Monday, April 13, 2009

Genre Fiction in Translation

Ever thought of that? Neither have I.

I've started to narrow this blog's focus to literature in translation. Thing is, though, "literature" is often held as a distinct class apart from "genre fiction" (i.e. sci-fi, horror, Westerns, thrillers, romance, historical fiction), which is all too often dismissed as mass-produced products of low-brow pop culture. Speculative fiction (sci-fi, horror, fantasy, and all their multiple sub-genres) in particular is still frequently seen as the printed equivalent of Star Trek, Star Wars, or any big-budget special effects extravaganza. Gene Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun, for example, may be a great work in terms of sheer aesthetic, thematic, and creative value, but its "refusal to cater to a mainstream audience" has effectively sealed its "literary ghettoization" as a mere "masterpiece of science fiction." Unfortunately, says writer David Louis Edelman, "as soon as you mention the words 'science fiction,' [most readers] picture Klingons with light sabers jumping off spaceships with big-breasted ninja assassins in tow and bug-eyed monsters in hot pursuit while a supernova goes off in the background." Edelman recommends works by William Gibson, Arthur C. Clarke, Ursula K. Le Guin, and John Scalzi, but if you wanted to prove the literary value of both sci-fi and graphic novels, Masamune Shirow's Ghost in the Shell is definitely one title to throw out there. And how in the world could Edelman have neglected Dan Simmons's Hyperion series?

The alarming paucity of translated fiction being published in the United States isn't exactly news. According to Three Percent, a blog run by the University of Rochester's Open Letter Press:
Unfortunately, only about 3% of all books published in the United States are works in translation. . . And that 3% figure includes all books in translation—in terms of literary fiction and poetry, the number is actually closer to 0.7%. While that figure obviously represents more books than any one person could read in a year, it’s hardly an impressive number.

An even greater shame is that only a fraction of the titles that do make their way into English are covered by the mainstream media. So despite the quality of these books, most translations go virtually unnoticed and never find their audience.

Now the question I would like to ask is, what percentage of these translated works being published in the United States are speculative fiction? In fact, until today's post "International Science Fiction," I've never even seen speculative fiction - other than the occasional "weird" work of literary fiction (such as Ferenc Karinthy's Metropole) and some mention of Clemente Palma - reviewed on Three Percent.

What prompted these musings was this post on OF Blog of the Fallen, which in turn led me to an article on the Apex Book Company website called "The End of the Golden Age, or, The Opposite Problem of Appropriation." The author is an Israeli writer named Lavie Tidhar, who argues that non-English writers of speculative fiction are always "committing an act of cultural appropriation." Literary forerunners like Frankenstein and Homer's Odyssey aside, contemporary sci-fi/fantasy originated in early twentieth-century American pulp magazines with titles like Weird Tales and Thrilling Wonder Stories. Though intended primarily for American audiences, these periodicals have found a loyal foreign following as well, so that the history of non-English speculative fiction is been essentially "one of appropriation from the American mode, of a writing and a re-writing of formulae and tropes first fashioned in the furnaces of American pulps." (On the flip side, however, sci-fi afficionado Jason Voegele insists that serious writers have moved beyond bug-eyed monsters, but movies and television continue, archaically, to "dwell on themes exhausted by hacks in the fifties.") This cultural appropriation is nevertheless not a cross-cultural dialogue, which has Tidhar wondering if the non-English SF world is somehow failing in its constant one-sided use of American genre tropes. Why, he asks, don't we writers of the world develop our own? Should we? Or should we attempt to subvert the American models and create something new?

Obviously, I'm an American myself and sadly lacking in my familiarity with speculative fiction. But in terms of literature in general, I truly believe that sci-fi, fantasy, and horror should be given more respect than they have received. According to Clive Thompson, science fiction may well be the "last bastion of philosophical writing":
From where I sit, traditional "literary fiction" has dropped the ball. I studied literature in college, and throughout my twenties I voraciously read contemporary fiction. Then, eight or nine years ago, I found myself getting — well — bored.

Why? I think it's because I was reading novel after novel about the real world. And there are, at the risk of sounding superweird, only so many ways to describe reality. After I'd read my 189th novel about someone living in a city, working in a basically realistic job and having a realistic relationship and a realistically fraught family, I was like, "OK. Cool. I see how today's world works." I also started to feel like I'd been reading the same book over and over again.

Here's my overly reductive, incredibly nerdy way of thinking about the novel: Consider it a simulation, kind of like The Sims. If you run a realistic simulation enough times — writing tens of thousands of novels about contemporary life — eventually you're going to explore almost every outcome. So what do you do then?

Answer: you become God in your own mental universe and alter reality. Science fiction authors - as well as authors of fantasy and horror - mess with, or completely do-over, the real world and see how humans react. In this manner, we learn more about ourselves.

For these reasons, I have decided for the future to take a closer look at translated works of speculative fiction. Larry of OF Blog of the Fallen recommends the following:

Andreas Eschbach's The Carpet Makers (German)
Andrzej Sapkowski's The Last Wish and Blood of Elves (Polish)
Maurice Dantec's Cosmos, Inc. (French)
Worlds Apart, an anthology of Russian genre fiction edited by Alexander Levitsky

Update: I completely forgot to mention this, and I really should have, but Anne Rice has an excellent piece on her website called "Essay on Earlier Works." Although Rice wrote it to demonstrate that the use of the dark supernatural in fiction is not incompatible with Christian morality, it also makes a great case for horror not being an inherently low-brow genre either. I am hardly the first person to assert that such stories are ultimately "transformative," she says, for they,
invite the reader on a journey which reflects perfectly the formula of Aristotle for great drama: as one reads (or watches the film or play), one feels pity and fear, and eventually experiences catharsis. One is taken to a place, through the literary experience, to which one might not have ever gone on one’s own. I feel strongly that dark stories demand that the audience earn the transformation; they require a certain suffering on the part of the audience as the price of eventual affirmation.
I think you can make a similar case for the novels of Dean Koontz and Stephen King (not all of them, of course). Oh, and Dan Simmons as well - especially Dan Simmons. Food for thought.


Mrs. C said...

My word is "varianif"--gods, I love these things!

Great post. I can't wait to see what you think of Blood of Elves.

On to my response to your comment on my site: the Ara thing hasn't happened yet; kids will get the books in two weeks' time--after they finish up The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Scarlet Letter--as American contributions to the young novel. Since they've spent their lives reading more recent stuff, some of it very good (The Pearl, To Kill a Mockingbird) (largely in school) and some of it very bad (is their a child in America who has NOT read Stephanie Meyer?!), their sense of modern fiction is well formed. Ara's novel so completely suits my needs as a capstone to the course, our yearlong purpose being as examination of how it is we, well, tell ourselves the truth through the art form that is [literary] [text] (with ever-expanding parameters, ergo my inability to "say" "literay" and "text" without the brackets). Parents? We have no parental review of teachers' lit choices in my school; when we have had issues with parents (The Witch of Blackbird Pond, The Boy Who Drank Too Much), our Board has been powerfully in the corner of the sound teacher argument for a title's inclusion in the curriculum, and my particular course has been a 6-credit hour college course for a couple of decades before it "earned" (read: "was saddled with") the AP designation last year. As such, there is an understanding that we will be reading and viewing narratives that are intellectual and edgy and uncomfortable and straining and frustrating and, well, adult in content. the stuff of Ara's book? It is profoundly the stuff of my course: At once so new in form and style, while being so very, very old--freakin' ANCIENT!--in the truly human questions it poses.

So, the kidss will be required to start "talking" sometime around the end of April, then I will inform Ara, and (hopefully!) he will insert himself into their discussion. You, too? If you can!

Wait! Did you say something about a JOB?! My fingers are crossed on your behalf--let me know!

Mrs. C said...

um. "there"! God, I hate not re-reading what I write for editing's sake. And yet, like 97.37% of all the munchkins I've ever taught and evaluated, I generally can't be bothered. So why does it bother me so much in the end? And why does it bother them (apparently) so little? Pfft. If there is another slip of the grammatical/usage finger (or twelve!) here, I will never know, since I refuse to read the rest of my own comment AFTER it's been posted. There. That'll teach me.

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