REVIEW: A Look at Short Speculative Fiction in Translation from Clarkesworld Magazine

In the November 2014 issue (98) of Clarkesworld Magazine, editor Neil Clarke argued for why “Translation is Important,” pointing out that science fiction is is perpetually concerned with questions of communication and translation. It would be wonderful if we could read any story in any language by just pressing a button, but even a machine-driven translation system wouldn’t be able to reflect the nuances of language.

Human translators are messengers carrying stories from one culture to another, faced with many linguistic obstacles but doing their best to communicate to the world what a Chinese or French or South African writer is saying in a novel, story, or poem. As Clarke explains,  “I want translations to become something normal. They shouldn’t stand out or be special because of where they originate. Regularly publishing stories from other parts of the world is the best way to do that. If something is important, make it part of who you are.”

Clarkesworld‘s plan, then, has been to publish one or two stories in translation in every other issue for six months, and then every following month. And while most of these early stories will come from China, eventually the magazine will include work by sci-fi and speculative writers from around the world. (Clarkesworld has also published some translated stories in the past- see the archives).

If you read Clarkesworld regularly, you’ll have seen five diverse and intriguing stories in translation by acclaimed Chinese and Korean writers so far this year:

In just this handful of stories, we can see more clearly how sci-fi and speculative fiction from Asia is as varied and wife-ranging as our own English-language works, focusing on such issues as human-machine interactions, interstellar travel, and the evolution of the internet.

“Ether” and “Mrs. Griffin” are two of my particular favorites in this group, though I enjoyed all of the pieces. In the first, we learn about a secret, revolutionary society in which members communicate by writing messages in one another’s palms (sounds like the communication method Anne Sullivan and Helen Keller used). They do this because everything other form of communication has been tampered with. A system called “Ether” has taken over the internet and the very air we breathe, enabling the government to monitor citizens’ discussions and replace anything potentially subversive with innocuous keywords. The result: everything seems bland and boring, and people are lulled into a kind of monotonous, dreamlike trance of a life. (For a similar focus by another Chinese writer, see “The City of Silence” by Ma Boyong, included in Lavie Tidhar’s Apex Book of World SF 3).

“Mrs. Griffin,” however, takes a more personalized view of technology, following an old woman who determines to commit suicide and her faithful life-long robot assistant, who eventually convinces her otherwise. Each time Mrs. Griffin suggests a suicide method, LW31 finds a way to dissuade her (too painful, too messy, too drawn-out, etc.) and asks her to explain why she thinks that every one who loved her is dead. With each story, and LW31’s responses, we come closer to recognizing the robot’s capacity for empathy, not just its unassailable logic.

So be on the lookout for these translated stories in upcoming issues of Clarkesworld, as well as any other publications you might come across. You’ll be glad you did.

(first posted on SF Signal 5/19/15)

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