Translations of SF/F books from one language to another offer a snapshot of the global SF/F scene, and in recent years it seems there has been an uptick in translated material available in the English-language market. But how representative is the sample of books translated into English? What factors determine which books get translated, and which don't? Who initiates a translation: does the translator work on spec, or are they commissioned by overseas publishers? How are translated books marketed to their new audiences? And why are so many SF and fantasy works by English-language authors translated into other languages, year after year, while so few from the rest of the world make their way into English?
Sue Burke (m), Gili Bar-Hillel, Tom Clegg, Elisabeth Vonarburg, Marian Womack
Shorted bios via program: Sue was born in the US, lives in Spain, and works as a writer, editor, and translator. Gili founded Utz Publishing House in Israel and is a translator. Tom was also born in the US, lives in France, and is a translator and the editor in charge of the SF imprint at Editions Bragelonne. Elisabeth was born in France, lives in Quebec, and is a writer and translator. Marian lives in Spain and runs a small press called Ediciones Nevksy.
Sue: initial question: how representative is sample of books that gets translated? In Spanish, what's been translated is very good but so few books are
Gili: not unique to genre, what is published every year in English is 3% translated works; in Hebrew, probably 40-50% is translated. Many reasons: English currently dominant language globally, so huge English pool of works and don't have much need to look outside unless interested in other cultures, whereas if smaller language with fewer native speakers have need to go outside
Marian: don't forget that translations include washing machine instructions. Odd that small % includes Spanish, since very widely spoken, ~35% of Spanish publications are translations? Why does this happen if it's not need? Sue, do you feel that there's a resistance to publishing works?
Sue: think English-language publishers would be glad if knew what there was, but don't speak, so . . . Also, in Spain for long time genre works were considered imports, even native writers in 1960s, 1970s, writing under Anglophone pseuds; changing, but still belief among readers that Spaniards don't write SFF and thus genre should be imported for quality reasons
Tom: main problem is that genre categories themselves are Anglo-Saxon inventions; thus, writers trying to break in in other countries are forced to adopt these conventions which may not match up with their own (preferences/ideas?). In terms of getting published, comes back to US & British publishers being able to know enough to determine what's being published and how it fits in, sometimes people with knowledge don't exist
Gili: also very risky, even in own language is gamble, publishing in second language have to take someone else's word for quality
Tom: what I mean, if can't read on own then that much more risk, maybe dependent on bad translations. Re: French authors, recent interest on translating early classics of French SF; missed first name of publisher, but mentioned Wesleyan University Press which has been doing some, but otherwise very little. Don't feel that English editors or French publishers putting enough effort into this, just don't have the motivation.
Marian: publishers want an established author, with several books already published in Spain, who is also known outside of Spain, and who "essentially writes the same book again and again and again"; reading between the lines, but want to bring out next book in series or similar plot if first is successful
Gili: quite natural, readers develop comfort zones, if pushing out of it want to create a new one
Marian: yes, absolutely
Gili: culture of brand names, right now the brand = authors, which is problem for works in translation; solution is to build brand in publishers instead
Sue: does this work differently in bilingual culture?
Elisabeth: financially, yes, there are translation grants; doesn't work for non-Canadian works. Except for that, you don't get translated in other languages if no brand, incentive, etc., as just discussed: still wariness against translations. Noticed that all reviews of her works in translation said, "oh, such good translations! Don't even notice that is one!" (I missed some of this, but I think the upshot was that this was only said about the English translations.)
(someone) basic dilemma of translation, transparent to reader in translation or convey culture/differences?
Tom: middle road, not too original, especially in form, because very risky for translator
Elisabeth: but some technical SF is nightmare for translator in French but doesn't dissuade
Gili: doesn't have to be originality, could be original-language convention that poses difficulties. _Barbar_, original French is in present tense, is putting into past within bounds of translation?
Tom: common problem, whether to change present for past. Sometimes get partway through and realize that isn't working and have to go back and change. Re: element of the strange (invented words etc.), that's the main problem in translation of genre. Translators naturally driven to make things clear, but some things you find in fantastic literature aren't supposed to make sense immediately, is a tension there. Example of SF where suitcase calls down to reception and checks itself out of hotel; translator invents person to carry suitcase, which had to be fixed.
Gili: heard second-hand of translator of _Hobbit_ where decided that hobbits don't exist so it was book about rabbits
Elisabeth: aren't translators supposed to know genre?
Gili: think was old old translation
Elisabeth: have a story like that, translator flabbergasted by book with two moons, son had to tell her, "Mom, that's fantasy"
Gili: _Marvelous Land of Oz_, balloon with head of Gump (deer head per illustrations, but not called that), she just transliterated name; one reviewer said "There's no such thing, must be a deer, how will children understand!"
Marian: one of absolute problems faced by translators of genre, if translating bestselling novel about multiple generations of family in Madrid, know more or less what getting, can work out things don't understand from context. But maintaining oddness of SFF is fundamental problem. Frex, Harry Potter has fairly complicated set of naming patterns, how get across Dumbledore is 16th c. name for bumblebee?
Gili: when did HP translations, accepted that can't get everything across, have to decide what's important and what isn't--and keep track of what decided previously. Also discovered generational gap re: types of complaints, younger readers though too much explaining and replacing of Death Eaters with Hebrew translations, while older readers used to all names being changed and wanted more explanations/translations
Marian: don't see any more what did in 1950s, "Carlos Dickens," everything Hispanified
Sue: before HP blew up, no-one wanted to touch in translation because so British. Heard kids debating on subway which was better, HP or Don Quixote: HP more relevant to their problems but DQ was funnier and could go to real places. Helped with translation of _Twilight_ ("too many adverbs"). At time, risk, no teen paranormal romances, published in not big run, spread by word of mouth, to point that saw ads in business section so parents would know "here's the book your kids want to read".
Gili: of course publishers want to know in advance that's going to happen--everyone would publish HP now!
Sue: comfort zone: created by publishers or readers?
Marian: familiar with English market in England, where there are not a lot of smaller and less-risk-averse publishers. (missed a story)
Gili: when talk about readers, obviously individual who are willing to read anything, but publishers have to think of the mass, so have to look to smaller presses. Picking up HP/Twilight before they are HP/Twilight is huge stroke of luck.
Tom: something a bit wrong-headed about that approach, wrong for publishers to just do things that within comfort zone because diminishing returns, genre becoming too sophisticated & dependent on ossified conventions for own good
Gili: not sure agree that shedding readers, talking about genre readers who are kind of a special group. Fantasy becoming much more mainstream, kids/YA hugely dominated by fantasy. If going to target genre readers have to accept that going to have small loyal following.
Elisabeth: vouch for that, one genre publisher in Quebec that is doing well though small in overall world market
audience: would it be helpful if non-Anglophone author commissioned own translation and offered that translation to English publishers?
Elisabeth, immediately: depends on translation
Marian: getting past language barrier however you can is important. When dealing with publishers usually have to translate first four-five chapters to get interested, so would be nice if had that already in hand
Tom: publisher works for has systematically translated first few chapters of books into English (I think), which has secondary effect of creating interest in other translation markets. But don't be offended if publisher wants to polish up.
Sue: hard to get quality translation without paying lot of money
audience: how do you build brand as publisher?
Gili: act of faith as publisher, huge investment of time and money, not expecting each book to be profitable [*] but long-term, not every book pays for self but sometimes will get bestsellers so need consistency and faith
[*] I am not sure this is applicable to established publishers, but maybe it's different when you're getting off the ground.
audience: what can SFF learn from crime genre, which in their experience up to 1/3 can be translated?
(someone, maybe Gili) Scandinavian crime is very fashionable
Marian: at top of wave right now on that, _Girl with Dragon Tattoo_ opens floodgates for everyone to come through
Tom: getting at point was trying to make, crime novels have a lot of genre conventions that have built up, sees success of Scandinavian novels as refreshing change for jaded readers
(Really? I did read _Girl w/Dragon Tattoo_ and didn't think that different.)
Tom con't: see also _Let Me In_ (book: _Let the Right One In_), vampires, simplified and worked
Sue: what does ebooks model do to translations?
Gili: mostly confusing readers, because translators still need to be paid same
Sue: but does it change distribution?
Gili: possibly, but whole other panel, and countries where people don't look for books there yet and not clear that any one publisher can change (not sure I understood this)
Tom: ebooks makes it much easier to get book in original language, so if you're reader that's willing to read in original language . . . demand for translators may drop as a result
Gili: thinks translations are for people who can't read original language
audience: something about unusual or fresh details in works from unfamiliar-to-you languages
Gili: some stuff I missed, but said thought that details of daily life were not stumbling block, different literary conventions were
I don't know much about this topic so I found this pretty informative and a good balance of experiences and perspectives in the panelists.