Posts filed under 'science fiction'

Portrait of the Translator as Neologist

Translating neologism resembles a tiny model of the whole process of translation

The Horde of Counterwind, written by the French writer Alain Damasio, takes place in a world of violent winds where a band of hardened, élite travelers make their arduous way toward the Upper Reaches, from where the winds are said to originate. Translating the thickly packed, virtuosic prose of this singular Science Fiction/Fantasy epic is a bit like having to join the Horde to battle against the winds. Skeptical readers have declared the Horde untranslatable, filled to the brim as it is with wordplay and even a long jeu-parti, or poetic duel, between the improvising troubadour Caracole and his ultraformalist counterpart, Seleme the Stylite. The poetic duel involves palindromes, among other enormous challenges to the translator. Translation, through the Horde of Counterwind, becomes a test of vigor and endurance for both writer and translator, who must faire bloc—become a single vital force—before the shattering gale of language.

Yet the Horde’s translator ultimately spends a great deal more time working on single words than on entire passages. The most difficult task facing the translator of the Horde, and indeed of many works of so-called speculative fiction, lies in the proper rendering of the novel’s innumerable neologisms. Within the first page, the Horde’s translator is called upon to translate the word furvent, a term denoting one of the most violent forms of the wind. After several hours of live discussion by Skype, and after brainstorming literally dozens of possible alternatives, Damasio and I settled on the term threshgale. Furvent derives in large part from the word furieux (furious), and the French word for wind (vent), whereas the neologism retains neither component, preferring winnowing and thrashing to fury, and the storm or gale in place of the mere wind.

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Meet the Publisher: Phoneme Media’s David Shook on Translations from Underrepresented Languages

I do think we’re living in a very good time for publishing translations.

Phoneme Media is a nonprofit company that produces books in translation into English and literary films. Based in Los Angeles, the company was founded by Brian Hewes and David Shook in 2013, though it wasn’t until 2015 that the press began publishing on a seasonal calendar. To date, Phoneme Media has put out over twenty titles of fiction and poetry, and is particularly interested in publishing works from languages and places that don’t often appear in English. Many of their books are accompanied by short films that take on different formats, from video poems to book trailers, and have been shot around the world. Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large for Argentina, Sarah Moses, spoke to David Shook over Skype about publishing translations from underrepresented languages and some of the titles he’s excited about.

Sarah Moses (SM): How did Phoneme Media start?

David Shook (DS): It came about basically because of my own work as a poet and translator. In my own travels—when I was working in community-based development, mostly in East Central Africa and Latin America—through relationships, through friendships with writers, in places like Burundi and Equatorial Guinea, and writers working in indigenous languages in southern Mexico, for example, I was just encountering all of these writers that I felt deserved to be read in English, that would contribute something important to our literary dialogue and that couldn’t find homes in terms of publishers here in the United States and in the UK, too, for a couple of reasons. The first being the lack of translators working in those languages and familiar with those regions, and the second was the fact that these books were somewhat outside the purview of even the publishers who specialized in translation—some great publishers. I think of Open Letter, for example, which has largely focused on literature from European languages, which I also think is incredibly important, but something like a book of poetry from Isthmus Zapotec, or the first translation from the Lingala—a novel we’re preparing to publish later this year would definitely be a bit outside their wheel house.

SM: How do you find translators for languages like the ones you’ve mentioned?

DS: Well I think our reputation is such that, despite having been around a comparatively short time, we’re often approached by translators working in more unusual languages. Our translation from the Uyghur, for example, by Jeffrey Yang, and the author is Ahmatjan Osman, who was exiled in Canada, was exactly that situation. Jeffrey brought the translation to us because he knew of our editorial interests. In other cases, like our book of Mongolian poetry, I was alerted to its existence because the translator won a PEN/Heim grant. And I do read widely, both in search of writers and of translators, who I think are important. For example, a place like Asymptote, which I read regularly with an eye toward acquisitions. I mean when we acquired, for example, this novel from the Lingala, the translation was a huge issue because there are very few, if any, literary translators from the Lingala, so I actually auditioned a few Congolese translators before finding this husband-and-wife team, Sara and Bienvenu Sene, who did a really great job. They’re really literary translators, whereas most of the translators I’d auditioned were technical translators or interpreters. And it’s pretty spectacular, considering I think English is their fourth language. I think a big part of my work is scouting out these translators and also encouraging a new generation of translators to go out into the world and find interesting books. I’m very proud that we’ve published many first-time translators on Phoneme Media.

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In Review: “A Planet for Rent” by Yoss

Scott Beauchamp reviews the latest science fiction from Cuba, finally in English translation

Science fiction is an international project. It’s multi-racial, multi-ethnic, and accommodating enough as a genre to include authors of almost any identitification. So though it’s clear there isn’t a genre problem—there still is a publishing problem.

In America, for instance, there simply aren’t enough people of color and women authors being published. What’s more—further reflective of the problem of access to translated works in the United States (famously, only 3% of books published stateside are from translation)—the full range of exciting sci-fi published in Japan, China and India only makes its way to non-native readers in a slight trickle.

Cuban science fiction, however, is another problem entirely. All writing on the island was for decades subject to the whims of the Department of Revolutionary Orientation, and with trade in general being fairly limited in the 1960s and 1970s, Cuban science fiction has struggled to realize itself.

And now that the long-awaited global thaw is finally happening, Restless Books, a Brooklyn-based publishing house, is taking the noteworthy step of translating some of the most interesting sci-fi writers on the island. Yoss (whose birth name is José Miguel Sánchez Gómez), the author of A Planet for Rent, is one such writer. READ MORE…

The Orbital Library: Interviewing Ken Liu

“All writers are writing science fiction in a certain sense in so far as they explore concepts of alienation and modernity.”

Ken Liu is a Chinese-born American writer whose body of translations and original fiction is helping shed light on the current boom of science fiction and fantasy writing in China to English-speaking audiences. A lawyer and programmer by profession, he made his publishing debut with “The Paper Menagerie,” a short story about a mail-order bride and her son coping with cultural alienation through the care of sentient origami animals. The story swept the science fiction and fantasy establishment, garnering the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy Awards in a stroke. Many more stories and translations were to follow.

Liu first came to my attention through his translation of The Three-Body Problem, the first book in a trilogy by the bestselling author Cixin Liu, popularly regarded as the key figure in China’s science fiction community.

The novel is made up of two interwoven narratives, one set in near-future China (no concrete dates are given) and the other during the height of the Cultural Revolution. Ye Wenjie is an astrophysicist and engineer whose father is brutally murdered during an uprising of the Red Guards. Branded a reactionary because of her family ties, she is sent to  a rural labor camp. Her troubles are compounded when the authorities learn of her interest in the nascent environmental movement.

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A Message from Space

In his latest installment from The Orbital Library, Matthew Spencer tackles translation and alien communication

Since the beginning of the genre, science fiction writers have speculated on what it would be like to communicate with beings from another world. For the most part, these scenarios don’t depart much from how we humans communicate with each other. Both literal and literary devices are introduced to smooth over differences. Someone sets up a machine, usually called a universal translator, which seamlessly renders alien speech intelligible. A galactic lingua franca—some sort of space English—is another related convention.

These are efficiencies, meant to push along the plot or prevent awkward assumptions on the part of the reader, such as aliens speaking English or Hebrew or whatever language in which the story happens to be written. In the days when the genre consisted primarily of short fiction, such quick and dirty means were also necessary to shepherd the reader as quickly as possible into the adventure, without too much digression into the subject of linguistics.

Advances in machine translation, such as Skype’s new instantaneous voice-to-voice translation service, have borne out, at least in part, the speculations of the hack magazine writer. But universal translation hasn’t always seemed plausible. Writing in 1960, Kingsley Amis called it “blatant pseudoscience.” In his survey of science fiction, New Maps of Hell, he makes an apology for the reliance on UT as a plot device, believing that its use might stretch the credulity of the general reader to the breaking point. Scenarios of faster-than-light travel were much more feasible, Amis thought—and with good reason, writing as he did in a time when aerospace was the vanguard technology.

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From the Orbital Library: “Another Man’s City” by Ch’oe In-ho

“As he progresses on his quest, K comes to realize that a vast intelligence, inhuman but capable of taking human form, is guiding events.”

God often plays an outsized role in science fiction, if only by not showing up. In H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, for example, the narrator encounters a deranged curate—that’s an assistant to an Anglican priest—in the turmoil following a Martian invasion. The two hide in a ruined house, where the holy man rants on how the extraterrestrials are God’s punishment for a fallen world. The narrator must incapacitate him with a shovel to prevent the enemy from detecting them. Later, as the Martians fall prey to a virus benign to humanity, the irony becomes clear: Matter, not spirit, drives the universe.

But the genre can’t quite leave Christianity, and many SF writers have speculated in ways much more commodious to the religion. In November 1974, Philip K. Dick received a mystical vision that would later become a legendary episode in the history of the genre. At home, recovering from an operation on an impacted wisdom tooth, he received a visit from a strange and beautiful woman wearing an ichthys, the Christian symbol of the fish, as a gold pendant on her neck. Dick then described a “pink laser” shooting from the symbol directly into his mind and imbuing him with divine logos. This included the author catching a glimpse into a parallel life as Timothy, a persecuted Christian living in 1st-century Rome. The vision set off a torrent of creative activity, which included Dick’s later novels VALIS, The Divine Invasion, Radio Free Albemuth, as well as an 8,000-page journal of philosophical speculations, selections of which were published in 2011 as The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick.

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From the Orbital Library: “Definitely Maybe”

Russian science fiction goes claustrophobic in this work by the Strugatsky brothers—a review

There’s something disconcertingly contemporary about Definitely Maybe, a novella by the masters of Russian science fiction, brothers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. The book was first published in the Soviet Union in 1974 and has every appearance of taking place in that world. Earlier this year, Melville House brought out the first unexpurgated English translation, a task impossible before the dissolution of the Marxist-Leninist state in 1991. This may seem like ancient history to those born into a world of ubiquitous, instantaneous digital communication. But within this slim volume, there are hints of the frustrated ambitions and pervasive distraction that define our present.

Dmitri Malianov, an astrophysicist, is on the cusp of a discovery, one that in his estimation might very well bring him a Nobel Prize. His wife and child are away, visiting family in Odessa. With nobody but his pet cat to take care of, Malianov has the time and freedom to make a breakthrough. But soon come anonymous deliveries of expensive food and alcohol. Then friends and colleagues start calling him out of the blue, first by telephone and then in person, nervously asking questions about the progress he’s made. A woman unexpectedly shows up at Malianov’s door, a school friend of his wife, beautiful enough to drive the scientist to distraction. Events are conspiring to keep him from his discovery. READ MORE…