Jan 28 2010 5:31pm

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.

Lena Vogelmann
1. kalafudra
A little off topic but: I just checked out Os Dias da Peste and wanted to ask if there was any way to get this book sent to Europe? The page you linked to only delivers in Brazil, right?
Fabio Fernandes
2. fabiofernandes
Yes, you're right - just let me check with my editor, but I'm sure we can find a way to send it to Europe.
Lena Vogelmann
3. kalafudra
My Portuguese is a little rusty but it would be a great way to refresh my memory. :)
Clay Cox
4. Clay Cox
I find this situation very sad. Why isn't there a company out there that is more ready to translate books for different markets? Is it a lack of demand issue or what? I may be naive, but it just doesn't seem like it would take a lot to translate books...

I'm almost surprised that there isn't some kind of underground bootleg activities taking place. If I was Portuguese I would do anything to get books like Dune.
Jon Evans
5. rezendi
@4 Clay Cox

I may be naive, but it just doesn't seem like it would take a lot to translate books...

It's expensive - first you have to pay the author for the translation rights, and then you have to pay the translator. It's time-consuming. It's difficult to do well. And while there are a lot of people in Brazil, the GDP per capita there is about 1/5 that of the USA, so there's much less money there to make up for all that expense.

It is indeed a shame. I am vaguely reminded of that Orson Scott Card story - "Unaccompanied Sonata"? - in which talented musicians are kept from any music so that their genius can grown uninfected by other influences. One of Card's dumbest notions, which is saying quite a lot. Almost without exception, genius grows by cross-pollination, not isolation.
Clay Cox
6. luisfilipesilva
There's a crucial element that Fabio isn't mentioning in this article, and that addresses the question Clay posted above: yes, I believe as well that a bootleg operation of trying to get, by any means necessary, a copy of a given classic would take place in a market that lacked such editions if the effect of language "creep" didn't occur.

I'm not as familiar with the Brazilian market but in terms of the (European) Portuguese reality, any modern reader will be fluent enough in English to be able to read the whole thing in the original US/UK editions. It's an old survival trait, so to
es for the international market and it reaches us with an end price of usually half or 1/3 of the Portuguese version. Since most bookstore chains are, oh, so glad to place both original and Portuguese versions side-by-side on the store displays, since they care only about the bottom line and not one bit about the status of the local market in the long run, it's very difficult to convince any publisher to throw money away on books that most of its market already owns or has read when it came out internationally.

The catch is that, taken as a whole, it's a good thing - most fans are familiar enough with the current trends and writers and do not depend on the publishers' whim or bad translation to follow the genre. You'd ask: does that means, then, that new local novels deal with recent themes allowing them to compete with foreign editions? Er... indeed, no. The "Betsy effect" (an affectionate name for this very intelligent observation) still takes place. Themes and approaches are in general depressingly outdated and lack a proper scientific/rational approach (for sf - fantasy and vampire urban fiction is another matter, though not that bright either). But that is a discussion for a lenghtier article :)
Clay Cox
7. luisfilipesilva
(my firefox doesn't like the code on this page, I'm reposting the middle paragraph above)

It's an old survival trait, so to speak. The Portuguese edition will have a print run of 700 to 3000 copies, and it has to take into account copyright and translation costs. The international mass market editions have huge print runs and they reach us with an end price of usually half or 1/3 of the Portuguese version. Since most bookstore chains are, oh, so glad to place both original and Portuguese versions side-by-side on the store displays, since they care only about the bottom line and not one bit about the status of the local market in the long run, it's very difficult to convince any publisher to throw money away on books that most of its market already owns or has read when it came out internationally.
Fabio Fernandes
8. fabiofernandes
Kalafudra @1 :

you can buy Os Dias da Peste via the site of Livraria Cultura - they deliver all over the world:
Clay Cox
9. Giseli
Really true and sad! =(
That is a shame that many good stories could be written if not by this translation-lags on the brazilian market...
Now our motto should be " We are also reading in English. We are also writing in English."!
(My english-writing are a bit rusty =])
Clay Cox
10. Marcelo B. Nick
Oi Fábio,

Escrevo em português para dizer que achei muito interessante esse post e o anterior. Trabalho com tradução a 6 anos, na área de informática, tecnologia e games, mas também sou fã de SF e vejo a dificuldade de conseguir bons títulos (e títulos novos) em português. Ano passado estive na Inglaterra e tive a felicidade de comprar alguns bons títulos em Inglês, como Perdido Street Station do Miéville. Também já havia me questionado de qual seria a dificuldade de publicar títulos de fantasia e SF em português para o público brasileiro que não me parece estar tão familiarizado com esses gêneros. Parabéns pelos posts, espero que continue escrevendo e vou dar uma olhada no link sobre o seu livro.


Marcelo Nick
Fabio Fernandes
11. fabiofernandes
@4 Clay Cox

As @5 rezendi mentioned, it's indeed too expensive. But there's pirate editions circulating in the Web - One of my students downloaded a copy of the official Brazilian Dune edition last semester. Someone scanned the novel and uploaded it to a P2P net.

That, however, doesn't happen a lot, as incredible as it may sound - maybe because books are not so attractive to pirate as DVDs or CDs. (exception made to J.K. Rowling's and Stephenie Meyer's books - Brazilian readers are crazy about them.)
Fabio Fernandes
12. fabiofernandes
@ rezendi :

It's not only about Brazil's GDP: I would rather say things are quite similar to the US of decades ago - we have some small presses dedicated exclusively fo SFF, but they only publish Brazilian writers (no money to translate). We have many medium-sized publishing houses and half a dozen big ones (I say really big ones - Editora Record, Companhia das Letras and CosacNaify are able to have print runs from 100k to a million copies each - provided the author is Paulo Coelho, that is.
Clay Cox
13. Valentin Ivanov
If a Portuguese/Brazilian edition amounts to 700-3000 copies, imagine a smaller country with about 6 million population. Like my native Bulgaria. The international SF bestsellers would make a print run of about that many, and the home-grown SF would be typically in the 300-600 copies range, with rare exceptions that double that.

However, we enjoy much shorter lag than the one Fabio is talking about - typically we get the latest Hugo and Nebula winning novels within a year or two.

Nevertheless, reading in the original language is the way to go because a translations inevitably change something. I actually wrote a couple of SF haiku poems to demonstrate the point:

Desert blooms.
Time to fall in love.
Spring on Mars.

????? ?????.
??????? ????????.
????? ?? ?????.

????? ?? ?????.
??????? ??????.
?????? ?? ????.

These are three versions of my lame (Have mercy upon my soul! I am not a poet, these were put together just to make a point) take at SF haiku: in English, Russian, and Bulgarian, respectively. Strictly speaking, none of them is the original, so they are not really translations, I was writing them in parallel, to demonstrate a point.

They are identical (more or less), yet they are so different, they will hardly leave their readers in the same state of mind.

* * *

Let's consider the English one. My guess is that the first line will bring up associations with the American Southwest and the few weeks during which the desert is painted with various colors. Typically, this happens in March, but in Southern Arizona it may be a bit earlier, in Feb, making every trip to see the flowers a romantic outing.

The haiku ends with a punch-line of sorts: yes, it is a desert, yes, it is time to fall in love, but this is a Martian desert! The fantastical element becomes clear at last - there is someone who can fall in love on Mars, there is someone to fall in love with, too. It is left to the reader's imagination to figure out who they are, but the falling in love in Spring is a human tradition, so most likely these are Earth colonists, setting up their lives on the red planet.

* * *

Next, comes the Russian version. For the benefit of the English speakers I will translate it once again in English, this time literally:

Season of love.
Prickles bloom.
Spring on Mars.

At first, it does look very similar, but the Russian version contain a word that changes everything: ??????? (prickle; it doesn't have the negative Wester connotation of prick, though). The famous Soviet/Russian SF writers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky used it to describe a species of the Martian flora. To the readers of their Noon Universe ( books the prickles are Martian flowers. They bloom in red and blue but only once every five Martian years. The falling flower leaves on the surface of the prickle a brilliant circle. You can tell how old the flower is just counting these circles.

This single world transports - I hope - the reader in the Utopian Noon Universe where everybody has love, trusted friends, and a satisfying work (not a satisfying job, mind the difference). The characters of the Noon books were household names in Eastern Europe. This was the world we wanted to live in, when we were kids, and even more so when we grew up.

The simple haiku becomes a gate to that world, a bridge to the dreams of reader's youth. The chances are that even those who are too young to have encountered the Noon books before the fall of the socialist system, would have heard of them (for example, from the resent Russian blockbuster "Obitaemy ostrov", and may find in these three lines an invitation to cross the bridge and explore further the Noon Universe.

* * *

The Bulgarian version is identical to the Russian one, except for the prickles. It uses the Bulgarian word for cacti instead, and this is not because the Noon Universe is strange to the Bulgarian reader but because another powerful image inhabits the Bulgarian culture, and I wanted to take advantage of it.

The 1993 movie "Arizona Dream" ( of the Serbian Director Emir Kusturica rocked the world of the Bulgarian intelligentsia. The posters, advertising the movie in Sofia at the time had a cactus, and a fish. The title of the movie became a euphemism for leaving the poverty-torn Bulgaria. Just as Johny Depp's character left his unpleasant job to live among the Arizonian cacti, many Bulgarian young men and women wanted to leave the country in search for opportunities. Some stayed, other left, and there were those - like me, - who ended in Arizona, of all places. Regardless of the chosen path, the cactus from the old movie poster has a special significance for all of us.

* * *

I refrain from claiming that every reader will perceive this haiku as described here, and I am sure the more observant readers have noted that the associations I was describing here became more and more personal. Indeed, this is how I interpret my own haiku, and those are the associations that made me to use one word or another. But this goes beyond words, into the realms of the cultural backgrounds, that are so different if you use English, or Russian, or Bulgarian. This is both wonderful and tragic, because using different languages we can enrich the experience, and but choosing one of them we miss some of that experience.

I have no recipe how to find the optimal path between the gain and the loss, and every reader has to make his or her own choice. I feel I am lucky to be able to draw on three or even four noticeably different cultures.

* * *

I should add that we have a back door via the Russian translations (Bulgarian and Russian are both Slavic languages, albeit we have greatly simplified our grammar), which are more numerous But reading Russian has become less common over the resent years, mainly for political reasons.

Perhaps, the things I am writing are painfully familiar to translators, but I became conscientious of them only after I trier to translate my own SF.

Valentin D. Ivanov
Clay Cox
14. Valentin Ivanov
PS Yet another barrier in front of the non-English speakers - the Cyrillic lines are gone. For a complete version go here:
Clay Cox
15. Tallgeese
Perhaps the author of this blog entry could do the world a favor and stop using the word "pimp" as a synonym for "promote." In my community, prostitution is treated as a form of violence against women and teens, and is illegal -- as is "pimping."
Michael Grosberg
16. Michael_GR
So, what's stopping Brazilian writers from learning English?
As a reader from a non-English speaking country, I know one of the strongest incentives for me to improve my English to a degree I could read novels was this same translation gap. I wanted that latest Larry Niven and all those untranslated Dune sequels (until a few years ago, Only the first, second, fifth and sixth Dune novels were translated to Hebrew. # 3 &4 were not. go figure) and I wanted it *now*.

All the Israeli SF writers I currently know read English SF and are always up to date with the latest trends.
Fabio Fernandes
18. fabiofernandes
luisfilipesilva @6:

I'm not as familiar with the Brazilian market but in terms of the (European) Portuguese reality, any modern reader will be fluent enough in English to be able to read the whole thing in the original US/UK editions.

Same thing in Brazil. With one difference: are live very far away from US and Europe, so (despite the HUGE number of good English courses here), a very small number of Brazilian readers ever gets to break the language barrier.

The most common editorial trend regarding SF (but not only that genre) in Brazil is to keep an eye in Hollywood - that's why so many PKD books got published in the last few years.
Fabio Fernandes
19. fabiofernandes
Giseli @9:

You're right - and you should be writing, because you read English very well, and you know it. (What the hell, you are here now, aren't you? ;-)
Fabio Fernandes
20. fabiofernandes
Marcelo @10:

Miéville's books are becoming sort of fashionable among the knowledgeable Brazilian readers, but, alas, I seriously doubt any of them is going to get translated in the near future. Of course, I really want to be wrong in that respect (I always want to be wrong when I'm on my pessimistic mode, but reality storms my studio, alas). Thank you for reading.
Fabio Fernandes
21. fabiofernandes
Valentin @13:

I envy Bulgaria (and Romania, at that), because you translate and publish all the good stuff.

Your haikus are beautiful and intriguing (I used to write scifikus a while ago - only in English, never tried to do them in Portuguese, I can't remember why), and the reference to the Strugatsky brothers is more than adequate. They were absolute masters of the cognitive estrangement (Roadside Picnic, the novel that Andrei Tarkovsky adapted to the big screen as Stalker is fantastic), but I never read anything in the Noon Universe, I'm afraid - will look for it.

As for the backdoor issue, it's a really interesting matter, even though Latin languages can work via a similar system. But the heart of the matter, I think, is what you said here:

I feel I am lucky to be able to draw on three or even four noticeably different cultures.

I know we can never put aside political questions, but we can do our best to use whatever he learned to our own good. As Jean-Paul Sartre once said, Freedom is what you do with what's been done to you. We must strive to learn more languages to be free - maybe it's a dream, but I think it's a nice one.
Fabio Fernandes
22. fabiofernandes
Michael_GR @16:

So, what's stopping Brazilian writers from learning English?

Oh, nothing at all. I mean, no physical hindrance. Neither economical, because we have English courses of all flavors, sizes and prices here, it's an easy pick.

But the truth, IMHO, is that many of them simply are just not that much into it right now because thet are trying to consolidate their careers in Brazil, and they think this is something that must be done in two separate stages: 1) Take your country; then 2) Go for the world.

I, for one, think this is not true anymore. you can have the cake and eat it, so to speak. You can strive to publish in your country AND to publish in other countries at the same time. Lavie Tidhar and Nir Yaniv, to mention Israeli SF writers, also think the same and are doing an excellent job internationally. In Brazil, there are a handful of writers there are following that road - I'll talk about it in another article. ;-)

Subscribe to this thread

Receive notification by email when a new comment is added. You must be a registered user to subscribe to threads.
Post a comment