Translation, asymmetry, intrusismo, a forthcoming offer.

What follows is a somewhat lengthy blow-by-blow account of a discussion across blogposts by several different authors regarding the idea of translating short fiction (genre fiction, mainly) in English ‘on spec’.

The ‘TL;DR’ version: “An imbalance exists between English-fiction-translated-into-other-languages vs. Fiction-in-other-languages-translated-into-English; the idea of established Anglophone authors (i.e., non-professional translators) offering to help redress that imbalance raises interesting questions re threats to the livelihood of literary translators”

The long version:

This morning, as I was leisurely scrolling back through my Twitter feed with cup of coffee #2, I ran across a tweet from the highly prolific and entertaining Alex Shvartsman (@AShvartsman), in which he and award-winning author Aliette de Bodard were offering their services to non-Anglophone authors interested in having their work translated to English.

Clicking along the Internet trail, I was led to a post by the great Benjamin Rosenbaum entitled “Translation, Asymmetry, An Offer”. In it, he begins by pointing out that his stories have been translated into 17 languages: “a symptom,” he says, “of a staggeringly — ridiculously — English-dominated world translation scene.”

He goes on to point out that, “Of all translations worldwide, perhaps about half are from English — within Europe, it’s about two thirds“, while native English speakers are only 5.3% of the world’s population.

“That means,” writes Rosenbaum, “under six percent of the world gets to write maybe a third of the books read by everyone else.”

To redress this, Mr Rosenbaum offered his services as an ‘on spec’ translator (paraphrasing very roughly here): if readers or writers had a non-English-language story they’d read or written that they thought matched his sensibility and was awesome enough to demand the English translation it would most likely never have access to, he would attempt to translate it or pass it on to someone who could. In the first version of this post (later amended), he added, “I’m not really interested in making money on this, and would waive my cut if that’s a thing.”

In the comments section, however, translator Edward Gauvin (whom you may know from his translation work for Weird Fiction Review) pointed out that the “symbolic gesture” on Rosenbaum’s part of translating on spec and waiving his fee could contribute to a disturbing trend:

“In the case of your offer above,” he writes, “we are talking about a very invisible part of an already relatively invisible profession: translating on spec, often in contact directly with the author (and not his/her publisher, much less the minimal contractual protection of any English-language publisher). In this kind of situation, I have seen too many translators, hungry for work or just hoping to work on something they like, get treated really unscrupulously by foreign authors, themselves hungry to get into hegemonic English, to be comfortable seeing translation services offered FOR FREE. Authors who pit multiple translators against each other, who deny the translator ever did any work at all, who go on to defame said translator to authors and publishers… you name it.”

As a result, Rosenbaum gladly edited his post to stipulate his proposed cut of any commercial work that might be done, as well as clarifying several other points in hopes of removing any implication that translation work is somehow undeserving of remuneration.

“My ideal scenario,” he said, “is that this would create more work for professional translators, along the lines of: 1) Anglophone author who benefits from translation translates non-Anglophone author’s short story, 2) Anglophone publisher, intrigued, contacts non-Anglophone author with a book offer, 3) non-Anglophone author or Anglophone publisher pays for professional translation of book — novel or collection — which no one’s going to do as a lark.”

A similar exchange took place on de Bodard’s blog, where she had wholesale cut-and-pasted Rosenbaum’s original post and Gauvin subsequently cut-and-pasted the concerns he’d voiced earlier at Rosenbaum’s blog. Bodard pointed out in response that “the issue isn’t, per se, the prohibitive cost of professional translation, it’s the fact that there is no translation infrastructure in place from other languages into English […] At the moment, as you point out, there really is little to no market for translating short stories into English on spec, and no smart solution that I can see for creating one…”

To which another professional translator Laura Watkinson replied: “there are professional literary translators out there doing this work already […] Many of us know about possible sources of funding for translations and have professional relationships with publishers. I’d say that there definitely is an infrastructure in place for professional literary translations into English. I’d recommend the Society of Authors as a good place to start.

The discussion in the comments went on (including interesting comments re the going rates for translation vs the going rates for SF short stories, and the fannish tradition of paying-it-forward and so on which I recommend anyone interested in this topic to pay special attention to), but for our purposes here, suffice it to say that this whole thing is a sticky wicket indeed.

Coincidentally I had already in recent months been pondering the possibility of just such a thing, inspired by the example of author Ken Liu’s success in publishing translations of Chinese SF authors in some of the field’s major English language publications.

And I think that the imbalance that Rosenbaum et al point out is something worth addressing. However, the comments coming from the other end of the equation, by translators like Mr. Gauvin and Ms. Watkinson, raise interesting questions about the impact of such an endeavour on the industry of translation itself as a whole.

Indeed, in a country like Spain, the spectre of intrusismo laboral looms large over the translation business–basically anyone with a minimum grasp of basic English grammar can, if they so desire, fancy themselves a translator, whether it’s your stereotypical backpacker native-speaker TEFL teacher with no formal training in translation whatsoever or a Spanish speaker with the First Certificate doing inverse translations(!) for a little extra pocket money.

In the near future, I fully intend to post a similar offer to the one made by Rosenbaum, de Bodard, and Shvartman (though, credential-wise I’m don Nadie by comparison), but not without first giving the whole thing a nice long think.

Meanwhile, writers and translators are welcome to post their take on things in the comments below.

fiction, other

“Las maderas”

This past Sunday we went to Caixa Forum to see some free art. There was a Pisarro exhibit. There were lots of pretty paintings, it was awesome. That sounds like me being dickish, but no, it was great.

Also, and this is why I’m writing this, there was an exposition entitled ARTE FICCIÓN. Meant as like a play on words with the term CIENCIA FICCIÓN. Yeah. As in, art inspired by speculative fiction tropes, i.e. Utopía: proyecto o sistema optimista que aparece como irrealizable en el momento de su formulación. Distopía: situación ficticia indeseable en ella misma. Paradoja: idea extraña o inverosímil que se presenta con apariencia de verdad,” etc., etc. 

Anyway, in conjunction with the exhibit they had organized a “concurso de microrelatos”, a contest for “microrelatos de ciencia ficción” (sci-fi flash fiction) inspired by the artworks on display.  There were some examples printed on laminated cards next to each piece in the exhibit. I was like, “Oh, yeah, I can do this.” On the way home I inevitably got to thinking about one of the pieces I’d seen, a pair of images from Galician artist Nicolás Combarro’s  series entitled Arquitectura oculta, for example:

Nicolás Combarro

So I ran home, banged out a little “microrelato” (less than 1000 characters, they said), and went online to see how I could enter their little contest.

Turns out the contest ended on the 2nd of December. Like,  a week ago. Whoops.

But I was kind of happy with how the piece came out, seeing as how it was scribbled out in about a half-hour in a notebook, so here it is for those of you who read a little Spanish. (If not, you might try sticking it in Google Translate, might be good for a laugh.) Without further ado…

“Las maderas”

Cuando la madera se despertó, nadie lo supo explicar. Teorías había muchas, cada cual más inverosímil. Lo único que estaba claro es que una noche—una noche al parecer como cualquier otra—después de tanto años de genocidio y tortura, de bosques enteros talados o quemados, de hierros oxidados clavándose en su cuerpo a martillazos, años de soportar el peso de paredes y de casas, de mesas y sillas y crucifijos y todo lo demás, después de todo eso, todas las maderas y tablones repartidos en vertederos y almacenes allá por el mundo entero cobraron vida.

Se juntaron, formaron espantosos esqueletos de articulaciones angulosas, se congregaron en las cimas de la montañas y dentro de las cloacas de las ciudades, y allí se quedaron durante días y días, aislados de la mirada curiosa e inconsciente de los humanos, rumiando. Sedientas de venganza.

Hasta que un día se alzaron sobre sus patas alargadas e insectoides y se echaron a andar…


Thoughts on Elysium

I’d been interested in seeing the new film from Neill Blomkamp as soon as I heard about it, having seen and thoroughly enjoyed his first feature District 9.  So I managed to convince my wife to come see it with me. We, like, actually went and saw it in an actual movie theatre. And actually, I wasn’t disappointed.

The ‘have v. have-not’ theme that drives the story is by no means a brand-new thing in science-fiction in general or sci-fi cinema in particular (going back at least as far as Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, just to cite one example off the top of my head), but unfortunately neither is it a brand-new thing in society. It’s become almost a truism these days to point out that ‘good science-fiction isn’t about the future, it’s about the present’.

The freshness that Elysium brings to this trope comes from the world-building and visual texture of the film. The CGI effects of the ‘torus’-style space station Elysium hit just the right note between verisimilitude and impossibility to give it the feel of an actual Paradise. Meanwhile, the grit and dirt of 22nd century L.A. is believable, such that even the more far-fetched details (the smiling plastic dummy with built-in speaker that acts as Matt Damon’s parole officer) seem plausible.

The film touches on a variety social issues: health care, precarious and unsafe working conditions, terror, digital security, immigration. It’s this last one, however, that gets the most attention. The film dramatizes the plight of illegal immigrants–whether it’s Mexicans trying to cross the US-Mexico border or sub-Saharan Africans setting out in tiny boats to paddle across the Mediterranean into southern Europe–in the science-fictional form of hastily-organized shuttles sent into orbit (SPOILER!) only to be blown to bits by the security apparatus of the space station.

This focus on immigration and the quandary that it supposes in a globalized economy points up what I see as a slight problem with the film: the question of casting.

Certainly, Jodie Foster is well-chosen as the WASPy right-wing Defense secretary (though she’s saddled with the flattest of the characters here) and Sharlto Copley as the psychopathic Afrikaaner mercenary (better, though the character’s ostensibly ‘clever’ bad-guy banter gets tiresome after a while). And on the other side, down in L.A., there’s a bevy of talented Latino actors in secondary roles.

The hero, though? The one with the unambiguously ‘Latin’ surname Da Costa?

Yeah. Matt Damon. (Who, by the way, seems to have fully consummated his transformation into WWE professional wrestler John Cena for this role. All that was missing was a ‘U Can’t See Me’ t-shirt.)

I doubt this point went unnoticed in the planning stages of the project. I can’t imagine Blomkamp et al having a blind-spot that big, racial-sensitivity-wise. Witness, for example, the subtle subversion of action-film cliché in the fact that the black guy sidekick (SPOILER) doesn’t get gunned down in the assault on the Armadyne exec’s spacecraft; in fact, he survives to the end of the film. Though I haven’t seen a lot of action movies in the last few years, maybe that’s not a thing anymore…?

I mean, Matt Damon does a good job, don’t get me wrong. His Spanish isn’t even that bad. But something rings less than entirely true, if not categorically false, for this character to be a blue-eyed Anglo dude.

It just seems like a case of the studios being like, ‘nah, we gotta get a white guy’. Or who knows–this is just speculation on my part–maybe they offered it to Bardem and he turned it down? Such are the whims and exigencies of the Hollywood behemoth…

There were other aspects of the film I wasn’t one-hundred percent on board for, either–the magic, ‘hand-wavium’ aspect of the health-scanner thingies, for example, or the incidental music (heavy-handed in spots) and the fight scenes (some of which were actually a bit lengthy and plodding for my taste).

All that having been said, it’s just really nice to see a block-buster science-fiction film with some kind of content, some kind of commentary besides just, ‘Oh, hey, look, Star Trek! Oh, hey, look Star Wars! Hey, Marvel and/or DC reboot!’.

On the whole I’m Just kind of glad that films like Elysium exist, perfect or not.


Notes from Berlin 2013

Following the model of last year’s Notes from SF 2012:

On my first day in Berlin, I…

– caught the 3rd act of an episode of the Simpsons where they go to Japan, dubbed in German

– saw some old friends, and some bands I’d never heard of who were pretty all right

– got briefly confused by the ‘deposit system’ at the bar whereby you pay an extra euro for a token which you then return in exchange for your euro.

On the second day, I

– applied stupid amounts of sunscreen to my forehead throughout the course of the day

– ate a currywurst

– walked through Checkpoint Charlie, the Brandenburg Gate and other famous ‘walking-through’ places

– discovered Sternburg Export (.80c/half-liter bottle)

– tried some extra-hot ‘red-top’ Sriracha hot sauce which I’d never seen before

–  listened to two kids on the street throwing down on their respective melodicas

– sat in the grass and drank beer

On the third day, I

– hung out for a bit with Nefertiti and Sakhmet (the dog-headed Egyptian goddess of death and vengeance) et al at the Neues Museum

– also peered intently at a small chunk of rock which purportedly bore cuneiform inscriptions from the Epic of Gilgamesh

– immersed myself in the horror-kitsch ‘Ostalgie’ of the DDR Museum

– acquainted myself with such products as the candybars CORNY BIG and NUTS, the breakfast cereal ‘HONEY BALLS‘ as well as a line of potato chips sold under the name ‘Crusty Croc

– used a 33cl can of “Jack and coke” (25% Jack Daniels, 75% cola) to wash down a bratwurst bought from a street vendor

– got rained on

On the fourth day, I

– took the U-Bahnhof to Zoologischer Garten

– saw a fat little old weiner-dog jump in and fetch a stick that his fat little old owner had thrown into one of the ponds at Tier Garten

– ate some kimchi that was bangin’

– caught up with old friend (see ‘first day’ above) over beers at the Hotel Michelberger

– listened to some jazz dudes on the bridge

– dodged the fuzz on the U-6 and had to walk home

– got rained on.

On the fifth day I

– went to the airport

– sneezed at the security checkpoint and heard several real-life Germans actually say “Gesundheit”

– ate a calzone for breakfast

– flew home.



In theory, my story was supposed to go live at NewMyths.com on the 1st of December. Well, today is Monday and hopefully itll be posted eventually. Until then, you might find this entertaining:

Almost two years ago now, I decided rather abruptly that I was going to write a science-fiction novel.

I was mainly inspired by my friend Juan, who had written one in a two or three month stretch of unemployment. Mine was going to be a post-“peak oil” thriller in which the most audacious “novum” was the idea that in the future, “football” (i.e. “soccer”) would be the most popular sport in the divided States of America.

I soon realized I’d bitten off more than I could chew, and decided I ought to try my hand with the short-story medium, you know, to sharpen my skills.

My first story idea was the fruit of a misread word on a computerscreen. My eyes saw the word “Jesuit” and interpreted it as “jetsuit”. The similarity between the two words struck me, and I started my first story with the image of a “Jesuit in a jetsuit”. I wrote a story the “logline” of which could be summarized as “witch hunt on a lunar colony”, and promptly sent a draft off to my friend Alex, who happened to be taking a course on science-fiction and fantasy at the university.

He never got around to reading it, thank goodness. It was nearly 28 pages long. Also, it sucked.

I noted in the e-mail to my friend that I was shooting for sort of a mix between Jorge Luis Borges and E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith. “Los teólogos” seen through the prism of Golden Age SF. An Inquisition led by Campbellian “competent men”. What I’d ended up with was “The Wicker Man IN SPACE”.

After many submissions and rejections, I actually got a rewrite request from one market. The editor suggested that the piece would perhaps be better if I excised the scene in which a farmhand had sex with a sheep.

I removed the scene and re-submitted, but alas, ‘twas not to be.

Finally, I sent the piece to Mr. Scott T. Barnes at NewMyths.com. He also requested a rewrite, saying that the ending was all wrong, the motivation for the main character’s action at the end was non-sensical. He suggested that I completely overhaul the second half of the story and send it back to him.

His observations were all spot on, so I obliged, and in short order, received an acceptance e-mail and a contract—my first (and only) sale. And so, dear friends, a sucky story became non-sucky (IMHO).

Er…link forthcoming.


Notes from SF 2012

Looking through my notebook I found this which I forgot I had written.

“On my first day in San Francisco,

– I had a rather tense exchange with the brakeman of a cable car.

– I went to a Chinatown pharmacy and bought some Breathe-Right strips from a girl whose nametag read ‘Ting Ting’

– I witnessed an argument between a musician and a magician near the pier.

– I had various unflattering photographs taken of me.

– I got sunburned on a cloudy day.

On my second day in San Francisco,

– I saw a man walking down the street wearing headphones and rapping to himself very loudly about ‘the Hyphy movement’ at 9 in the morning.

– I watched a girl scotch-tape ‘FREE PUSSY RIOT’ fliers to electric poles.

– I ate a veggie burrito while Camilo Sesto played on the jukebox.

– I purchased ‘compact discs’ encoded with recorded music.

– I totally destroyed (in the good sense of the word) ‘Differences’ by Ginuwine at the karaoke bar insides the Thai place where we had dinner.

– I drank an Irish car bomb.

On my third day in San Francisco,

– I drove to the beach.

– I went to the park.

– I crossed a bridge.”