[To the Ends of the Universe] Opening the SF Translation Pipeline to America
Editor’s note: Nebula Award nominated author Jason Sanford is now publishing a monthly column in SF Signal called To the Ends of the Universe. These columns were originally printed in the Czech SF magazine XB-1. Jason’s new anthology Million Writers Award: The Best Online Science Fiction and Fantasy recently received a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly.
Thanks to the instantaneous world of online communications, it’s easier than ever for writers in the United States to have their works translated and published for overseas audiences. Forget the weeks and months it once took reprint and translation requests to reach American shores by airmail or shipborne mail—today editors of overseas magazines like the Czech Republic’s XB-1 or China’s Science Fiction World can reach an American author or agent almost instantly. This revolution in international communications is one of the reasons my stories have been translated by magazines from around the world. Because of this, I’ve found readers and SF-friends in many countries, which delights me to no end.
But it often seems like this relationship only goes one way. While translations of a few big non-English-speaking science fiction authors can be found in the U.S.—such as the seminal Czech author Karel Capek or the Polish author Stanislaw Lem—for the most part American audiences don’t have the opportunity to read translated works. If you walk into your average American bookstore, less than 3% of the SF on the shelves was originally written in a language other than English.
Contrast this to the situation in many other countries, where translations of English-language SF make up to half the genre fiction market.
I’ve often wondered why this is the case, so recently I spent several weeks talking to genre readers and writers about this situation. Here’s what I’ve discovered.
The first reason given for the lack of translated SF in the U.S. is that Americans are too self-absorbed or ignorant of other cultures to be interested. According to this view, American arrogance prevents the rise of a translation market, as we cling to a stubborn U.S.A.-first provinciality.
As someone who has lived and worked overseas, I know much of the world does indeed perceive Americans as self-absorbed and arrogant. But while there’s some truth to this, I also think this complaint can be overstated—used as stereotypical shorthand to complain about the U.S. without truly understanding the cultural dynamics at work in this country.
I’m also not convinced this fully explains why so few SF stories from other languages are translated for American audiences. Yes, there are Americans who are truly ignorant of other cultures and want nothing to do with foreign literature. But there are also many people here who love translations. After all, we’re talking about a country with a population of 310 million. Within U.S. borders you will find all types of people—and many of them are very receptive to translations. I know I am, as are many my friends in SF fandom. So I refuse to accept that the U.S. doesn’t contain a big enough market to support translated SF.
Another reason given for the lack of translated SF in the U.S. is the cultural domination of the English-speaking world. In the essay “The View from the Other Side: Science Fiction and Non-Western/Non-Anglophone Counties” (first published in Asimov’s Science Fiction), author Aliette de Bodard says “There is plenty of SF being translated from English into other languages, but little of it makes its way into Western Anglophone countries.” Bodard believes that this gap results from the cultural domination of the West, and of the United States in particular. By way of comparison, she notes that at the time of the Tang dynasty from the seventh to tenth century, when China was at its height of power, China exported its culture across the region but took very little in the ways of culture back into itself. The same happened when France was at the height of its power.
Bodard says that since the U.S. has been one of the dominate world powers since the middle of the 20th century, this country is following a similar track as the earlier Chinese and French and not bringing much outside culture into itself.
Bodard raises a fascinating point and I do see cultural domination as being part of the problem, right alongside how some people in the U.S. are resistant to translated stories. But again, I have trouble believing that either of these factors are the dominant barrier to translated SF.
I state this because there are a number of translated literary works which have hit it big in the U.S. Outside the SF genre, the translated Millennium series of novels by Stieg Larsson (beginning with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) have been immensely popular, as have other translated novels such as Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate. Granted, these are big exceptions to the rule, but they do prove American audiences will embrace translated fiction if it is made available.
A similar exception also exists within our genre. In the United States, Japanese manga is extremely popular, with bookstores devoting entire sections to translated titles. And because manga is so popular, translations of other Japanese genre books, including SF novels, are now available in many U.S. bookstores.
So why are Japanese manga and SF novels so popular in the U.S. while other translations struggle? To answer this question, I turned to award-winning science fiction and horror author Nick Mamatas, who works at Viz Media, one of the biggest U.S. publishers of Japanese manga. Mamatas is editor of their Haikasoru line of translated Japanese science fiction novels.
According to Mamatas, “Translations could be popular, if more material was translated. It’s just that acquiring the work costs money—about as much as a low-level advance on a novel—and then translating it costs twice that much. So one is paying a ‘midlist’ advance for what the U.S. market will view as a first novel since nobody is familiar with the author…and then the author isn’t even in the U.S. to promote the work via a blog, a book tour or anything else.”
Mamatas says that because of these barriers, there’s a lack of will to translate many works, never mind that Steig Larsson demonstrated translations can sell millions of copies. Despite this, Mamatas doesn’t believe there’s anything inherent in the SF genre which makes it especially difficult to translate. In fact, due to the popularity of video games and the manufacture of electronics in Asia, there are large numbers of Japanese-to-English translators available in the U.S.
And that point actually ties in with the major reason why so many Japanese manga and genre novels are being translated into English—and why so few works from other cultures see the light of day.
You see, there is essentially a Japanese-to-English “pipeline” bringing Japanese anime, manga, and SF to the American shores.
The simple truth is translating any type of literature is a start-up heavy enterprise. Not only must you license the works, but then you must find a reliable group of translators, publish the translations, and create a receptive market. But thanks to this Japanese-to-English pipeline, the infrastructure to bring Japanese works to America already exists.
For example, the Japanese government’s Agency for Cultural Affairs runs a literature publishing project to “promote the translation of outstanding Japanese literary works into English and other languages and their publication overseas.” Add in the established relationships between Japanese and American publishers and the available translator talent and it’s easy to see that the Japanese-to-English pipeline has reached the critical point where the major hurdles to translation are no longer hurdles at all.
SF author Ken Liu agrees with Mamatas that a major stumbling point for non-English SF is that the translation infrastructure doesn’t exist for most languages (although he also mentions American attitudes toward translation, and cultural domination, as contributing factors). Liu has worked with several British and American publishers who were interested in bringing Chinese works to English audiences.
“Their biggest problems,” he says, “are 1) getting in touch with authors, and 2) getting good translators. Similarly, Chinese publishers and authors literally don’t know who to talk to in the U.S. if they’re interested in bringing a work here. You need ‘connectors’—and the infrastructure Mamatas referred to—to facilitate these kinds of interactions. And that takes time and persistence to build.”
This doesn’t mean its impossible to build other translation pipelines, but as Liu says that takes time. After all, the Japanese-to-English pipeline took decades to become established. In addition, those translations began, according to Mamatas, with video games and manga, which are easier to translate than novels and make more money. This enabled publishing companies to build up needed money and infrastructure before they began translating more complex novel-length fiction.
Unfortunately, Liu says the lack of successful SF translations in the U.S. results in a “chicken-or-egg problem.” When foreign authors and translators see so few translated works succeed in this country, they conclude there’s no market. And because few works are translated in the U.S., there’s nothing for interested readers to seek out.
“I’d encourage more foreign authors and translators to be bold and try the U.S. market,” Liu says. “When I approached a prestigious spec fic magazine in the US about some translations I’d done, they loved them, but also told me that they get very few translation submissions. They’d love to make the magazine more international by publishing more translations, but not that many translators and authors contact them.”
Now that the popularity of Stieg Larsson and Japanese manga have opened the translation floodgates, perhaps this will change. But before a flood of translated SF washes up on American shores, we’ll need authors, translators, and publishers willing to take a chance. And when that might happen is still anyone’s guess.
Filed under: To the Ends of the Universe
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