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I'm trying my hand at translating a few Korean literary texts into English. Something I come across often while translating is the phrasing "jet-black(/pitch-black) eyes(/night/darkness)" which describes something very dark/black.

I don't really like using "jet/pitch-black" but I'm unable to come up with better wording. Please advise me on how to better rephrase this in a way that isn't too long, doesn't go overboard and fits within the context. Please note, this is not a single word request but a request for advice on better writing.

A few excerpts from my writing:

The first thing that sprang to mind as I watched him walk out of the arrivals gate and look around the airport was the crazy fervor I was stricken with a decade ago and the boundless darkness that lurked in the two mountains. The dense forest stained jet-black by pine resin, and the tilting house I peered at every night set the backdrop.


I stopped speaking for a moment. My mind harked back to the village at every turn of the story flowing from my mouth. I also recalled one pitch-black night when it dawned on me that as long as he existed, I wouldn't ever amount to anything more than third-rate.


He did not reply. His pitch-black eyes, impossible to read, were scary.


How could I not be fearful of the night that was shrouding the world in front of me in pitch-black darkness?


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Questions asking to rephrase a single sentence are off-topic on this site. Can you make this about a larger piece of writing? Edit: On the other hand this is also a translation question, and has merit on that basis. –  Neil Fein Jun 2 '13 at 23:23
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6 Answers

Here are some:

•midnight black •shadow black •black •black like ink

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The following options may be helpful for avoiding overuse of specific noun-adjective pairs:

  • Replace the noun with another noun which has a similar relationship to the adjective. This is the simplest and most obvious method. In place of "jet-black" you could, e.g., use "coal-black" (I actually had to look up the definition of "jet" and learned it was lignite [coal]!), "soot-black", or "obsidian-black". This simple solution has at least two issues:

    • If one is overusing one noun-adjective pair, diversifying the noun-adjective pairs will probably still keep the problem of excessive use of noun-adjective pairs and might introduce a feeling of trying too hard, of artificial replacement, because the phrasings are too similar.
    • The original noun may have intentionally associated a connotation or play on words (e.g., "jet-black eyes" which later "burn with rage" or a "pitch-black night" where oppressive humidity seems to make the night air stick to the skin) which would be removed or the replacement noun may introduce unintended connotations (e.g., "he looked into the princess' beautiful soot-black eyes"—even for a Cinderella figure that is likely inappropriate).
  • Remove the noun. If there is enough description earlier or nearby (yes, the description can be placed shortly after the adjective), the simple adjective would act something like a pronoun, simplifying the phrasing and recalling the antecedent to the reader's mind. E.g., "His pitch-black eyes stared at her, and she shivered at their cold darkness" might be replaced with "His dark eyes stared at her, and she shivered at their cold blackness" (yes, this also swaps the "dark" and "black"; but I think you get the idea).

    • This method may be particularly appropriate when the portion being written is already very dense with description, even when the description is not directly connected with the simplified part of the text. (Extensive description can give a feeling of opulence or oppressiveness, or hint of the narrator's unusually intense observation ['excess' of description intensifying some 'excess' in the story], but usually moderation is appropriate.)
    • However, the intensifying effect of the noun may have been sufficiently significant to the scene that trimming other description would be more desirable. This method is also limited to cases where some trimming of description seems appropriate (and sometimes in that context simplicity adds its own emphasis) or the description is somewhat redundant. (Note that even something as simple as an earlier description of a family member with "jet-black eyes" could provide a sufficient antecedent to allow the use of a simple adjective.)
  • Use a simile. While this allows the retention of the specific descriptive noun (with all of its connotations), it increases length, it can introduce awkward phrasing, and it can otherwise interfere with the pace or feeling of the writing. E.g., "his pitch-black eyes swept over the prisoners without pity. 'Kill them all.'" seems to have better pacing than "his eyes, black as pitch, swept over the prisoners without pity. 'Kill them all.'" and "his pitch-black eyes showed no pity" avoids the potentially 'upbeat' alliteration of "his eyes, black as pitch, showed no pity".

  • Remove the adjective. While acceptable in English, replacing a noun-adjective pair with just the noun—or an alternative noun—must be done with significant care. E.g., in some cases "obsidian-black eyes" could be replaced by "obsidian eyes".

    • Confusion between 'made of' and 'having the properties of' is a significant danger in some cases. E.g., in a fantasy where stone might be enchanted, "the mage's obsidian eyes stared blankly at his bumbling apprentice" might be quite ambiguous.
    • Uncertainty about which property is implied can confuse the reader, breaking the flow of the text.
    • Sometimes the feeling is the primary concern and matches well, e.g., "obsidian-black eyes" and "obsidian eyes" might both communicate an unnatural, inorganic, dark feeling which may have been the primary intent. Sacrificing some literal specificity may be acceptable in such cases.
    • Rarely all of the properties that are consistent with the context and typically associated with the noun apply. E.g., replacing "obsidian-black eyes" with "obsidian eyes" could communicate not only the blackness but also perhaps a hardness and coldness which are only later explicitly or implicitly shown to apply.
  • Replace the adjective with a more generic adjective. E.g., replacing "jet-black hair" with "jet-colored hair" might be acceptable in some cases.

    • This typically reduces the intensity of the description, though perhaps not as much as simply stripping the noun.
    • There is not always an appropriate more generic adjective.
    • As with using a different noun, this will not reduce any overuse of noun-adjective pairs.
  • Use a more intense or more specific adjective. A more explicit adjective can reduce the need for additional intensification or specification. E.g., replacing "pitch-black night" with "starless night" may fit the setting, the mood, and the meaning.

    • Often some specificity or intensity would be sacrificed by such a change, so such is generally more appropriate when the lost sense is less significant to the scene or the sense is already shored up somewhat by the context.
    • The adjective in question may not have an appropriate alternative.
  • Use an adverb with an adjective. While a noun-adjective pair provides a concrete specification to intensify the adjective, using an adverb can sometimes be a reasonable substitution. (I cannot think of any good examples—e.g., rather than changing "rock-solid trust" to "unbreakably firm trust", using "unbreakable trust" makes more sense!)

  • Use a companion adjective. In some cases, a second adjective can be used to add relatively little new meaning while substantially reinforcing the intended connotation. E.g., replacing "her jet-black eyes" with "her soft, black eyes" (the comforting darkness of a peaceful night and jet is a soft and organic stone), "her lovely black eyes" (jet as a semiprecious gem), or "her deep, black eyes" (deep is a weak intensifier in this case) might communicate most of the intention of the author.

  • Substantially rephrase the scene to distribute the desired feeling and meaning over a larger portion of the text. This may be the least desirable of the alternatives. Not only will such tend to be more work simply from expanding the scope of the change, but keeping such scattered changes from damaging other parts of the text can be very difficult.


Even though you are working on translations, I am going to boldly present reworkings of the snippets you provided rather than simply answering your question about alternative wording. Although you can freely use any of the changes, I suspect that they (and their rationales) will be more useful as general assistance than as specific suggestions, especially within the context of translation.

As I watched him walk out of the arrivals gate and look around the airport, the first thing that sprang to mind was the crazed passion that struck me a decade ago and the boundless darkness that lurked on the two mountains. The dense forest, stained black by pine resin, set the backdrop along with the tilting house I peered at every night.

(It was unclear whether the last sentence was meant to say that only the house set the backdrop or if both the forest and the house set the backdrop; a comma with "and" usually separates clauses not mere phrases but without "was" added to "stained" the first part would not be a clause. I am guessing that both are intended to be part of the backdrop.)

Rationale:

  • reversing the order of "as ... airport" and "the first ... mind" brings the intense action verb (sprang) close to its 'subject'
  • replacing "crazy fervor" with "crazed passion" seems a little more intense (one less syllable) and might better fit the intended meaning
  • "on the two mountains": in this context, "in" would seem to have the sense of "among", which seems less appropriate for two objects; "on" also has a little bit of an overshadowing feel which seems to fit the context
  • making the forest the subject of "set the backdrop": this change emphasizes the forest (quite possibly too much) over the house, but strengthens the sentence by moving the verb closer to the beginning
  • removing "jet-": enough description might be provided by "stained" and "by pine resin" (it might be appropriate to add something like "aged" to "pine resin" since fresh pine resin is nearer a golden color; "aged" might incidentally add to the sense of gloom) and the abruptness of "stained black" seems to have a harder feel than "stained [intensifier]-black" (flowery language—even if only in the sense of richly descriptive—tends to work against a sense of gloom)
  • replacing "and" with "along with" allowed the "house" clause to be moved to the end of the sentence, increasing the emphasis on the 'dark word' "night" (it is also possible that sidelining the house might slightly intensify the feeling associated with "tilting"—off-center, to-the-side); even so, this also seems a problematic phrasing

For a moment I stopped speaking. At every turn of the story flowing from my mouth my mind had hearkened back to the village, and I recalled that starless night when I realized that as long as he existed, I'd never amount to anything more than third-rate.

Rationale:

  • reversal of "for a moment" and "I ... speaking": this seems a doubtful change but it moves the stopping closer to the next sentence, connecting the break in speech with the thoughts that interrupted the speech, the end-of-sentence emphasis is on "stopped speaking" rather than the momentary nature of the pause, and stopping is linked with a full stop mark.
  • reversal of "at every ... mouth" and "my mind ... village": rather doubtful suggestion (particularly since if a comma is added after "mouth" it will weaken the break at ", and I recalled"), but moving the remembering of the village closer to the recalling of the night has some value
  • "had hearkened back": since this is a deeper past event than the "stopped speaking" using "had hearkened" seems more appropriate ("returned" might replace "hearkened back" if a casual feel is desired, but "hearkened" seems to have an appropriate nostalgic, possibly 'backwoodsy', feel)
  • replacing ". I also" with ", and I" improves the flow (it was only a momentary pause in speech)
  • replacing "one" with "that": "that" refers to a specific night
  • replacing "pitch-black" with "starless" touches on the actual content of the question, "starless" implies a very dark night (and incidentally gives some feel of hopelessness, stars being associated with wishes, dreams, aspirations)
  • replacing "it dawned on me" with "I realized": this removes what I am guessing is an unintended play on words ("night"/"dawn"), slightly tightens the phrasing (three vs. four syllables and active voice vs. passive), and (perhaps wrongly?) replaces the slightly positive and sentimental(?) connotation of "dawned" with a slightly harsh, rational, and realistic connotation
  • replacing "I wouldn't ever" with "I'd never" tends to keep the informal tone (though less 'backwoodsy') and increases the intensity

He did not reply. His unsearchable black eyes frightened me [or "were frightening"].

Rationale:

  • replacing "impossible to read" with "unsearchable" may intensify the feeling and imply that intently looking at the eyes was impossible not just discovering their secrets being impossible
  • applying "unsearchable" to "black eyes" and not just to "eyes" (i.e., not "unsearchable, black eyes") intensifies the blackness and associates the eyes' unsearchable nature with the blackness
  • replacing "were scary" with "frightened me" would be more direct—"scary" also seems to have a slightly juvenile, less serious tone ("terrified" might be too intense)—but "were frightening" might well be more appropriate (e.g., if it was not just the narrator who was frightened or more emphasis is desired for their general terror, i.e., they would frighten anyone)

How could I not be afraid of the night, shrouding the world in front of me in its impenetrable darkness?

Rationale:

  • replacing "fearful" with "afraid": very weak suggestion, it just seems 'better'
  • replacing "that was" with ", ": increases the pace of the sentence and more tightly binds "shrouding" with "night"
  • adding "its": associates the darkness more tightly with the night and gives a more involved, almost personal feeling (e.g., compare "he stabbed it with a knife" and "he stabbed it with his knife") which seems to deepen the terror
  • replacing "pitch-black" with "impenetrable": another answer for the actual question, "impenetrable" has the same effective meaning—so dark one cannot see—but enhances the feeling of helplessness and isolation
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That is a really excellent answer, addressing not just the specific problem presented but the broader class. Kudos! –  Monica Cellio Jun 4 '13 at 2:39
    
Long is not a problem. Rambly and tangenty would be a problem, but not one found in this answer. :-) –  Monica Cellio Jun 5 '13 at 21:01
    
I like it how this answer focuses on writing in particular, not the language (at least in the first part, which is more interesting to other readers). Good job. –  Darek Wędrychowski Jun 6 '13 at 0:59
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Instead of a looking for a single expression, consider the cases individually. If you can show us that it's black (pitch- or otherwise), you won't need to tell us. Consider:

Pine resin cloaked the dense forest in darkness...

I also recalled one moonless1 night

Sometimes you really do just need an adjective, such as "pitch-black eyes". That's fine. Your goal isn't to completely avoid the expression, but rather to not over-use it.

I might take a broader approach with your last example. It sounds like you are describing something supernatural, a creeping darkness that's overwhelming the world (or some such). If that's the case, you can talk about it like that; this is well beyond moonless or pitch-black nights and is something more ominous. Bring that out. You can talk about the darkness overwhelming the world (leaving, implied, that it would have to be pretty dark to do that), or talk about the vast darkness.

1 Or starless, as pointed out by Paul A. Clayton in a comment.

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"starless" might be better than "moonless" since one can have a moonless night with the minimal light of stars but a starless night implies no moonlight as well. "impenetrable darkness" might also be as ominous as "vast darkness" but (properly?) emphasizing blackness rather than scope (only "the world in front of me"). –  Paul A. Clayton Jun 2 '13 at 23:43
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How could I not be fearful of the night that was shrouding the world in front of me in evil-black darkness?

Evil, being much more emotional, deeper word than the pitch, make a good describer for the colour. And there are plenties of such words, that could be used in different situations.

Another option worth to remember about is:

How could I not be fearful of the night that was shrouding the world in front of me in bible-black darkness?

It works on two levels - emotional one and as a reference to the colour of the typical bible cover. Perhaps best used in the song "Starless" by King Crimson.

Of course I understand your problem. In the world of my current story there's no pitch, so I wouldn't be able to use such thing. But there are f.e. black holes. This way eyes can be

so black, as if the rays of light vanished in them, never to return to the outside world.

Of course it's out of question to do something like that in translations.

But... have you tried the simplest solution? Black eyes are good.

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I think I would use simple "black" in "dense forest stained black by pine resin" because "stained" and "by pine resin" already give significant description. Perhaps "obsidian-black eyes" might be good; the sense of 'stony' (hard, impenetrable) and 'glassy' (fitting for eyes, perhaps with a sense of lack of focus, as if looking through one) might fit fearfully inscrutable eyes, and "obsidian" seems to have a kind of 'wicked' sound (which might enhance the sense of fear). –  Paul A. Clayton Jun 2 '13 at 23:53
    
Hmm glassy eyes reminds me of a doll, as if they were fake. Or crying, on the other hand. –  Darek Wędrychowski Jun 3 '13 at 1:18
    
Well, glass eyes are used to fill empty sockets, but your point stands. On the other hand, inhuman eyes might properly intensify the feeling of fear. –  Paul A. Clayton Jun 3 '13 at 1:26
    
I think I'll go for it in my story. What kind of eyes could an android preteen girl have? –  Darek Wędrychowski Jun 3 '13 at 1:47
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@DarekWędrychowski Ones which can roll easily. –  Lauren Ipsum Jun 3 '13 at 19:26
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The dense pine forest was stained black as pitch

(I don't know if you're aware, but "pitch" actually means "pine tar." It's pine sap cooked down until it's thick enough to spread like peanut butter. So if you're talking about a dark pine forest, pitch-black makes the most literal sense.)

Go for the emotion in it:

I also recalled one night that the starless void seemed to fill my soul, when I realized that as long as he existed, I wouldn't ever amount to anything more than third-rate.

I don't know if your translation allows it, but you could recast the sentence:

He did not reply. His terrifying eyes were like open pits, deep and blank and impossible to read.

How could I not be fearful of the night that was swallowing the world in front of me in its utter darkness?

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Are you sure about it? Doesn't pitch-black refer to coal tar, which is much darker? Pine tar isn't even fully black. –  Darek Wędrychowski Jun 2 '13 at 19:28
    
@DarekWędrychowski Apparently it refers to both, which I did not know. I do know pine pitch is pretty dark from attempting to scrub it off my hands. :) Even if coal tar is darker than pine tar, one version of pitch does come from pine, so the association makes sense. –  Lauren Ipsum Jun 2 '13 at 21:23
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The most beautiful writing uses common words in uncommon ways.

Try to avoid falling into clichés. I can't even count the number of times I've seen an author describe darkness as inky or velvety.

Pitch-black is generally a bit too strong for this context, I think.

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