The Translation Lag

I recently wrote a guest post for Lavie Tidhar at the World SF News Blog. It was initially intended to be a shameless pimping of my newly-released novel Os Dias da Peste. Not that it would be a huge, fit-for-the-Hugo pimping—the novel was being published only in Brazil, alas, and in Portuguese.

But as soon as it was out, a few friends of mine from the US and Europe asked me when it would be going to be published in English. The short version of the answer is that I don’t know, but I wouldn’t count on it. But why?, they asked me. That was when I decided to shift the focus of the World SF post and explain my opinion better—for that’s what it is, my opinion, not a decision written in stone.

Basically, the post still was about Os Dias da Peste, but I ended up writing more about the challenge posed to Brazilian writers every time they try to keep up to date with their Anglo counterparts. Several explanations have already been offered for this over the years, but there is only one that really fits the bill: the lack of translations of recent Anglo-American SF novels in Brazil.

Having no access to what’s new from the world outside, Brazilian SF writers either write stories using old, stale tropes (for example, writing space opera novels with cardboard characters and tremendously clichéd situations that reminds us, at the very best, of RPG campaigns) or reinvent the wheel; recently, an SF writer created a story featuring a Galactic empire in which one of its worlds was called… Caladan!

Turns out said writer is a die-hard Star Wars fan who until that novel had only written SW fan fiction and was reported to never have read a single volume of the Dune saga in his life. In his “defense” [I’m being ironic, naturally], the original saga was published in Brazil in the late eighties, and it was never republished—they can only be found today in used book stores. There are rumors that Dune will have a new Brazilian translation by the end of the year, but that remains to be confirmed.

So, when you don’t have even a bona fide classic like Dune in your neighborhood to guide you, what can you possibly expect when it comes to good SF writing?

Another example: right after my post for the World SF News Blog, I got an e-mail from Cheryl Morgan, who wanted to know my opinion about a post she had just written for the Science Fiction & Fantasy Translation Awards site. In this post, most aptly titled “Are Translations Old-Fashioned?,” Morgan discussed an article by Betsy Mitchell in which she explained that she didn’t buy several Russian novels offered for translation because they “felt like U.S. and British SF of the ’50s and ’60s, too old-fashioned for our current readers.”

Cheryl asked me what I thought of it, and I told her I could relate to Betsy. Because that’s just what has been happening with most of Brazilian science fiction until very recently, with a small time displacement: stories and novels written in Brazil feel like U.S. and British SF of the ’70s and ’80s, with very few exceptions.

This happens mostly because of the severe translation lag—for example, just today I received the news that The Difference Engine (1990) will be published in Brazil in December 2010. Until the ’90s, all we had here was Golden Age classics, plus Asimov, Bradbury, Heinlein, and Clarke. Now we’re starting to have the cyberpunks translated, and not even all of them: just William Gibson’s sprawl trilogy (I had the honor of translating Neuromancer, but not Count Zero or Mona Lisa Overdrive, unfortunately—other translators did them). Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash was also translated two years ago. Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula has just been published, several Philip K. Dick novels have been translated in the past five years or so, and Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness got a new translation after more than twenty years—a good one, let me tell you that. But, alas, there’s no talk of Lavinia being published here, for instance.

Of course there are a few exceptions: I’m translating Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother as you read this post, and Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series is going to be published in 2010 as well. Other than that, there’s just Stephenie Meyer and Charlaine Harris, the ever-present, best-selling vampires.

Morgan concludes her post with the following thought:

Of course there is also the possibility that non-English-speaking writers could produce original work that does not riff off what English-speaking writers are doing. But then perhaps the big publishers would reject their work as “too different” and therefore risky.

It’s a risk indeed, a risk some of us are willing to take. But the Brazilian SF writers who want to be published internationally must not wait for Brazilian publishing houses suddenly discover there is a plethora of good, new stories out there and begin to translate them. And we are not doing this, believe me. We are also reading in English. We are also writing in English. For us, the only real risk is to remain stuck in only one language.

Fabio Fernandes is a writer and translator living in São Paulo, Brazil. He translated for the Brazilian Portuguese approximately 70 novels of several genres, among them A Clockwork Orange, Neuromancer, Snow Crash, and The Man in the High Castle. He is currently translating Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother and the Vertigo/DC Comics series Hellblazer.


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