Translation Links

There is a lot of talk about translation around the blogosphere at the moment. Here are a few items we noticed in recent days.

– Fábio Fernandes talks about working in two languages at

– Charles Tan interviews Nick Mamatas about Haikasoru at World SF News. All of those 2010 publications Nick mentions should be eligible for our award.

– Ekaterina Sedia wonders whether translated works should sound foreign and exotic.

– Anna Tambour reviews a collection of Tamil pulp fiction (with a fabulous cover).

– Chad W. Post reviews a prize-winning Arabic novel about an infertility curse.

– The anthology series, Best American Fantasy, is looking for works from Latin America.

Getting What You Pay For

One of the many areas in which we hope to find quality translated science fiction and fantasy is manga. The field is certainly hugely popular, so there is plenty of work to choose from. But if translator Matt Thorn is to be believed, much of it is not very good.

There’s no diplomatic way to say this, so I’ll be blunt. The vast majority of my kouhai, my juniors in the field of manga translation, have no sense of rhythm, so sense of meter, so sense of what makes a line worth reading, and no sense of how to write a line worth reading.

Manga and Anime expert, Jonathan Clements, agrees with him, and says that much of the problem is because of the derisory rates of pay being offered.

But some modern entrants into the manga translation field are expected to accept fees that are only at 30% of 1995 rates. Are we surprised that even the good ones are over-worked, harassed and otherwise distracted?

Is this sort of problem common elsewhere? One of the things we hope to do with out awards is raise the profile of good quality translators so that they can obtain better pay for their work.

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.

Mainstream Translation Awards

Awards for translating mainstream literature have existed for some time. The Best Translated Book Award is run through the blog Three Percent (named because that’s apparently the proportion of books published in the USA that are translated). Their long list was published last week.

Also in the frame are the Translation Prizes awarded by the Times Literary Supplement in the UK. Their winners were also announced last week. They include a book by Tove Jansson, though not, sadly, one about Moomins.

Although these awards are not specifically for science fiction of fantasy, they do sometimes include books with fantastic themes, and we will keep and eye on them for likely candidates for our awards. If anyone has any specific information about the books listed, please let us know.

A Specialist Vocabulary?

At the Haikasoru blog Nick Mamatas talks about the difficulties of translating science fiction, a form of fiction known for its specialist vocabulary. Nick quotes Fred Pohl as follows:

Translating a science-fiction story is almost like translating a poem: you don’t so much put it into another language as you recreate it from scratch.

Nick agrees, and says he has to work closely with Haikasoru’s translators to help them understand the science fiction terms:

Luckily I have a great pool of translators to chose from thanks to the rise of manga and video games. However, at the risk of comparing myself to the immortal Judith Merril, I still must do a fair amount of heavy lifting in the editorial stage. Translating Japanese SF certainly seems to me to still take two: an excellent translator of Japanese and someone well-versed in science fictional concepts.

Meanwhile, at the World SF blog, Lavie Tidhar takes aim at the idea that English is somehow the “language of science fiction”.

Given how much invention of language takes place in both science fiction and fantasy (think of Tolkien, for example), perhaps a knowledge of multiple actual languages is an asset for budding writers.

Another Russian Author Due in 2010

Last week we noted that Gollancz will be issuing a translation of Dmitry Glukhovsky’s Metro 2033 in 2010. But Glukhovsky is not the only Russian SF&F author due to be made available to English-language readers. In February 2010 Tor is issuing Shadow Prowler, the first book in a fantasy trilogy called the Chronicles of Siala. The author is Alexey Pehov and you can read more about him on his English-language web site. A UK paperback will be available from Simon & Schuster in April.

Pehov’s works are being translated by Andrew Bromfield, who was also the translator for Sergei Lukyanenko’s Night Watch series.

SF&F at Words Without Borders

Words Without Borders, which bills itself as “The Online Magazine for International Literature” has devoted December 2009 to science fiction and fantasy. They have a range of translated works available, starting with a contribution from Stanisław Lem and moving on through role-playing in Japan and a vision of Poland conquered by Elves to a 14th Century epic fantasy from Pakistan. You can read it all here.

The Size of the Field

Just how many science fiction and fantasy books are published in English translation each year? That’s a question we kept getting asked when we first launched these awards. Well, the University of Rochester keeps track of all translated literature in the USA. Their blog is called Three Percent, because that’s roughly the proportion of books published in the USA each year that are translated. According to their data, there were 283 works of translated fiction (including collections and anthologies) and 65 works of translated poetry published in the USA in 2009.

Whether this list is a good guide to the size of our field is another matter. The list appears to be missing many of the science fiction and fantasy works published in 2009. It doesn’t cover books published in other countries such as the UK and Canada. And it doesn’t cover graphic novels, where a huge amount of translated work is published. But it does give a good idea of just how little fiction is translated into English. That’s something we hope to help change.

Forthcoming in Translation

With 2010 almost upon us we are starting to get news of works that are likely to be eligible for the first year’s awards. One possibility is Metro 2033 by Russian author Dmitry Glukhovsky which is due out in the UK from Gollancz in February. See World SF News for more details. It isn’t clear whether this is the first English language publication, but it is the first from a major English language publisher.

You may also have seen the announcement that Pyr will be producing a US edition of Pierre Pevel’s novel, The Cardinal’s Blades. This isn’t a first English language publication, because the book was published by Gollancz in the UK this year. However, the award rules do allow the jury to look back up to two years if they are short of potential candidates, provided that works in question have not been considered by a previous jury. As 2010 will be our first year, the jury effectively has three years to look at if it wishes to do so.

On the subject of eligibility, it has been brought to our attention that some authors (for example Zoran Živković) self-publish English language editions of their work in order to have something to send to English language publishers. These publications tend to be very short print runs, and it is not our intention that they should disqualify a work from consideration should it later be picked up later by a major publisher.