Roundtable on Jorge Luis Borges and Others

Charles Tan

At the risk of derailing the discussion, the question I want to ask is that if we’re highlighting International SF, Colonialism, and Post-Colonialism, why are we limiting it to works written in a language other than English (translated or otherwise)? Not that translated works should be excluded (in fact, I’m glad we’re talking about translated work), but a lot of important, Colonial/Post-Colonial SF is being written in English. And for some, that’s at the heart of the Colonial/Post-Colonial experience, that English is both forced upon and part of various cultures. Singaporeans write in English. Indians write in English. Filipinos write in English. (That’s not to say that’s the only language they write in.) Why are we excluding these? And I think that’s also part of the foreigner mentality, that a foreigner is someone who doesn’t speak English (and why we have the typical reaction “Oh, your English is very good,” that some people say to compliment non-Americans).

And for me, perhaps what’s interesting is not the work that is written solely in one language or the other, but where the two intersect, because a lot of cultures are bilingual. Not quite SF, but Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao comes to mind for example, and while it’s dominantly English, there are smatterings–untranslated–of Spanish and Dominican slang.

Karen Burnham

With this overall series, I specifically wanted to promote translation efforts. However, there’s no need to limit this discussion in that way, if people would like to talk about English language work as well.

Karen Joy Fowler

I’d like to recommend a few of the works that have won the Tiptree award in past years — Troll by Johanna Sinisalo, Ooku by Fumi Yoshinaga, and Baba Yaga Laid an Egg by Dubravka Ugresic. I’m sure there’ve been others on the Tiptree lists, but these are the three that come first to mind for me. The issue of translation is very evident in Ooku where the dialogue has an odd Shakespearian cadence and vocabulary that makes me wonder what in the original Japanese the translator was trying to duplicate. I also have read, just recently, an excellent short story collection about to come out — Jagannath by Karin Tidbeck. Tidbeck attended Clarion and her English is obviously first rate — I believe most if not all of her collected stories were written in English. But she is a Swedish writer and this is evident in her settings and subject matter.

Stefan Dziemianowicz

Marquez and Borges (and Cortazar, and Fuentes, and [the list goes on]) both had distinguished reputations in their native countries before they were translated into English. That’s a tremendous help in getting the attention of editors and/or agents outside of your own country, especially if the works have a character that would reach beyond a niche market. It also helps if your publisher has a global profile. I don’t know whom these authors originally published with in their native countries, but Marquez publishes with HarperCollins, which has many foreign subsidiaries and affiliates.

And as far as Oscar Wao goes–I didn’t even think of those passages as untranslated Dominican slang. To me, they’re the reality of what I hear daily on the streets of New York and New Jersey.

Charles Tan

I’m not that familiar with Dominican culture, so you’re probably right. But I also suspect that that kind of Dominican dialogue used in NY and New Jersey is different from the Dominican used in the Dominican Republic, hence my qualifier that it might be slang. Or perhaps I misuse the term, and want to emphasize that it’s vernacular/colloquial for that type of region rather than the Dominican Republic as a whole. For example, “Flips” are used in the US to refer to Filipinos, but we hardly use it here.

Karen Lord

I’d like to second that Tidbeck short story collection – excellent indeed. Some of the stories were also available in Swedish, but whether they were written in Swedish first then translated to English or vice versa, I have no clue, but either way, both versions were (I think) done by the author.

I find Charles’s point very important. I’m reading Erna Brodber at the moment, a Jamaican writer who writes literary speculative fiction that draws on various sources: myth, fantasy, folktale, oral tradition. There are also elements of science fiction mixed in with the fantasy of her 2007 novel The Rainmaker’s Mistake. She uses both standard English and Jamaican nation language in her work. Her novel Myal won the 1989 Commonwealth Writers prize for the Caribbean/Canada region. Do we unintentionally pass over such works because they’re not obviously genre or obviously foreign? Before I saw Charles’s message I hadn’t thought to mention her.

Theodora Goss

I grew up on Anne McCaffrey, Patricia McKillip, Tanith Lee, and Ursula Le Guin, who were all in the fantasy and sf section of the bookstore in the mall. So it was a revelation to me when I started reading writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez (starting with One Hundred Years of Solitude) and Isabel Allende (The House of the Spirits), both of whom were taught in respectable English classes. I also took a class on post-colonial literature where we read writers such as Maryse Conde (I, Tituba: Black Witch of Salem). By myself, I discovered Milan Kundera (The Unbearable Lightness of Being), who allowed me to link an Eastern European literary tradition to a Latin American and Caribbean one. I read Angelia Gorodischer later, when Kalpa Imperial was translated by Le Guin.

Reading these writers allowed me to break myself out of the fantasy box, to say that I wanted to write literature with fantastical elements rather than genre fiction. I’m not even mentioning Borges and Kafka because they’re so fundamental, but I suppose I should. I don’t think I’d know how to write a short story without Borges.

One thought on “Roundtable on Jorge Luis Borges and Others

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *