Reading In Translation

There are more good books published every year than I can read. This is one of those first world problems I’m awfully glad I have; but back in 2009, at the World Fantasy Convention in San Jose, I became aware of a new aspect of the problem. The panel was called “Fantasy In Translation,” and the panelists included a man named Zoran Živković, a Serbian who explained to the audience that there are fabulous writers being published all over the world whose work isn’t being translated into English. Big deal, you might say, but that was the beginning of something for me, an awareness that I live in a bubble of English and that getting out of it is not simple.

A confession: I wish I were bilingual. I had a shot at it – English is not my father’s native language; but he decided against schooling me in Arabic, like so many immigrant parents anxious to be “real Americans.” But the 2009 World Fantasy Convention was a turning point for me in another way: jealous of several translators I met, I decided to learn another language. I chose Japanese, and now, seven years of night classes later, I’m…well, honestly I’m still crappy at Japanese, but I’ve opened a door to an otherwise unreachable world. And I get it in a visceral way – some things can’t be translated. The sounds of words, what idioms tell you about culture. The way I felt when I was finally able to read a short piece by Natsume Sōseki, “father of modern Japanese literature,” it its original. The world is large and wondrous and bigger than what comes to us through English-language media, news, or friendships.

Fortunately for the English-speaking part of the world, some things make it past the language wall. Just in the past year two (soon to be three) books by Cixin Liu, one of China’s preeminent science fiction writers, have been translated. And I read them, and they floored me. The plot twists kept me on the edge of my seat. The scope of the story took me from elation to despair and back again. But there’s something else; Cixin Liu’s books expanded my vision because, steeped as they are in Chinese history, politics, ethics, and culture, they’re alien to me. And that’s a very good thing. There’s a huge world out there. I recommend trying to reach it in whatever way you can, one story at a time.

Postscript: For an anthology of world science fiction, try “The Apex Book of World SF,” edited by Lavie Tidhar. Zoran Živković has a short story therein. Cixin Liu’s translated books are “The Three-Body Problem,” the “Dark Forest,” and (coming in 2016), “Death’s End.”

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