Roundtable on Speculative Fiction in Translation: Past, Present, Future

International speculative fiction in English translation is gaining ground in the U.S., thanks to the efforts of talented and far-sighted translators, editors, and publishers. I recently had the opportunity to ask some of these very people about their thoughts on the current state of sf in translation and how we can promote it and generally spread the word to readers who love brilliant sf and wish to read diversely. Read on for thoughts, news, and advice from publishers and magazine editors hailing from the U.S., U.K., France, and Spain.

The Contributors

Neil Clarke is a Hugo and World Fantasy Award-winning editor and publisher. He is the owner of Wyrm Publishing and editor of Clarkesworld Magazine, Forever Magazine, and several anthologies, including the Best Science Fiction of the Year series.

Sarah Dodd is a lecturer in Chinese at the University of Leeds, and is one of the co-organizers of the Reading the Fantastic project. She is a graduate of the 2012 Clarion West Writers’ Workshop and has published stories (as Sarah Brooks) in Strange Horizons, Interzone, and elsewhere.

Writer, editor, and all-around champion of Spanish sf, Cristina Jurado is currently editor of the online magazine Supersonic, which features both English and Spanish fiction and non-fiction. She recently edited (with Leticia Lara) the English edition of Spanish Women of Wonder and her story “The Shepherd” was included in The Best of Spanish Steampunk. “Alphaland” appears in Supersonic #6. In September 2015, Cristina was guest editor for Apex‘s special edition dedicated to international speculative fiction.

Cheryl Morgan is a science fiction critic and publisher. She is the owner of Wizard’s Tower Press and the Wizard’s Tower Books ebook store. Previously she edited the Hugo Award-winning magazine, Emerald City (Best Fanzine, 2004). She also won a Hugo for Best Fan Writer in 2009. Cheryl is also a director of San Francisco Science Fiction Conventions Inc., and a founder of the short-lived Association for the Recognition of Excellence in SF & F Translation.

Julien Wacquez is a PhD student in sociology at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris. His research focuses on the manner in which science fiction authors lean on scientific knowledge already established to shape their stories, and also on the way these stories pose problems that are expected to be solved through scientific activity. More broadly, Julien wants to explore how ideas and concepts can switch from a fictional context to a scientific one. He had a fellowship at the Musée du quai Branly (2014-2015) and was a visiting scholar at Harvard University (2015-2016). Julien has worked for the French online magazine Angle Mort since 2012 as a slush reader, and as editorial director since 2014. With other writers, critics, translators, social scientists and artists, he founded the new collective Angle Mort in 2016 and launched the American magazine Blind Spot.

Marian Womack is an author, translator and editor, born in Andalusia and educated at the universities of Glasgow and Oxford. Her interests lie within the gothic genre, new weird, and genre-bending narratives; in particular exploring nature-writing and ecological dystopia. Her current doctoral work examines the connections between Gothic sensibility and climate-change fiction. She is also a graduate of the Clarion Writers Workshop (2014), and the Creative Writing Master’s at the University of Cambridge (2016). Her fiction and non-fiction can be read in Year’s Best Weird Fiction, vol. 3 (Undertow, 2016), Spanish Women of Wonder (Palabaristas, 2016), Barcelona Tales (NewCon Press, 2016), Apex, SuperSonic, Weird Fiction Review, the Times Literary Supplement, the Science-Fiction and Fantasy Network, the New Internationalist, and El País. She has contributed translations to The Big Book of SF (ed. Ann & Jeff VanderMeer), The Apex Book of World SF, vol. 4 (ed. Mahvesh Murad) and Castles in Spain (ed. Sue Burke), and has written for videogames. She is co-editor of Ediciones Nevsky/Nevsky Books, a project based in Spain and the UK, which has published European speculative fiction in Spanish (Anna Starobinets, Nina Allan, Sofía Rhei or Karin Tidbeck), and is currently building a list in English translation of Spanish genre-bending writing.

 


 

Q: As publishers/editors of sf in English translation and news about the community, what kinds of changes have you seen over the past several years (in terms of reader interest, sales, social media visibility, etc.)?

Neil Clarke: Over the years, there have been many attempts to introduce translated works to the mainstream SF/F community, but it’s only in the last five years that we’ve seen significant success. In that short window, translated novels and stories have not only been nominated, but also won major awards. That kind of attention opens doors. It encourages readers to give it a chance and writers to see the English language market as open to them. That said, what we’ve seen so far is merely the tip of the iceberg. Translation is not cheap or easy. The only way this trend continues is if readers continue to demonstrate their enthusiasm.

I will add that I think a great deal of the credit for the progress made in promoting Chinese science fiction has to go to Ken Liu. He’s been a champion translating and promoting Chinese stories and novels for years now and the field could certainly use more people like him.

Sarah Dodd: With my academic hat on I’ve mostly worked with Chinese fiction in translation (for the Writing Chinese project at the University of Leeds), and have been really struck by the interesting things that are going on, and the enthusiasm of everyone involved—writers, translators, publishers, readers, etc.—as well as by the genre-bending nature of some of the work that’s currently being written and translated.

It’s been great to follow the fantastic things that Paper Republic has been doing, including their recent Afterlives series, which has a focus on speculative fiction and has featured writers such as Tang Fei, translated by Xueting Christine Ni. Chinese SF in general has been receiving a lot of interest (much of which is due to the tireless work of Ken Liu). And Clarkesworld’s Chinese SF project, in collaboration with Storycom, has also been brilliant. It’s the first time that any magazine has made fiction in translation a regular part of its monthly issues, and this regular spot has been really important because it’s meant that the stories aren’t kept apart as strange or exotic, but have simply been made part of the magazine. Online magazines such as Asymptote and Words Without Borders have also done a lot to promote fiction in translation, and have always been adventurous in their choice of genres.

So things are definitely happening, but there’s no single magazine dedicated to speculative fiction from around the world in English translation, and we wanted to change that, so that’s why we decided to set up Samovar.

Cristina Jurado: At least in the Spanish-speaking market, the challenge has been to organize the fandom. Science fiction is still considered a minor genre, not able to compete with realism or historical fiction, the most respected types of Spanish literature. There was a lack of specialized publishing companies, publications, and events related to sf –even though some existed, they were very few. In the past four or five years there has been a shift in the way readers interact among themselves, and with the publishing companies and authors: social media and IT have created a bilateral channel in which almost instant and direct interactions are possible in a very inexpensive way. Thanks to the emergence of small presses—and some micro presses—as well as the arrival of ebooks, Spanish sf has started to thrive. Without a doubt, films and TV shows have helped to increase readers’ interest in sf, and publishing companies have learned to utilize new technologies for their advantage: book presentations are better publicized, new festivals have appeared and existing ones have became established (like Celsius 232), and mainstream presses have started to publish sf titles.

Cheryl Morgan: It depends how far you go back. There was a rise in interest in translations at the start of the century, but it seems to have mostly stalled since then. There has been a lot of pressure for diversity, but people who campaign for that don’t normally mention translated fiction unless it is Chinese. Of course the Chinese have done a great job, which is awesome.

Julien Wacquez: It is hard for me to answer that question properly, since I just started my activity as editor of French SF translated in English in 2016, and I published one issue of Blind Spot magazine in June. We are preparing a second issue that is going to be released in December. I decided to launch this magazine after observing the success of Chinese SF in America. I have been thinking: “hey! French SF has existed since the 19th century, there have been a lot of writers, movements, subgenres after Jules Verne, and almost none of them has been translated in English! Something needs to be done!”

Nonetheless, I am not completely sure yet if American readers of SF are interested in French SF. I will probably have more materials to answer that question after a few more publications/years.

Marian Womack: NevskyBooks is a very recent project, although we have been planning it for a very long time. We don’t have several years of data to look back on to think about how things have developed. However, we did decide to test the market a few years back, but in a very small way: we produced an SF/F book, The Best of Spanish Steampunk, and distributed it electronically. The lack of interest was rather upsetting: we offered stories from it to magazines for free, or for a nominal fee, and had no response. The sales of the electronic edition were also very small. And this is a book which is filled with fascinating writing: it contained an unpublished novella by Félix J. Palma, a New York Times bestselling author, as well as a weird story that got into The Apex Book of World SF Vol. 4. But no one took our bait. But I think that the project as formed was perhaps a little weak; distribution was a problem and we didn’t have the guts to take the bigger step, which we are now taking, to publish the books in hard copy as well as electronically. Also, we have had time to generate a bit of a buzz ourselves, rather than relying on word of mouth and authors to do the work for us. I think that there is, although this is an anecdotal impression rather than anything based on hard data, a greater interest in both translated fiction and in SF/F. And also, hopefully, in the little overlap in the Venn diagram where these two fields meet.

 

Q: How do you work to increase the visibility of sf in translation? Is it mainly through marketing and social media, or other avenues as well? What can people like myself (reviewers, bloggers) do to promote sf in translation in effective ways?

Neil Clarke: Unfortunately, translated works still carry a bit of stigma with readers. It’s like your mom trying to get you to eat a vegetable she knows you’ll like if you just give it a try. One approach is to be low key about it. Treat it like any other piece of food on the plate and surround it with their more traditional selections. Publishers have been doing this for years…leveraging one success to create opportunities to take risks on others. The big difference is that translations can be significantly more expensive.

The best thing I can do for translations, aside from publishing great stories, is to be actively involved in making connections in the international science fiction community and keep them aware that translation is an option that is available to them.

The best thing readers and reviewers can do is support the books and stories they enjoy. All authors enjoy their books being favorably reviewed, but many of the foreign authors I’ve worked with have mentioned that recognition from the English-language market is extra special. Many of the biggest names in SF are published in English. It carries some prestige most of us don’t even think about.

Sarah Dodd: A really important thing that reviewers and bloggers can do is name the translator. (Yes, it seems basic, but it’s amazing how often reviews of translated fiction omit the translator’s name entirely!) The wonderful @TranslatedWorld began the #namethetranslator campaign in 2013, and they’ve been really promoting the work of translators to give them greater visibility. One of the things we’ve realized, working on other translation projects, is just how much the translator does, going beyond the translation itself—a lot of translators also do a huge amount of work pitching the books and stories they love, and then helping drum up interest and publicize them when they come out. So it would be really great to see more of a focus on the translators themselves (something we’re planning to do in Samovar, through our author and translator spotlights).

Cristina Jurado: Being bilingual, I tried to use my language skills to help fellow Spaniards get in contact with editors, authors, etc. As the editor of SuperSonic mag, I am really interested in showcasing stories by Spanish authors who also write in English, like Marian Womack or Tamara Romero, as well as to bring English stories into the Spanish market. I work mainly through the magazine, but also through my own blog Mas ficción que ciencia (More fiction than science). I interact with many editors in Spain and Latin America to bring to our market interesting stories from, mainly, English.

I think that the fact that there are blogs devoted to sf in translation, such as yours, helps to bring cultural diversity to the table. I also think that to review those works in important publications works in that direction as well and I hope in the future such reviews will be a regular feature. I would love to see more publications devoting more special issues to sf from other countries (like Apex already does).

Cheryl Morgan: Mainly through reviews and social media, but I’d love to publish more translations. At the moment I only have the Croatian book, but I had some very interesting conversations with people at the Barcelona Eurocon. Watch this space. And if anything does happen I’ll be asking you to signal-boost.

Julien Wacquez: I am a sociologist of science before [being] an editor. I am a researcher working on the “trading zone” between science writing and literary writing (hence my interest in SF literature). I became editor by way of unexpected circumstances. I am glad of that. I see it as a good surprise that makes my life more interesting. That means several things:

I know I have a vision of science fiction, the one that I am trying to promote in my editorials and in my selection of texts. But that also means that I am not good at marketing and community management yet. I am learning all these things that are necessary for a good editor.

Blind Spot magazine definitely needs help to increase its visibility. Because it is new in the landscape, almost everything needs to be done: I have to make sure that every issue will have its reviewers, bloggers, a spot on Amazon, and visibility on other website’s magazines. As most of the money of our collective is spent for translation, we cannot pay a lot for ads. That fact makes things even harder for us.

Marian Womack: As far as visibility is concerned, we have always thought that a good editor is also an ambassador. This is perhaps easier for us, who run a small publishing house: we know that every book we are publishing is something we love and believe in, and therefore it isn’t as tough for us to push it as it might be for someone working in a larger publishing house having to fake an intense and deep connection with the works of Pippa Middleton, or whoever. But they have bigger budgets to work with, which makes their job easier… Social media is a boon, especially if it doesn’t appear to be too ‘curated.’ What has worked for us very well is establishing connections with individual booksellers; this is something that we will need to work on hard in the forthcoming English line. In Spain, we have individuals who know us and who are aware that everything we publish is coming from a particular place, a particular viewpoint, and who are willing to trust our taste and the value of the things we publish.

As far as what you can do, the best thing is to be supportive, I would say. This doesn’t mean that you should hide flaws or things that you don’t feel work about our books, but we should be putting reviewers in touch with books that we are pretty sure they will like. Also, there are more oblique ways of thinking about ‘promoting the product’: perhaps not for reviewers, who have a particular object in front of them and who have to engage with that particular object as it stands, but definitely for bloggers. You have the space and the time to create articles that aren’t just copies of things you can read in newspapers or in general review: the joy of the internet is that it is endless, so if you write a large-scale article that ‘just happens’ to mention our books, that might be a more effective way of getting people interested. I mean, I would certainly be more interested in reading a book about the Holy Roman Empire if I came to it via a sparky, fascinating, and informed piece that put it in context, rather than a review that simply dealt with the book as it existed.

 

Q: (If possible) tell us about your plans going forward. Are there any exciting authors you’re bringing into English for the first time? Any plans to expand your offerings of sf in translation? Other plans?

Neil Clarke: Something is always in motion. Our success with Chinese translations has been greatly facilitated by our partnership with Storycom International (China). It’s been a very encouraging experience and we have plans to build on that relationship both at home and abroad. (I wish I could tell you specifics, but we’re not quite ready.) That said, without someone like Storycom or Ken Liu, building a network within other parts of the world has been considerably slower. We’re making inroads, though, and have learned a lot from the authors, editors, and translators we’ve been in touch with.

Sarah Dodd: Samovar is going to be launching its first issue in March 2017. The project is a collaboration between the Samovar editorial board, Strange Horizons, and two academic projects—Reading the Fantastic at the University of Leeds, and the Centre for Science Fiction and Fantasy at Anglia Ruskin University—to produce a quarterly magazine of and about speculative fiction in translation. To begin with, we’re going to have a new story and a reprint in each issue (in text and podcast form), in the original language and in English translation, as well as poetry and non-fiction. We’re hoping to expand into longer issues in the future, and we also have some exciting ideas for special issues and guest editors…

We’re going to be publishing our submission guidelines very soon, and opening to submissions in January (accepting full and sample translation submissions), and we can’t wait to explore all the exciting things that are out there!

Cristina Jurado: The philosophy of SuperSonic is to serve as a bridge between sf in Spanish and English: we not only translate into Spanish the works of prominent international authors such as Alastair Reynolds, Lavie Tidhar, Liu Cixin, Ken Liu, Naomi Kritzer, Alyssa Wong, or Pat Cadigan, to mention few, but also work hard to offer a place where Spanish writers who write in English can feature their work. As part of this effort we are going to dedicate one issue every year to Spanish fiction (from Spain and Latin America) translated into English, following the success of our EuroCon 2016 special issue. On a more personal note, I also have plans to publish my work in English, taking into account that I write both in Spanish and English. But it is still too soon to disclose more details!

Cheryl Morgan: Nothing I can talk about right now.

Julien Wacquez: Our collective is currently working on our next issue, which will be out in December 2016. We also are collaborating with great French SF publishers to select amazing contemporary short stories. In 2017, there will be an issue edited with Mathias Echenay, founder of La Volte, and a second issue edited with the team of L’Atalante. La Volte and L’Atalante are two very important French SF publishers nowadays. The first one is more into literary/experimental SF, while the second one publishes a real diversity of subgenres, from futuristic adventure to dystopia. In 2018, we would like to work with other important publishers, like Le Bélial’ and Denoël.

The problem is the following: as very few French SF stories have been translated in English, there is potentially more than a century of stories to catch up with for English readers. I’d say 99% of the writers we want to publish have never been translated. They are unknown people in the American field. I can give you some names, but they probably won’t ring a bell for you: Stéphane Beauverger, Francis Berthelot, David Calvo, Alain Damasio, Sylvie Denis, Claude Ecken, Mélanie Fazi, Laurent Genefort, Léo Henry (he will be in our next issue), Sébastien Julliard, Laurent Kloetzer, Laurent Queyssi, Serge Lehman (that you may have heard of if you read also comics), Yves & Ada Rémy, Thierry Di Rollo, among many, many others. Only a few French writers have been translated like Jean-Claude Dunyach (in Galaxy’s Edge for instance, but also in the very first Blind Spot issue), and Jacques Barbéri (who appears in the recent The Big Book of Science Fiction edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer).

Our current line helps English readers to discover French contemporary stories, but we would like to publish also things from the 20th century. And also, we would like to publish novels, cut in several parts published in 2 or 3 different issues. We have been thinking that might be a good strategy to keep our readers from one issue to another. Obviously, the thing is that more translation needs more money. All of that could be possible only if we meet a demand from American readers.

Marian Womack: The future for NevskyBooks is, I think, good. We have carried out the first and most important part of the project, which is to get a number of excellent, interesting authors on board. The first book is already available, a wonderful dark thriller, Tangram by Juan Carlos Márquez, and coming up we have books by Ángel Luis Sucasas, Sofía Rhei, Tamara Romero, Luis Manuel Ruiz…a whole group of really good SF/F writers who will bring new material into English in a particularly exciting way. The next part, getting people to read them, is up to us… As far as anthologies are concerned: well, watch this space.

 

Top image: Arrival (2016)

Rachel S. Cordasco earned a Ph.D in Literary Studies from the University of Wisconsin, Madison in 2010, and taught courses in American and British literature, and Composition. She has also worked at the Wisconsin Historical Society Press. A Book Riot and SF Signal contributor, Rachel recently launched a site devoted to speculative fiction in translation. You can follow her @Rcordas and on facebook at Bookishly Witty and Speculative Fiction in Translation.

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