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.

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.