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.


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 it’ll 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 to sharpen my skills.

My first story idea was the fruit of a misread word on a computer screen. 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.”