Translating French Proto-SF: An Interview With Brian Stableford

Recently, I had the privilege of discussing the French origins of science fiction with the talented and prolific author and translator Brian Stableford. His work on the history of SF and his translations of French proto-SF are critical for our understanding of how the genre developed and what its future might hold.



SFT: You’ve said in a previous interview that you first became interested in French proto-SF when you wrote Scientific Romance in Britain, 1890-1950 in 1985 and wanted to further explore the contrasts between the Anglophone and European traditions. Was there one French author/text in particular that you learned about that jump-started your translation work? Or was it more of a general interest in this vast cache of untranslated speculative fiction?

Brian Stableford: The research that eventually produced Scientific Romance in Britain began in 1972, when I started the research in the sociology of science fiction that produced my DPhil. I bought a copy of the French Encyclopedia of SF by Pierre Versins, published in that year, and that was the book that first drew my attention to writers like Maurice Renard and   J. H. Rosny, although I had to wait for their works to fall into the public domain before I could translate their relevant works. Albert Robida was already in the public domain and Théo Varlet soon fell into it, so they became the next authors on my target list.


SFT: Could you explain how “scientific romance” evolved into “science fiction”? [you explain this in detail in your excellent article for NYRSF, “The French Origin of the Science Fiction Genre,” but for readers who don’t know anything about this lineage and haven’t read the article, could you give a kind of compressed overview?]

Stableford: The label “scientific romance” was imported into English in the UK and the US in the 1870s to describe key works by Jules Verne, but its spread to take in a wider spectrum of works was very slow in the US, although it became commonplace in the UK in the 1890s in application to H.G. Wells’ early novels and material considered similar. Hugo Gernsback still thought it worth inventing a new label in the early 1920s (scientifiction) which was transmuted into “science fiction” at the end of that decade and gradually became widespread until it was standardized in the wake of World War II.


SFT: I’ve found that so many wonderful, brilliant works of speculative fiction in translation are simply not on most readers’/writers’ radar, partly because some American publishers think that translated texts don’t sell as well (though who knows if that’s true- I’ve never seen any numbers). In what ways do you think that the early French SF you’ve been translating might influence contemporary authors of speculative fiction in Britain and the U.S.? How might these early stories of telepathy, alien life, etc., come back around to inform 21st century SF takes on, for instance, first contact or artificial intelligence?

Stableford: French sf is ultimately rooted in eighteenth-century contes philosophiques, and its philosophical interests have always been addressed more prolifically and more intensely. French writers have generally taken the esthetics of the genre much more seriously as well, in the contexts of such movements as Romanticism, Symbolism and Surrealism. American writers with similar interests in the philosophical issues in their work and its esthetic methodology could probably find much of interest in early French sf. Writers interested in left-wing politics might also find a lot to interest them in Anarchist futuristic and utopian fiction, which was a thriving subgenre in late nineteenth-century France, but almost non-existent in the US and the UK.


SFT: I spent several years doing research for a dissertation on American naturalist literature, which was being written around the same time as early French sf. Thus, I was intrigued by your point in “The French Origin of the Science Fiction Genre” that some commentators had discussed Zola’s novels in terms of the “roman scientifique,” though Zola, of course, and subsequent American authors, were trying to develop a scientific *approach* to writing about the lives of the lower-middle class, rather than taking up scientific speculation or breakthroughs as subjects themselves. What are your thoughts on the malleability of genre terms, and especially, how such terms as “scientific fiction,” “scientific romance,” “science fiction,” “speculative fiction,” etc. are useful/harmful in helping readers understand how genres begin and develop over time? Does a specific culture’s perspective on the value of scientific endeavor at a particular moment influence how the word “science” is used to describe a particular kind of writing?

Stableford: All the descriptive terms now come with so much baggage that definition is difficult, and always runs into the problem that the recipient of any commentary might read very different meanings into the terms than those intended by the users. The problem isn’t new; the word “science” has a particularly awkward history, having changed its meaning dramatically over time, and “fiction” isn’t straightforward either. It’s even worse in France, where the word “roman” has had numerous different connotations, shifting over time. Zola preferred “experimental novel” to describe what he was doing, so he was arguing with his own supporters from day one, and the notion of an “experimental novel” has, of course, acquired other meanings since. As you say, cultural differences come into it as well, especially in different notions of and attitudes to “science” in Western, Near Eastern and Far Eastern cultures, with Africa increasingly adding a new dimension–which all adds to the richness of the philosophical discussion and provides another good reason for thinking people to take a strong interest in translated sf.


SFT: In your NYRSF article “Reconfiguring the Wisdom of the Ancients: Annotated Poetry, Erasmus Darwin, and the Evolution of Scientific Romance,” I was struck by your points about the “poetic interest in science” and fascination with the Newtonian revolution in the late-17th century, and especially that “the Linnaean system of classification has no alternative but to borrow many of its generic and specific designations from mythologically associated terms, thus building the language of myth into scientific terminology at the most elementary level.” Do you think that 21st-century science and literature are as interwoven as they were in the 17th and 18th centuries? Or are authors more interested in science than scientists are in drawing on literature?

Stableford: As C. P. Snow pointed out, there was a strong tendency in the twentieth century for scientists and literary people to develop distinct subcultures that were often somewhat self-enclosed and antagonistic. This does not prevent the fact that science still involves a great deal of storytelling in the construction of theoretical models, while contemporary fiction has be obliged to take on a much heavier burden of technological representation, with the scientific understanding that it entails. Whole genres–most obviously crime fiction–have been utterly transformed by technological sophistication, not to mention the fact that many once-literary genres are migrating in large measure to new media platforms. No serious writer can any longer afford to be scientifically illiterate, and no scientist is entitled to be thought serious if he or she cannot cultivate some awareness of rhetorical issues in scientific reportage and the role of fictional creativity in building and linking hypothetical structures.


SFT: And finally, could you tell us a few of the stories that you’ve translated that have stood out to you and that you want readers to know about/read immediately?

Stableford: Translators inevitably get more involved in texts than readers, who are more capable of keeping a distance, so the texts that stand out most sharply for me tend to be the most affectively powerful. Novels that I had difficulty finishing because I was in floods of tears include Andre Lichtenberger’s Children of the Crab and Andre Arnyvelde’s The Mutilated Bacchus. On the uplifting side I loved Henry Austruy’s The Olotelepan (1925), which describes social changes in the 1920s in an alternate world in which the mobile phone was invented and sophisticated during Word War I, and Leonie Rouzade’s hilarious early feminist fantasy The World Turned Upside Down.


SFT: Thank you so much for this interview, Brian!


“My life, which commenced in 1948, has been entirely wasted in obsession, owing to a complete inability to cope adequately with most aspects of life and social interaction. The score currently stands at 90-odd novels, 20-odd short story collections, 30 non-fiction books and more than 250 volumes of translation, all of which have a very small but highly select audience. I work for twelve hours a day, seven days a week, except for three days a year when I visit my grandchildren. I shall keep going until I drop, which will probably be ‘real soon now’ as the jargon has it.”- Brian Stableford

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