Foreign Futures

Around the net, science fiction fans are blogging about Norman Spinrad’s column, “Third World Worlds.”  Their hackles are up, especially by what he said about Octavia Butler and Mike Resnick.  I won’t quote what everyone else has, but recommend you read Spinrad’s column whole, to understand the quote in context.  The bloggers also claim that Spinrad is ignorant of science fiction from other countries – but then Spinrad says that too.  I know I’m very ignorant.  [This argument is important and it does bring up lots of examples of science fiction from other countries – see Jason Sanford, Nick Mamatas, Fábio Fernandes and a link compilation.  Read the comments for specific examples.  All these blogs have very worthy unique viewpoints on the topic, so I recommend following the links.  It also illustrates the value of blogging.]

Most people assume science fiction is an American literary invention while ignoring the obvious Jules Verne and H. G. Wells counter examples.  At best, we might say we first marketed science fiction as a specific genre and gave it a name.  But I’ve always assumed the desire to speculate about the future has existed in all cultures going far back into time.  Because of language barriers, exporting these dreams and fears about the future seldom happens. 

And I agree with Spinrad that American writers can’t write African science fiction just because Africa is a topic they like or have a cultural heritage.  I assume there are people in every Africa nation that speculate about the future, and whether or not they package it in short stories and novels like we do is another issue.  But wouldn’t it be far out to read science fiction stories from the Maasai, for instance. 

I’d love to read more science fiction written by writers in other cultures.  I’d love to understand their dreams and hopes about the future, and what they fear.  But doing that is hard.  Look at Science Fiction World from China (Wikipedia says SFW has more readers than any other SF mag in the world).  Except for the pictures I haven’t a clue as to what they are saying.  Wouldn’t it be great if Asimov’s Science Fiction would reprint one story each issue translated from a foreign language science fiction magazine?  At best I’ve poked around and found some SFW covers (I’m guessing one is a different magazine.)

SFWorld-02-10 SFWorld-02a-10

 SFWorld-03-10Sfworld

They look like covers that appear on English language science fiction magazines.

ASF-April-MayCover 202_large

Does that mean the stories are alike too?  I’d expect yes and no.  Cultures make us different, but we’re all dealing with the same reality.  A rocket to the Moon might be universal, but characters onboard will be different from every culture.  But are the reasons we want to go to the Moon different?  Does science fiction make us more alike, than show our differences?

When I watch The Amazing Race the producers try hard to make each stop show off it’s unique cultural traits, but the show has a different unintentional purpose too.  We see every country has the same looking airports, taxis, hotels, highways, gas stations, bus stations, cell phones, computers, etc.  Technology is homogenizing us, so wouldn’t spreading science fictional concepts do the same thing?

If I could read science fiction from all over the world my guess would be each story’s unique flavor would come from the past, and all the future aspects are making us the same.  Does science fiction push us away from older myths, religions and fairy tales and towards a universal acceptance of science?

It would be great if a web site tracked science fiction from around the world.  Locus Magazine has a huge reservoir of such knowledge trapped it its back issues, and is currently offering “An Overview of International Science Fiction/Fantasy in 2009” by Jeff VanderMeer.  So I think the urge to know about SF from around the world is growing.  I wonder if the Internet is a reverse Tower of Babel?

JWH – 3/12/10

5 thoughts on “Foreign Futures”

  1. Amazing cover art.

    I imagine their stories are a bit different. Japanese anime movies are unlike anything in the USA. You’re right – be nice to see some translated.

  2. Of course, a lot of American science fiction gets translated and sold around the world, which homogenizes things more and can make it harder for foreign writers to break in. My novel Spider Star will appear in Japanese this year.

    1. Yeah, I’ve read that American SF writers can pick up some good cash by reselling their books overseas. I wonder why we don’t see more of the reverse? I wonder how many foreign language authors have agents that promote their work here. I guess the burden of translation would be on them though.

  3. Of course there’s a lot of foreign SF. And equally of course, considering how much cultural background is in English-language SF, it can be quite a bit different from American or British SF. Although it doesn’t have to be.
    And, like English-language SF, some of it is quite good, and some of it is quite bad. No surprise there; we’re all human.

    It might be interesting to take a look at how foreign-language SF is handled in the US vs. Japan (two nations that I happen to know somewhat about). If you take a look at my http://www.kurodahan.com site you will see that I already publish Japanese SF in translation.

    Since Mike Brotherton mentioned that his novel will be published in Japan, allow me to take his case as an example. I don’t know the details of his contract, of course, but I can make a reasonable guess about how it’s set up. (I happen to have Star Dragon on the shelf next to me, in fact… thank you, Mike!)

    I expect that Mike was approached by a Japanese publisher, possibly via an agent or two, with the proposal. They wanted to publish his book, in Japanese, for a fee involving a fixed fee and/or royalties. No doubt it was all pretty cut and dried, and the deal was struck. Sounds much like the situation in the US.
    Except that it ain’t.

    Mike gave them an English manuscript. The publisher had to arrange translation into Japanese. I don’t know if anyone here knows a second language well enough to appreciate the difficulty involved in the word “translate,” but it is not just the ability to use a dictionary, or even to be bilingual. Think about native speakers of English for a moment… they have been raised in English, have access to dictionaries, and STILL churn out infinite tons of garbage. Much of it is online, or at presses like Lulu, for example. So even a native Japanese speaker may not be able to write language that READS well. And if it doesn’t read well, it reflects badly on Mike, not on the translator. People will not want to read his work again.
    Naturally, people who translate for a living (like me) pay attention to their work, because if they screw it up they lose their income. Income. Yeah, translations cost money. They may cost as much as the author makes off the deal, in fact. And, like the author, they get paid when the book is printed, not when it is sold, which means more upfront expense for the publisher.
    In spite of all this, Japanese publishers (especially Hayakawa, which I imagine is the house doing Mike’s book), publish a massive quantity of translations from English.

    Now let’s look at the other side. I have published some stories and a novel by a Japanese author named Ken Asamatsu, and was recently asked if he would like to put a short story in “Cthulhu’s Reign” from DAW. He would be delighted, of course. The rates are low, but they are the same as the rates offered to any other author in the anthology, so I can’t really complain there.
    What about translation, I asked? Who is going to translate it? Well, they said, you have to send it in English. What are you going to pay for the translation, I asked? Nothing, they said. You can split the author’s fee with the author.
    Or, they added, if you don’t want to submit it in English, well, there are plenty of other authors we can ask.

    Do I detect a double standard here?
    American publishers demand foreign manuscripts be in English. And they also hand manuscripts to Japanese publishers in English. The Japanese pays for the translation in both cases.

    And guess what? Agents in the States will not even look at a manuscript unless it is written in English. And it has to be very good English, because they will judge the potential of the ms on the content. Which means any ms being submitted to a US agent or publisher has to be translated first, in good English (not only grammatical, but also a good, readable style).

    Translating a book WELL from Japanese to English can easily cost US$5000 or $10,000. And that money has to be paid to the translator before the English even reaches the agent in the States.
    Needless to say, very few people are willing to risk that sort of cash frequently.

    So what happens if stories are translated by amateurs, sold for peanuts to low-end magazines or whatever, and published… giving foreign SF a bad rep because they are poorly translated, or written in flat English.

    Once a book is translated into English, by hook or by crook, American publishers almost always try to conceal the fact that it was not originally written in English. The author’s name is plastered all over, but the translator’s name is almost invisible, sometimes missing entirely. That isn’t good or bad, just a fact, but it means that the general public is often not even aware of the fact that translation is needed.

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