Are Translations Old-Fashioned?

Over at Betsy Mitchell has been talking about books that she did not buy during 2009. She sorted them into various categories. This one caught our eye:

Not a genre that’s doing well right now (horror, mostly; some foreign novels being offered for translation, anthologies whose concepts weren’t strong enough)

Asked to explain the comment about translations, Mitchell replied as follows:

I meant novels originally published in Russian, German, Dutch, French or some other language. It’s often the case that the trend in other countries is away from what U.S. readers are enjoying–for example, we used to see a lot of submissions of Russian science fiction which felt like U.S. and British SF of the ’50s and ’60s, too old-fashioned for our current readers.

We were wondering whether this was true when we spotted a post from Brazilian author and translator, Fábio Fernandes, at World SF News. It included the following:

But, despite being a translator, I find myself working in two different tracks when it comes to writing. When I write science fiction in Portuguese, I focus not only on the language, but also on the canon of stories – that is, on all the narratives that have been written in the tradition of Brazilian SF. The problem with that approach is the lag – Brazilian SF is light-years behind American or British SF, both in theme and in style, I´m afraid.

Conversation with Fábio suggests that there is a genuine problem here, and translation is at the root of it. Because it takes so long for English-language science fiction to get translated, people in non-English speaking countries are often reading books that are several years behind the current fashion in English speaking countries. They then write books in response to what they have read, but when those books are offered for translation into English the big publishers reject them as “old fashioned”.

The upshot of this is that in order to get more works by non-English speaking writers translated into English, one of the things that is necessary is for English language works to get translated more quickly.

Of course there is also the possibility that non-English-speaking writers could produce original work that does not riff off what English-speaking writers are doing. But then perhaps the big publishers would reject their work as “too different” and therefore risky.


  1. I must confess that I was a little irked by Ms. Mitchell’s comment about supposedly old-fashioned translations. True, tastes, trends and fashions may vary considerably between different countries. But just because the Russian SF submitted to Del Rey does not fit current US tastes, does not necessarily mean that they are old-fashioned. They were simply written for a different audience.

    Regarding translations arriving too late, I can only speak for Germany, but SF and fantasy novels are usually translated fairly quickly, though occasionally a series or author can remain untranslated for several years, if there is no publisher interest. This may well be different for other countries.

    Finally, at least in German different local tastes in SFF have led to an increase in the number of local authors getting published. For until a few years ago, the German SFF market was dominated by translated American and British authors, while local authors had a very hard time getting published. But then publishing trends in the US moved away from the sort of fantasy German readers liked and in order to fill the gap, more German writers as well as translated Russian authors were published. Now, at least one of the German authors that arose, when US publishers ceased to produce the type of books German readers liked, is about to be translated into English and published in the US and UK.

  2. I’m a bit weirded out to read something like this. Having browsed the local SF shelves in Belgrade, Serbia (a very, VERY small market – print runs of 500 copies are considered epic success for SF) this holiday season, I found most of the titles to be extremely fresh, to the point that some expected bestsellers such as “The Strain” are out there more-or-less simultaneously with the US edition. There are older titles, many of them printed either because they are classics and haven’t been available when they originally came out, or books by authors that had recent hits, so publishers are trying to cash in on their earlier work retrospectively, but the bulk of available books are in the 1-3 year range. It just seems odd that the rest of the world would lag that much?

    That being said, local authors (many of whom are translators, as well) all read books in English, and are therefore capable of being fully up-to-date with what’s happening abroad, whether to “riff off what English-speaking writers are doing”, or what often happens to me, to drop an idea that was thoroughly riffed on by said writers.

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