched/played dozens of stories with similar mechanics – some kind of magical or technological universal translator. It’s an interesting concept, but sadly one largely unexplored by the writers who employ it, and its use is generally limited to handwaving the question of “why do all these characters speak the same language?”
And that’s fine! Not every story is about language, and not every writer has the time to compose Elvish or Klingon just for the sake of worldbuilding. Nonetheless, when I see stories with universal translators in them, a whole host of linguistic questions come to my mind: Aren’t there some words or concepts that simply can’t be translated? Don’t cultural differences change the way we express ourselves? Would such things translate, and how?
Miamaska is comic that also poses these questions, and more.
Amity, the story’s protagonist, is a 15 year old girl who is randomly transported to another world. There, she finds that “otherworlders” like herself, from a variety of different worlds, are a fairly regular occurrence, not to mention a politically contentious one. Much about otherworlders is not understood, but they have access to a magical translation ability called the miamaska, which encodes the speaker’s meaning and thought in layers – and can decode layers of meaning and thought from others’ words.
As Amity seeks to find a way home and avoid the notice of a rising political movement bent on the extermination of people from other worlds, she falls in with a group of people dedicated to protecting otherworlders. But are they all that they seem? And are their motivations completely altruistic? And who is the man they keep chained up in the safehouse where Amity stays? The miamaska may be the key to unlocking all these secrets.
Beyond having a cool concept that tickles my linguistic fancies, Miamaska is a comic with complex characters with widely varying and nuanced motivations, a rich and mysterious setting with deep worldbuilding, and expressive and lovely full-color art. The plot is a deliciously slow burn, keeping the tension up without giving too much away all at once. And Amity herself turns out to be a surprisingly clever and resourceful hero, and one whose development I never tire of watching.
One of the big things that might seem gimmicky about this comic is the extremely bright color-coded speech bubbles, which are often used to lesser effect by lesser webcomics. In Miamaska, however, they are crucial to the story being told, and are used quite effectively.
Unfortunately, on some of the older pages, jpeg artifacting makes it difficult or impossible to read the miamaska layers – though the words are usually clearer when the meaning is important. Still, I hope that Jeinu has higher quality files for those pages and can upload them at some point, because artifacted images are just plain ugly to look at. ETA: Jeinu has informed me that the artifacting is a known bug with the website, which is set to load a smaller jpeg first, then show a high-res jpeg once it’s loaded. The bug makes the high-res image not always display. If you notice this problem, try refreshing the page.
All in all, one of my favorites. It has a few flaws, but I’d forgive a lot to read the dialogue between Amity and Trosce.
Final verdict: Starts out like your clichéd kid-transported-to-fantasy-world story, but it’s anything but that. Politics, intrigue, lies, secrets, and linguistics. Read it if you like rich worldbuilding, plucky girl protagonists, or well-paced political dramas.