Roundtable on ::ahem:: Non-Western SF

Guy Gavriel Kay

Digression alert (moi?) but the below is interesting. It is why, I have been frequently informed, translations into ‘smaller’ languages (Hungarian, say) in earlier days were often so good. It was considered a literary duty on the part of major authors to do translating if they could, to bring to their compatriots important works from other tongues. In English this is less ‘normal’ and where great writers do engage in translation it is often (in poetry) in the subset of the form that involves creative (often brilliant) ‘play’ with the original works. I’m thinking of Pound and Lowell, of course, as Russell was. But this is really rare for prose and is not the only way to approach translation. The book to read, it is really very good, is Is That a Fish in Your Ear? by David Bellos. Bellos effectively subverts a lot of what we think we know about translation (including ‘translation is treachery’ and ‘poetry is what is lost in translation’).

I don‘t think anyone would say Stephen Mitchell is as good a writer as Rilke, or that Gregory Rabassa is Marquez’s equal. But their work for those authors is exceptional.

Russell Letson

Don’t know why this didn’t occur to me earlier: For “SF,” substitute “jazz.” Or “standup comedy.” Or “string quartet.”

Guy Gavriel Kay

If you insist.

Herbert’s Dune is quite possibly the finest string quartet of its decade. As stand-up comedy, however…

Um…

Russell Letson

Yah–Herbert’s setups were terrific, but he kept muffing the punchline.

He really knew how to write for the viola, though I think his musette waltzes are his best work.

Stefan Dziemianowicz

Not to sustain the digression, but this is also probably one of the reasons why early translations of Verne (hardly a non-Western writer) were subpar. Verne was so popular in his day that at a certain point English translations of his work were appearing virtually simultaneously with French language editions. Expedience, rather than accuracy, was crucial for that to happen–and you can bet they didn’t farm out serial installments of his novels for translation to gifted writers with an ear for mellifluous prose.

Rich Horton

Likewise today, I am informed by Swedish readers, the English translations of Stieg Larsson’s books, all but universally regarded as awful (the translations, that is, not the books) do not in any sense do justice to Larsson’s prose. And the reason is commercial expedience — these are phenomenally popular books, and the publishers wanted quick results, not quality, so as to get them in the marketplace as quickly as possible.

Guy Gavriel Kay

Not sure that is true – about the timing/speed thing. The books were translated, as I understand it, fairly early. I know Penguin Canada bought them inexpensively (in English, obviously) and it was seen later as a major coup for them. The point offered may be true for other languages, though. And (I confess) I have heard the opposite about Larsson’s prose in Swedish. He, too, was apparently used to working fast.

Rich Horton

I can’t swear to the truth of any of this — all second hand reports. One story I heard was that the English translation began as a movie treatment and was rushed to the market when it became clear the book might be a big hit. Can’t swear to that — it may well be just a good story someone told that garbled the truth somewhat.

As for Larsson’s Swedish prose, I have heard it described both ways — as pretty slapdash, and as pretty good. I’m clearly not competent to judge — all the Swedish I know comes from ignoring the subtitles in Bergman films or watching the Swedish chef. But I’ve heard from one Swedish person I trust, who knew Larsson personally (which to be sure might affect his evaluation), who states that Larsson was a fine writer of prose, and that the Swedish originals are far better than the English translations.

But as I say, none of this is first hand, so take it with a salt lick.

Karen Joy Fowler

To add yet another digression, I have wondered about the particular issues posed by humor. How well does it translate? Within my own community, there is already a wide variety of opinions about what is funny. Do those lines widen as you go into other cultures or are those the lines the lines — ie will there always be people in other cultures who think the same things are funny that I do, and always people who don’t. Someone on this list probably knows the answers to these questions.

18 thoughts on “Roundtable on ::ahem:: Non-Western SF

  • May 1, 2012 at 5:11 pm
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    I find this discussion disappointing. Can you not see what Fabio is trying to achieve here? What imbalances he is trying to redress? It’s a shame that when the question was about non-Western SF/F, the participants spent such an inordinate amount of time unpacking Western SF. The issue of post-colonialism is far too grave for a simple question to be picked apart in such a fussy, academic manner, and the real issues sidestepped.

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  • May 1, 2012 at 5:19 pm
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    Hi Regina,

    I don’t remember where my brain was during the roundtable, but these are the thoughts I just shared on twitter, for what they may be worth:

    Octavia Butler once said something to the effect of, “Of course science fiction is for black people. Black people have a future.”

    Of course science fiction is about non-Western people. Non-western people have a future.

    Americans (me included) can get tunnel vision, but reality is global.

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  • May 1, 2012 at 6:04 pm
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    SF is the literature of the imaginary. How can the imaginations of writers from outside the Western narrative contribute new perspectives to this literature?

    Great question, Fabio. As you know, I’m developing an anthology of first encounters from cultural perspectives beyond the western. How would people’s culture affect an alien encounter differently than Western cultures? I have done a lot of work, travel and study in various places from Africa to Europe to your own Brasil, and I have found rich cultures and peoples with diverse and fascinating customs and beliefs. I believe there are things they know, wisdom and insights, that the rest of us might benefit from. For example, the traditional cultural views of community in many African nations, for example, where everyone belongs to everyone and everything you do affects the community as a whole, is very inspiring and could be very helpful in our “me first” culture of the U.S. The way Latin American families take care of their sick and elderly, even living peacefully with multiple generations in a house, this too is inspiring. Attitudes toward future, conservation, sharing, economy, health, etc. So many things which may push us outside our boxes and comfort zones but, at the same time, may open our eyes to a bigger world than we’d imagined. These have great benefit for speculative fiction readers and for fellow writers. Opening my eyes to new cultural viewpoints has both changed me and solidified my own views. I don’t shy away from it because it’s different. I seek to understand the reasoning behind it and the motives, knowing that, while I may disagree or not entirely agree, they are also human beings of equal value and as a writer, being able to see things from different POV is invaluable to my success.

    The global reality is so much bigger than what we typically see. It’s good to be forced outside that sometimes and willingly step outside as well, take the blinders off or have them washed away and be refreshed in our own view.

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  • May 1, 2012 at 7:14 pm
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    To clarify this discussion, the original prompt was: “Fabio Fernandes is in the middle of a fundraising effort to support a special International issue of the magazine Future Fire” followed by the question. There was no mention of colonialism or first-world perspectives. I think having those contexts supplied would have resulted in a different discussion.

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  • May 1, 2012 at 7:34 pm
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    I found this round-table frustrating on several aspects. It’s sad that because there was no “explicit” mention of colonialism or first-world perspectives it would not be considered crucial to the discussion.

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  • May 1, 2012 at 7:41 pm
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    I think the fact that Fabio is doing an anthology of non-Western perspectives on Colonialism is becoming too central. It’s obvious that was added to frame the discussion by an editor. It appears, per Siobhan’s comment, it was not sent to the commentators for framing their discussion, so they cannot be expected to read minds and discuss this topic in that framework. The fact that Colonialism is important is not being denied or negated. And it can be discussed now in these comments if people so desire.

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  • May 1, 2012 at 8:34 pm
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    I’d like to apologize for the shifting frame between the original discussion and what you see on the website. I added the summary pitch for Fabio’s Peerbacker effort after the fact, and the Roundtable group didn’t see it originally. I can imagine a significantly different discussion that may have occurred had that been part of the original topic, and with luck we’ll have that discussion in the future.

    It’s clear that people care deeply about this topic, and I hope that concern will translate to a higher profile for The Future Fire’s fundraising efforts. As of now only two people have clicked through on the Peerbacker link, and I *really* hope that number goes up.

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  • May 1, 2012 at 11:21 pm
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    @Siobhan: how can you read the question “How can the imaginations of writers from outside the Western narrative contribute new perspectives to SF?” without seeing that it’s about colonialism and first-world perspectives?

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  • May 2, 2012 at 1:36 am
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    @Regina – I assumed this was a discussion about translation, and I therefore read “outside the Western narrative” as “unaffected by the historical narrative created by colonialism.” In other words, I thought the question was explicitly taking postcolonial writers *off* the table. That’s why, in my initial response, I asked whether “the ‘Western narrative’ encompass former European colonies.” That’s also why I ended my initial response with the suggestion that we think about living non-Anglophone writers and segued into a list of postcolonial works we could discuss. In short, I wanted to analyze postcolonial SF but I thought (as, apparently, did many of the other respondents) that the context of this dicsussion was “international” SF, broadly defined.

    I’ll add that I found the “how *can* the imaginations… contribute new perspectives to SF” formulation a bit off-putting — as though SF writers from different countries weren’t already making contributions to SF by writing fiction. I jumped in feet-first in part because I didn’t want a rambling discussion of “well, maybe other people *can* contribute if they do x y or z.” I wanted to talk about the contributions contemporary authors had actually made and were currently making.

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  • May 4, 2012 at 8:08 pm
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    I. A. Richards, would thou wert living at this hour!

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  • February 3, 2013 at 6:58 pm
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    I don’t know whether it’s just me or if everyone else experiencing problems with your blog.
    It looks like some of the written text on your content are running off the screen.
    Can somebody else please comment and let me know
    if this is happening to them too? This may be a issue with my
    browser because I’ve had this happen before. Thanks

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  • November 2, 2013 at 5:43 pm
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    Would anybody here be able to advise me on some non-western science fiction Zines? Its for a library that I am putting together.
    Thank you.

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