Translating good stories

After such a positive first couple of posts, I thought it was time to talk about some things that annoy me. Two things annoyed me repeatedly at the London Book Fair: snobbery about genre fiction, and use of the phrase ‘lost in translation’. I thought I’d talk about the genre fiction one first.
(again, please bear in mind that I hate the terms ‘literary’ and ‘genre’ fiction, and that I do think ‘literary’ fiction is to some extent a genre of its own, but that I hate the term ‘commercial fiction’ even more and I don’t know any other words for the stuff I want to talk about. Now, onwards!)

It’s not that I don’t understand, on some level, the preference for literary fiction among people who are interested in translation. Translated fiction is (or can be, or is perceived as being) more difficult to publish than English-language fiction – publishing rights are more complicated, and often editors can’t read it themselves so they have to get somebody else to read it for them and tell them what it’s like, and I can kind of understand that they want the translated book to be something with important ideas in it that’s going to win prizes and be unlike anything anybody’s ever read before. But I tire of the implication that this always means literary fiction – that genre fiction is the lowest common denominator, and that science fiction or mystery novels are the same all over the world so we don’t need to bother translating them.

I was really interested to hear one of my fellow masterclass participants saying that he felt readers of literary fiction and genre fiction expected different things: that people expected genre fiction to adhere to certain formulas, and it was up to us to figure out what the equivalent formulas were in English in order to produce a good and satisfying translation. I was even more surprised when later, in the pub, he mentioned that he was an ardent lover of hard SF. I don’t know, maybe good hard SF is more formulaic than the softer SF/fantasy I tend to read, or maybe I just completely misunderstood what he was saying (please comment if you feel you have been misrepresented!). But I think there is this perception in some parts of the industry that genre readers as a whole are looking for ‘safe’ reads – a thick book with a map on the first page, set in a pseudo-mediaeval Europe with added magic, or a compelling page-turner featuring a tough, lonely detective with an addiction to something or other. I agree that that’s part of genre fiction, but that’s not all it is, and I’d argue that ‘safe’ formulaic reads exist just as much in literary fiction.

Personally, I read SFF because I love to be surprised. I love nothing more than to get lost in a rich, unfamiliar, entirely imaginary world – as an obnoxious teenager I used to say that I didn’t read fiction set in the real world, because I already lived there and I didn’t think it was very interesting. I love rich, intricate writing, too, prose that intoxicates: Angela Carter, Mervyn Peake, Catherynne M. Valente. But I also love to read good stories, and sometimes (mostly when I’m attending sessions at the London Book Fair) I feel like admitting to that is almost embarrassing: that as a lover of Literature I’m expected to be interested in good books, which are somehow not the same thing as good stories at all.

It’s nice that books are translated because they are good books – because they win literary prizes in their own countries, or because they communicate something essential about the human condition or whatever – but there are an awful lot of people around who just want to read good stories. I’d like to see more of those translated into English, and I know I’m not the only translator who feels that way. I’m grateful to the Nordic crime wave for demonstrating so compellingly that translated books don’t have to be literary: I feel that I’m seeing a wider variety of fiction in translation around now, from Japanese thrillers to German children’s books to picaresque Swedish fiction, and I hope the idea continues to spread.

As for my favourite genre, English-language readers are relatively well served for Japanese SFF, mostly thanks to Haikasoru and Kurodahan Press (though you won’t find their books in bookshops over here – or at least, I never have), but I’d love to read more SFF from other languages too – any book recommendations you have will be gratefully received! I’d like to see the barrier between translated and domestic fiction broken down a bit as well – anthologies consisting solely of translated stories are great, but I love it when I’m reading a regular anthology of wonderful, genre-bending stories and suddenly notice that several of them are translated from other languages (I highly recommend the anthology linked, and Csilla Kleinheincz’s ‘A Drop of Raspberry’, translated from Hungarian by Noémi Szelényi, is one of my favourite stories in it).

I wonder if we in the English-language book trade are particularly fond of making divisions and setting up dichotomies: genre vs. literary, translated vs. domestic? I wrote earlier of the LBF ‘Translation Flows in Asia’ panellists and their observation that genre boundaries were more fluid in Japan and Korea – but then again, there’s a sharp distinction drawn in Japan between ‘pure literature’ and ‘popular literature’. And I often wonder what it is that makes us define, say, Haruki Murakami as ‘literary’ rather than ‘SFF’ – surely Hardboiled Wonderland at least is pure SFF? Is it because he’s translated from Japanese? Or is it because we can’t have some of his books in the SFF section and some in the general fiction section (related: why do I often see Oryx and Crake in the general fiction section?)? I don’t know. But I continue to be annoyed by people treating literary and genre fiction as if they were these great monolithic opposites, one represented by Nobel Prize winners and one by gripping but poorly-written ‘airport novels’, when there is so much space in between.

PS I just rediscovered an article that was posted on Publishing Perspectives last year on a similar topic, about translation as ‘literary broccoli’. Excellent metaphor.

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2 Responses to Translating good stories

  1. Pingback: Belated Musings on the London Book Fair 2013 | a discount ticket to everywhere

  2. tarjema says:

    Reblogged this on Tarjema Translations and commented:
    This article is a couple of years old, but it certainly looks to me as though it is still very relevant. I will be posting more as time goes on, but I’ve been approached to translate an Arabic SF novel into English; I’m reading the book right now and I’m very interested in the project. I will probably be getting in touch with the blog’s author as well, just to ask some questions (after I read through more of her blog to see if my questions are already answered, of course).

    Anyway, enjoy the read!

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