Why don’t we get more SF/F books from other countries?
Turns out that answer isn’t as simple as I’d presumed.
First, some resources:
Three Messages and a Warning, edited by Chris N. Brown and Eduardo Jiménez Mayo
Troll: A Love Story by Johanna Sinisalo
Tokyo Doesn’t Love Us Anymore by Ray Longa
The Virgin Fish of Babughat, by Lokenath Bhattacharaya (which is supposed to be available as published by Oxford Press)
Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
Alright. Let’s see if I can wrap my head around all of this cool information from this fascinating panel.
First, why were these guys on the panel? Christopher N. Brown, fluent in Spanish, co-edited with Eduardo Jiménez Mayo a collection of current fantastical short stories by authors from Mexico. He travels there a lot, working with authors and gets to attend these crazy literary and art festivals.
Michael Swanwick has written a shit ton of books and travels frequently to other countries where it seems he gets to be in a position to advise writers. He cited Russia, China, and Finland in his travels.
Anil Menon is a writer –who happens to live in my town, by the freaking way!!– and has published quite a bit. I’m really looking forward to finding his short fiction and his first novel, The Beast With Nine Billion Feet. I gather that he’s from Southeast Asia, and is in a position to advise writers there, but don’t hold me to that I didn’t actually ask him.
I am always looking for science fiction and fantasy from other languages, other cultures not my own, but it’s extraordinarily hard to find. Why is that? Is Speculative fiction purely an American or English language genre? Is there no audience for SF/F in other cultures/languages? Surely these aren’t true, so what’s the hold up?
Well, it seems like there are three, or maybe six, or maybe nine, big barriers, all combinations of language, culture and audience.
Writers are writing spec fic in other languages and cultures. But.
Every creative endeavour is a hodge podge, a mash-up, a re-working of the creative endeavours encountered by the artist. Artists are developed by art. In most of the non-English speaking world, it is just as hard to find books in English as it is to find books in, say, Bengali here. The writers that Anil Menon works with are brilliant and sparkling, but they’re reading English translations of stories from the ’40s and ’50s, so the story is dated even though it had been written recently. An American audience would be completely unimpressed. I mean, imagine trying to write fantasy nowadays, to become a viable writer, without ever having read Neil Gaiman.
Ok, so why don’t they write SF in Bengali, right? Surely there is a Bengali-speaking SF audience? I mean, how many millions, billions of people speak Bengali? (or Spanish, or Russian…)
Menon has hope for these writers, suggesting that instead of trying to mimic American SF tradition, they create from their own culture. “Rather than running against the invisible barrier, you make it your own.” his example is Bollywood. When it stopped trying to be Hollywood, Indian movie tradition was truly born. He argues that there is most definitely an audience for SF in India, as cited by such Bollywood hits as Koi Mil Gaya (link above). in the American SF movie tradition, the aliens are trying to invade and we whip out our military and whoop ‘em. In this film, the aliens bust out in dance. “Very topsy-turvey.”
Cool. I’m going to find that film.
Next. Translation from not-English to English.
First, forget publishing in USA for a minute.
Menon says, and forgive me for my paraphrasing, the Hindi SF could be translated into English in India, for bi/tri/multi-lingual Indians. It doesn’t necessarily need to be translated for an American audience. There is an Indian audience for this work. (If you’ve encountered Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses you’ll get a flavor of what he means by “American English” vs “Indian English”.)
Cool. I’ll wait for those to be eventually translated into American English.
What about translating works that are ready to go?
The translation needs to be as brilliant as the original work. When the story is not translated well, the writing style, the author’s voice is really flat. I think I encountered that with Dr. Zhivago.
Surely those are American or British rates. Why not pay this work to be done in the country of the original language? (I’m not intending to be rude, we do live fat on the cow here). That’s one of the many language/culture issues.
The work needs to be translated by a native speaker of the language it’s being translated into. Swanwick gave this example:
Any Jo Blow American will say “thin blue line”. There’s no linguistic or grammatical ruling for why “thin blue line” is that way, but it is. We would never say “blue, thin line”. Why? Shrug. But such an error would stand out and ruin a writing.
Another reason why spec fic is hard to find in the US from authors from other languages and cultures is that the very base of culture and language is utterly different, so deep to our persons and identity that it’s hard even to work it out in words. An example that Memon gave, that really struck me, is the idea of “fluid ethics”. (*headpinch*) Our ideas of ethics in the US are very rigid, from Republican vs Democrat, Christian vs Non-Christan, you are a good person or you’re not a good person, I could go on. It’s a matrix within which we exist within our worlds and to be able to understand a story written from a fluidly ethical system of …whatever(word break down, sorry)… it would be difficult to market and sell such a story.
The last reason I’m going to tell you about here is that world writers are struggling to write and market in a language they don’t speak, trying to market in a country very far away. There are cultural differences to the writing process and publishing culture/industry. For example, Swanwick worked with a group of Finnish writers and suggested they get themselves agents. This is a common practice in America, but to them it was totally bizarre, like he was asking them to cheat.
I hope the above list of books sate your world SF quest for a bit. Anil Menon has written a novel, and I’m going to go find that one for starters.