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We Need More Speculative Fiction in Translation

Photo by kirklai on Unsplash

It’s ironic that the more connected this world is, the less we seem to know about one another. Take, for example, foreign language education in the United States. Secondary school children are usually offered classes in French or Spanish (and sometimes Mandarin Chinese), but that’s about it. Russian became quite popular for a few years around the mid-twentieth century, but that was due to Cold War rivalries between the US and the Soviet Union. Arabic similarly saw a jump in popularity around the launch of the War on Terror, but that was mostly confined to those entering the intelligence services. Thus Americans find ourselves in 2022 knowing perhaps fewer languages than our predecessors, as our politics and culture become ever more insular and our immigrant parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents pass on and take their rich linguistic heritages with them.

I, for one, didn’t realize until I hit middle school that Yiddish, which my grandparents sometimes spoke, was actually another language. Indeed, I just thought that it was a thing Jewish grandparents did when they couldn’t find the right English word to describe people or behaviors they didn’t like. Then I learned that my grandmother, with her eighth-grade education, was bilingual and switched between Yiddish and English depending on if she was speaking to her mother or to her daughter (my mother). I think it was then that I first understood the power of language and the beauty of translation.

This desire to know what other people are writing and thinking about in other parts of the world is, I believe, more widespread than we realize. Readers are often interested in new kinds of stories and perspectives, but major Anglophone publishers tend to stick with popular English-language authors and themes. Nonetheless, many smaller publishers in the US and UK have been branching out in the last few decades, bringing readers stories from across the globe in record numbers. Many of these publishers, like Open Letter, New Directions, Restless Books, and Two Lines Press, don’t specialize in speculative fiction (SF) but still publish a few such works each year. Those presses that do focus on SF, including Angry Robot, Tor, and Luna Press Publishing, have started actively bringing translated SF (SFT) to their readers. At its peak in 2018, SFT accounted for 54 novels, 21 collections, 10 anthologies, and 80 standalone short stories. In the grand scheme of publishing, these numbers are small, but compared to SFT numbers before 2000, they are significant and heartening.

After all, speculative fiction (science fiction, fantasy, horror, magical realism, etc.) is and has been written around the world since those genres emerged. The rise of Anglo-French science fiction at the turn of the twentieth century changed what Anglophone critics saw as “science fiction” and in turn influenced the genre throughout the world, due in part to colonialism and market domination. Around 2000, though, SFT shifted into high gear. Not only was more SFT being published every year, it was also being studied by Anglophone scholars who, in turn, were no longer so discouraged from writing about SF within the academy. Just since the start of the twenty-first century, for example, we’ve had collections of essays like Dale Knickerbocker’s Lingua Cosmica: Science Fiction from Around the World; Ian Campbell’s Science Fiction in Translation: Perspectives on the Global Theory and Practice of Translation; Lars Schmeink and Ingo Cornils’s New Perspectives on Contemporary German Science Fiction; and Zachary Kendal, Aisling Smith, Giulia Champion, and Andrew Milner’s Ethical Futures and Global Science Fiction. Kevin Reese’s Celestial Hellscapes: Cosmology as the Key to the Strugatskiis’ Science Fictions has introduced many young Anglophone readers to two of the greatest Russian SF authors who ever put pen to paper, while my own Out of This World: Speculative Fiction in Translation from the Cold War to the New Millennium (which includes chapter introductions from a variety of talented translators, editors, and authors) documents the SFT that has been available to English-language readers since the 1960s (spoiler: there’s a lot of it).

Just as important as these scholarly studies of SFT are the magazines and long-form fiction that readers can now enjoy. SF-focused publications like Clarkesworld Magazine, Apex Magazine, Future Science Fiction Digest, Strange Horizons, and Samovar regularly bring readers translated stories from award-winning authors who hail from Italy, Japan, Norway, and everywhere in between. Those magazines that don’t focus on SFT are also publishing more of it than ever: Words Without Borders, World Literature Today, and Latin American Literature Today are just a few examples. Lavie Tidhar’s Apex Book of World SF (five volumes) and Best of World SF (two volumes so far) series have done much to open the US and UK to diverse stories and literary approaches, while Ken Liu’s translations of Chinese SF (in the form of dozens of stories, several novels, and two anthologies) have made stories from that source language as popular as those of the Anglosphere’s best known SF voices.

Despite this recent wave of SFT, there are still a number of barriers preventing more of it from going mainstream in the Anglophone world. I experienced some of these obstacles firsthand when I published Out of This World last year. The anthology is the first of its kind in that it brings together and summarizes works of SFT from the fourteen most represented source languages, including Arabic, Hebrew, French, and Polish. The chapters are introduced by some of the most prominent people in the SF field, including editor and translator from the French Edward Gauvin, Czech author and translator Julie Novakova, editor and scholar of Hispanic literature Dale Knickerbocker, and Swedish Canadian author and reviewer Maria Haskins. Given the anthology’s relevance and inclusion of leading SF voices, I found it somewhat surprising that the major US-based speculative fiction outlets didn’t reach out to me about it. Then again, it was published on a date guaranteed to render it invisible to anyone who wasn’t specifically looking forward to it (December 28). I have seen a few online reviews, and maybe others will come out in the future, but this silence just seems so familiar.

Indeed, all you have to do is look at the major speculative fiction awards to see that SFT is treated as if it doesn’t exist. As I wrote in an essay for my site two years ago, the Hugo and World Fantasy awards, among others, rarely ever feature a work of long-form or short-form fiction originally written in another language or translated into English. Thus, I argued that all of this comes down to a naming problem. If the Hugos are for texts “published anywhere in the world (or out of it), and [ . . . ] published in any language,” 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 SF by English-language readers.

In the same essay, I addressed the many points others in the industry make about why SFT shouldn’t get a separate category in these awards, including the argument that it would “ghettoize” SFT. Yet I never hear anyone apply the same logic to YA fiction, which does have its own category. Could it be that SFT poses a threat to the continued domination of Anglophone speculative fiction around the world? Why, I asked myself, would an American publisher, author, or others in that ecosystem want to direct attention away from Anglophone fiction? If that’s the case, and it likely is, then this should be acknowledged outright. Continuing to call an award the “World Fantasy Award,” for instance, is just misleading at this point. Either start including works from around the world or rename the award.

A separate “translated” category in science fiction, fantasy, and horror awards would, rather than marginalizing these texts that already receive very little attention, bolster their visibility and encourage genre readers who follow these awards to branch out beyond their comfort zone. Japanese horror about words that can kill? Ooh. Russian psychological fantasy about a magical boarding school? Interesting! Hebrew alternative fiction in which Israel was established in New York? Wow.

Speculative fiction is, by definition, a genre that always asks, “What if?” What if visitors from another planet made contact with Earth? What if we could travel through time? What if we could visit other planets, talk to insects, learn more about our own consciousness, reorganize world governments, construct androids, or cure all diseases? Reading one kind of SF (from one source language) would give us food for thought, but to a limited extent; reading SF from around the world, though, would ignite our imaginations and help us creatively tackle problems that seem practically unsolvable.

Fiction, more than many other modes of cultural production, can help us overcome our insular tendencies and look beyond our borders to other traditions. In doing so, we can perhaps move closer to realizing that familiar yet elusive SF trope of a harmonious planet that never stops looking toward the stars.


© 2022 by Rachel Cordasco. All rights reserved.

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