From the time I started reviewing SFT* for John DeNardo’s SF Signal a billion years ago (that is, November 2014) up until now (with an SFT site that just turned 4 and regular reviews in World Literature Today and Strange Horizons), I’ve thought a lot about the role that translation plays in the American publishing world, in general, and in the genre world, in particular.
I’ve heard for years about a vague assumption on the part of publishers and booksellers that Americans* are “scared”/”suspicious” of translated fiction. Sure, that may be true for some people, but I generally like to give readers the benefit of the doubt. Therefore, I don’t think that readers avoid translations because they are scared or suspicious but because this fiction is, at least in America, in relatively short supply. And since reading is often a pleasurable activity, and readers seek out books that they think they’ll like, they probably gravitate toward the known, rather than the unknown.
Personally, I’ve always been drawn to non-Anglophone literature, likely because I so very badly wanted to travel around the world when I was a kid. My parents thought it was a great idea- in theory. In practice, the money and effort required to drag them, me, my two brothers, and our luggage around the world just didn’t seem feasible. I traveled, then, the only way I could: through books. Not surprisingly, I flirted with translation studies in college and considered applying to Middlebury for a summer (I worked at a daycamp instead). My life could have gone in a very different direction, but when I was told by my professors that I had a better chance finding a literature job if I studied American or British fiction, I took their advice and went to grad school for American literature (specifically, Literary Naturalism). Spoiler: I still didn’t get a job as a literature professor. I know- quelle surprise.
Don’t worry, I’m getting to my points. What I’m saying is, not everyone is drawn to translated fiction because they were frustrated world travelers like myself. Some people want to read books from the countries of their ancestors. Some people just randomly pick books off of library/bookstore shelves with no thought to where or in what language it was written. Some people believe that “something” is “lost” in translation and want to read only books written in their native language (I wager that this goes on, to some extent, in every country). Some people choose books to read based on friend/family/industry recommendations. Others pick what they read based on award nomination lists. Everyone has their own reasons for reading, and for liking certain genres. My own kids, for instance, look at me like I just sprouted three more heads when I gently suggest that they, for once, read something that isn’t a graphic novel. After all, I tell them, books can be fun and exciting and entertaining and thought-provoking even if they don’t have pictures in them (the kids aren’t convinced).
Since jumping in to the exciting and varied SFT world several years ago, I’ve learned a lot, especially from Cheryl Morgan, Lavie Tidhar, Jason Sizemore, Francesco Verso, and Cristina Jurado, concerning if and how SFT is valued in Anglophone countries (and especially America). Tidhar’s Apex Book of World SF series and World SF Blog, Morgan’s Science Fiction and Fantasy Translation Awards, and Verso’s Future Fiction press have helped me understand where translated speculative fiction stands in relation to the Anglophone speculative fiction that dominates and often overshadows non-Anglophone and translated speculative fiction. Chad Post of Open Letter Books has demonstrated for years that translated fiction accounts for only a sliver of the fiction published in English. Open Letter’s Best Translated Book Award does its part every year to raise the profile of translated fiction in America and introduce stunning and fascinating books to those American readers who might think that the only books worth reading are sitting on the “Most Popular” table right when you walk into the local Barnes and Noble.
So translated fiction in America is hard to find (unless you know where to look). Translated genre fiction is even harder to find. Part of the reason is that it just isn’t promoted in the same way as a book written in English by [insert famous, award-winning author here] is. Another part is that, even on the internet, the vast majority of English-language review sites focus on books written in English or only include translations here and there. Without several other countries on all sides of us that contain people who speak different languages, America just hasn’t had the a reason, perhaps, to publish and market fiction in many languages and translated from those languages. Yes, we have Quebec to our north and Latin America to the south, so you can sometimes find Spanish-language, bi-lingual, and translated fiction and non-fiction in local bookstores. French-language SFT, though? Perhaps closer to the Canadian border- I honestly don’t know.
I started this site dedicated to SFT because I found, with a little digging, that a surprising amount of SFT exists and is available to English-language readers. My first list grew and grew, so I had to break it into source languages. Then it kept growing and I had to break the list into several tabs. And four years later, you have this site, which includes lists of what is available but also links to freely-available short SFT online, spotlights on specific regions and authors, a list of non-fiction that focuses on SFT (it’s a fast-growing list), tabs on as-yet-unpublished SFT that really should be picked up by Anglophone presses, reviews (both by myself and my fabulous guest reviewers), and more.
Which brings me to findability. My initial purpose in creating this site was to offer readers a (hopefully user-friendly) place to go to find the SFT available each year. Most people don’t have the time to hunt around the internet for these books. They are available every year through a bunch of different Anglophone publishers (large and small), but are either not advertised as translated fiction or not advertised as speculative fiction, or both. Of course, I’ve had to make decisions as to whether or not a particular novel or collection is technically “speculative” but that is an entire other library full of books and articles that I’m not going to get into now. You’re welcome.
At one point, after collecting a lot of data and working my way through it (I wish I had paid better attention in statistics class in high school), I started getting frustrated. Why wasn’t there more SFT and why doesn’t everyone love it like I do why why why. Then I heard myself and took a huge step back and breathed. Sure, I could help promote SFT and tell more people about its wonders and why I love it, but no one was going to start reading SFT because I beat them over the head with the ten volumes of the Legend of the Galactic Heroes series. And no one was not reading SFT at me. It’s just that I’ve had this wonderful reading experience that I want to share, and not having access to a giant megaphone that reaches the ears of everyone who reads in English, I sometimes get frustrated that I can’t convince everyone to read at least one work of SFT. So I keep reading and reviewing and tweeting and facebooking and recommending books to my kids’ teachers and my co-workers and neighbors and family members. Many have found out that it is not a good idea to say to me “oh, there’s Polish science fiction in English?” or “what is wuxia?” Two hours later, they look like they never want to see me again.
This (finally) brings me to the major point of this essay: my belief that major Anglophone SFF awards should include a separate translation category.
Those of you who have followed the SFT facebook page and twitter hashtag may remember the conversation a couple of years ago about this issue. In 2018, I asked on twitter why other SFF awards around the world have separate translation categories but Anglophone awards don’t. Not long after, Chris Barkley (a member of the Hugo Awards study committee) contacted me to ask if I would write up in more detail my thoughts about why translated works should be highlighted in major awards. His subsequent post on File 770 explained in detail why he thought that a Best Translated Novel category was necessary and where he agreed with my assessment of the field of SFT. Soon after Chris’s post, Neil Clarke of Clarkesworld Magazine wrote a post in which he disagreed with our contention that a translation category would highlight worthy texts that are otherwise ignored by Anglophone readers. Chris then posted a detailed response. *(Since I first posted this essay, Bogi Takács let me know that this exact issue was discussed on a ConZealand Fringe panel called “SFF Awards in the 2010s.” Check it out!)
I’d like to take this opportunity now to address the major points brought up by Chris, Neil, as well as Cheryl Morgan and Jo Van Ekeren and make my case, here, on the SFT site, for why a separate translation category within Anglophone SFF awards is important to the future of the speculative fiction field. Science fiction, fantasy, magical realism, the Weird- these kinds of fictions ask readers to imagine what might exist or might happen, or look beneath the surface of everyday life, or consider alternative perspectives and ideas. Authors writing around the world approach this genre differently, and offer us new perspectives on, say, the spiritual experience in everyday life or the future of genetic engineering. It is important, if we actually do want a thriving, diverse field, to look beyond our own pond, as Francesco Verso says, and out toward the ocean.
As some of you might remember, Cheryl Morgan’s Science Fiction and Fantasy Translation Awards, which ran from 2009 to 2014, was a juried award given to the best SFT published during the previous year. The short-form and long-form winners and honorable mentions came from all over the world: from the Netherlands to Japan, from Spain to Hungary, and everywhere in between. Unfortunately, due to time and financial constraints, the award closed down a few years after it launched, but it demonstrated that worthy SFT (much of which has won awards in their native countries) can and should be recognized and promoted to Anglophone readers.
Before I get to the main arguments against a separate category for translations, allow me to briefly consider the nature of the awards themselves.
The Hugos: these are “science fiction’s most prestigious award” and are voted on by the members of the World Science Fiction Convention (Worldcon). (Note the word “World” here). Let me stop here and say that I have no axe to grind with the Hugos at all–I am not a member of any official organization (SF or not) and I don’t know about any internal workings. I am simply taking “science fiction’s most prestigious award” and giving it a good-old-fashioned, literary-studies-style close-reading.
For the purposes of this essay, I’ll focus just on the “Country and Language of Publication” section of the “Hugo Categories” official rules page:
The Hugos are World awards. Works are eligible when they are first published. They can be published anywhere in the world (or out of it), and they can be published in any language.
Because the vast majority of Hugo voters currently come from English-speaking countries, works first published in a language other than English are also eligible in their first year of publication in English translation.
Because a large proportion of the people who nominate on the Hugo Awards reside in the USA, and because those people often do not get to see works first published outside the USA until those works get US publication, WSFS extends the eligibility of works first published outside the USA. Works published in prior years outside of the USA are eligible if they were published for the first time in the USA in the current year.
The first part of this explanation- “The Hugos are World Awards”- crumbles by the time you read to the end. Apparently, any text in any language is eligible for this award. In a perfect world, the Hugos, then, would be a wonderful mix of texts in and from multiple languages. Unfortunately, we don’t live in a perfect world; we live in one where, for decades, Anglophone SFF has been dominant and where some readers in other countries still see Anglophone SFF as the SFF (but that’s slowly, and inevitably, changing). And this brings me to the next two major points in this award explanation:
“Because the vast majority of Hugo voters currently come from English-speaking countries, works first published in a language other than English are also eligible in their first year of publication in English translation.”
Because a large proportion of the people who nominate on the Hugo Awards reside in the USA, and because those people often do not get to see works first published outside the USA until those works get US publication, WSFS extends the eligibility of works first published outside the USA.
So if the majority of Hugo voters come from English-speaking countries and a large proportion of those who nominate on the Hugo Awards live in the USA, what we apparently have here is an award that calls itself a “World Award” that is voted on mainly by American readers. And American readers mostly read Anglophone (mostly American, British, Australian, and Canadian) SFF.
I looked through the past winners of the Hugos going back to the beginning (1953) and found no translated works (as far as I could tell- let me know if I missed some) until 2015–the year that Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem (tr. Ken Liu, Tor Books) won for “Best Novel” and Thomas Olde Heuvelt’s “The Day the World Turned Upside Down” (tr. Lia Belt, Lightspeed) won for “Best Novelette.” Since then, Hao Jingfang’s “Folding Beijing” (tr. Ken Liu, Uncanny Magazine) has won for “Best Novelette” in 2016 and Liu’s Death’s End has been a finalist in the “Best Novel” category in 2017. Nothing since then.
Meanwhile, 2017 was one of the best years for SFT ever (so far). Sixty novels, 13 collections, 4 anthologies, and 71 short-form works were published in English by such places as New Directions, Open Letter, Indiana UP, NYRB, Dalkey Archive, Yale UP, Orbit, Haikasoru, Knopf, Wakefield Press, Deep Vellum, Clarkesworld Magazine, Samovar Magazine, World Literature Today, Weird Fiction Review, The Dark, and many more.
Really, all of this comes down to a naming problem. If the Hugos are going to be a “World Award,” logically they should include works from around the world, in any language. Since that doesn’t seem likely any time soon, and Anglophone readers generally don’t learn multiple languages unless they have to, then the award should (again, logically) stop calling itself a “World Award” and start acknowledging that, from the very beginning, it has been and still is an award given to English-language SFF by English-language readers.
I find it very hard to believe that, for instance, internationally-acclaimed German author Andreas Eschbach wouldn’t be considered “good enough” to win a Hugo. While his novel The Carpet Makers, which won the Grand Prix de L’imaginaire for Best Translated Novel (2001), the Ignotus Awards for Best Foreign Novel (2005), the Italia Awards for Best International Novel (2002), and the Prix Ozone for Best Fantasy Novel and Best Foreign Novel (2000), in the Anglophone world it was given…13th place in 2006 for “Best SF Novel” in the Locus Awards. [insert lifted eyebrow emoji here].
Take Japanese science fiction author Taiyo Fujii, as another example. Winner of two major Japanese awards for his complex science fiction thriller Orbital Cloud (tr. Timothy Silver, Haikasoru, 2017), Fujii is also known in the Anglophone world for Gene Mapper (tr. Jim Hubbert, Haikasoru, 2015) and three short-form works (you can read two of them at Lightspeed and Unfit Magazine). I have reviewed Gene Mapper on this site and Orbital Cloud on Strange Horizons, and “Violation of the TrueNet Security Act” is one of my favorite hard science fiction stories of all time. I understand that there are a limited number of spots in the nomination process, but year after year after year, authors whose award-winning works have been translated into English and are available to Anglophone readers are passed over, likely because people don’t know they exist. That, I certainly admit, is a marketing problem, not an award problem per se, but with an award that had its own translation category, in which books and stories by authors like Eschbach, Fujii, Joahnna Sinisalo, Yoko Tawada, Francesco Verso, Karin Tidbeck, Rodolfo Martinez, Gorodischer, and so very many others could be featured and send people to bookstores and publishers’ sites, then a “World Award” would make more sense.
Then there are the Nebula Awards, which are voted on, and presented by, members of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, Inc. and are “given each year for the best novel, novella, novelette, and short story eligible for that year’s award.” Though the Nebulas does not bill itself as a world award, it does consider translated works eligible. Johanna Sinisalo’s “Baby Doll” (tr. from the Finnish by David Hackston for The SFWA European Hall of Fame, 2007) was nominated for “Best Novelette” in 2008. No other translated work has won or been nominated before or since.
This takes me to the World Fantasy Award, a prize that has the word “World” in its very title. I wrote a little post back in 2017 about the seeming contradiction between calling yourself a world award and reflecting very little of said world. I found 2 SFT novel winners, 1 collection winner, 1 novella winner, and 4 Lifetime Achievement winners (Borges in 1979, Calvino in 1982, Angélica Gorodischer in 2011, and Sapkowski in 2016), as well as a few finalists, between 1979 and 2016. As they say in Russia, bozhe moy.
On a more positive note, the Best Translated Book Award and the Tiptree Award (recently renamed the Otherwise Award) (Wiscon) have a very respectable track record of recognizing speculative fiction (the former) and translations (the latter). I would give you a list of the SFT awarded by these two organizations but I see that my word count is already over 4k, so I’ll just ask you to take my word for it or search the internet.
Of course, several other Anglophone awards also exist, but…you know…word count. Maybe I’ll get to them in another post.
And then there’s the whole set of general arguments opposing, or at least not immediately embracing, a separate translation category. I’ve listed a few below:
- We already have too many award categories.
- Not enough Anglophone readers read SFT so how could they vote on it?
- Creating a separate translation category will send the message that SFT is inferior to Anglophone speculative fiction.
- SFT can win and has won awards without any “help.”
- But how can we determine if the translation is any good?
- Changing award rules is too difficult.
I’m going to address each of these points separately, making sure that I reiterate that I am not involved in any of these awards at the executive level, though I did participate in the most recent Locus Awards voting and was able to bring my knowledge of current SFT to the discussion, which I truly appreciated.
You may also know that I started a “Favorite SFT” poll in 2018, which is open to anyone who would like to vote (once!). This approach has its flaws but it’s the best I can do with the resources I have. Just the fact that the poll exists makes me think that more people are becoming aware that SFT does exist.
To the first point that “we already have too many award categories”: so what? And also, is a translated category somehow less important than the “Young Adult” or “First Novel” category? And to the subpoint that some translated work might win in two categories, can’t that happen with other categories? And aren’t there ways to get around that? I freely admit that I’m not cut out for business meetings and deciding rules about rules- which is one of the reasons why I’m not on these committees. This is just me on a website putting forth my opinions, against which everyone is free to argue. (Just be respectful when you rip me to shreds, ok?).
Next point: “not enough Anglophone readers read SFT so how could they vote on it?” Oh, I beg to differ. No, I can’t give you any hard numbers, but I can infer a few things. First, SFT has been, is, and continues to be published by small and large presses and magazines. This can’t just be wishful thinking on the part of these organizations. Somebody is buying and reading these books and subscribing to these magazines, otherwise why continue to publish SFT at all? Second, Rachel Cordasco is about as boring as you can imagine, so no one is following my twitter feed or facebook page because I’m exciting. I talk about SFT 99% of the time on twitter and I thoroughly and frequently weed out bot accounts, and yet the SFT twitter has 2,440 followers. Again, this isn’t because of wit, intelligence, beauty, or special hypnotic powers. It’s because people are interested in SFT. The dedicated SFT facebook page? Followed by 1,085 people. I’m not boasting- just giving you the numbers. And might I mention the fact that, at WisCon, there’s been an SFT panel since 2016, on which I’ve been privileged to sit, either as a moderator or a panelist. I’ve counted how many people attend these panels, and it’s never less than 30. For a jam-packed convention with a million fabulous panels and talks, I consider 30 people a slam dunk.
Next up: “creating a separate translation category will send the message that SFT is inferior to Anglophone speculative fiction.” Here’s where I usually start muttering and spluttering. A separate category for YA novels, for example, sends the message that YA is inferior or somehow less-than? Or was it created because more and more number people are reading and talking about YA and awards organizers thought that it should be brought into the fold? And that worthy texts should be recognized? Isn’t this the same argument I’m making about SFT? So many works of SFT win awards in their native countries–awards that are well-established and respected (the Geffen Awards in Israel, the Ignotus Awards in Spain, the Urania Awards in Italy, I could go on). No, a separate translation award wouldn’t compartmentalize SFT but promote it and show voters and readers that these texts exist and maybe, just maybe, should be on their bookshelves and countertops and e-readers or in their bags or pockets.
“SFT can win and has won awards without any ‘help.'” Very, very infrequently- not because it needs “help” (whatever that means) but because a lot of readers simply don’t know that it exists. And I know I just argued that lots of people are interested in SFT and also that most people don’t know about SFT. This is not a contradiction but an argument about scale. Relatively speaking, a thousand people interested in SFT is great but vanishingly small compared to the (potentially) hundreds of thousands or more who read Anglophone speculative fiction and guide trends in reading and reviewing. Take the case of Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem, a masterpiece of hard science fiction translated beautifully and lovingly from the Chinese by Ken Liu and promoted by Tor Books. This book was already beloved by millions in China (a country of over a billion people) before it was ever translated into English. Therefore, it came to the U.S. already incredibly popular. Tor Books likely poured a lot of marketing money into it, and reviewers, like myself, highly recommended it to other lovers of science fiction. But this book is an outlier, not a harbinger of things to come. If it had been, then why did Anglophone awards switch back almost immediately and completely to Anglophone texts? If the Hugos, Nebulas, and World Fantasy awards are supposedly open to texts written in English or translated into English, why are so few translated texts on the list of winners, or even runners up? Would anyone make the argument that it’s because non-Anglophone texts or translated texts aren’t as good? No. Which brings me to…
“How can we determine if the translation is any good?” I won’t even get into this point in the depth that I could–I’ll leave that to translation studies and to promoters of general translated fiction. I will, though, make the most obvious point, which is that no one is asking people to compare the original to the translation to determine if a book or story has been translated “well,” whatever that means. No, the question is “is this book/story/collection/anthology” of a high enough quality, as it currently exists in English, to merit an award?” That’s the question.
Finally, many people have told me that changing award rules is too difficult. I understand, and reiterate my point that I have never served on these committees. I’m sure it is difficult, but it’s not impossible to change the rules. And anyway, I’m not really asking awards to change their rules, just that they come right out and acknowledge that they are not world awards because world awards would look very different.
Rather than changing the rules for the Hugos, for instance, Cheryl Morgan and Jo Van Ekeren have offered other ideas for boosting the profile of SFT, including giving awards based on “services to translation” and adding an SFT panel to Worldcon programming. I wholeheartedly support these suggestions and hope that they happen. Given that I am the main caretaker for my young kids and live in the U.S. and have few opportunities to travel, I only attend Wiscon every year, though I did have the chance to attend Readercon in 2018, which was a wonderful experience. Thus, you won’t see me skipping around the Worldcons each year wherever they are held…at least, not until the kids are grown or until they are held closer to me (which sometimes happens). That’s why the internet is such a useful tool for me–I can keep in touch with authors, translators, publishers, editors, and readers around the world and learn about what happens at these conventions.
Well, there you have it. My thoughts on SFT in relation to the major Anglophone SFF awards. I started this essay thinking I would write a couple of thousand words and that would be that. If you’ve made it this far, though, thank you for reading and I look forward to reading your (remember, respectful!) comments below and elsewhere.
* SFT= speculative fiction in translation. “Speculative fiction”= science fiction, fantasy, horror, magical realism, Weird, etc.
* I don’t know if this assumption is pervasive in other Anglophone countries. Post about your experiences in the comments and let me know.