For a Truly Multicultural Science Fiction: Do Translations Matter?

by Mariano Martín Rodríguez

Science fiction is arguably becoming truly cosmopolitan today. After this genre was baptised in the United States and its fandom developed there, it was soon forgotten that scientific romance (or its equivalent forms of fiction often called utopian in non-English literary areas) had existed for decades, and that this truly international form of mainstream fiction was cultivated by critically acclaimed writers from Argentina to Japan, from Sweden to Bengal. Many soon believed that science fiction was only, or mainly, a US invention, that science fiction did not exist as such elsewhere and, if it existed, it could not be but a slavish imitation of American models. It might have been so in some instances, as the Perry Rhodan serial pulps from Germany amply demonstrate. Focusing only on the products of cultural ‘coca-colonization’ failed however to do justice to science fiction written in different languages by many gifted writers. Non-Anglophone science fiction was ignored in most instances. Hardly a couple of international authors, namely Stanisław Lem and the Strugatsky brothers, succeeded in getting wider recognition, perhaps thanks to their being considered representatives of an allegedly alternate way of writing science fiction coming from the Eastern Bloc, a way that was moreover quite similar to contemporary New Wave literary and ideological experimentalism. By contrast, similar science fiction writers from the Western Bloc were little known, unless their speculative stories were received as mainstream literature written by authors having acquired a high critical reputation for their previous non-science fiction books. This was the case, for instance, of Nobel Prize winner José Saramago, whose novel Blindness (Ensaio sobre a Cegueira, 1995) about a pandemic outbreak and its societal consequences was, however, rarely received as science fiction, despite its clearly speculative approach and subject matter.

Fortunately, this situation appears to be changing in the 21st century. Following already existing trends, in recent decades science fiction has been the subject of extensive historical surveys, and by no means limited to the Anglosphere. Bibliographies, encyclopedias, literary research by both fans and scholars still tend to emphasize works in English but there has always been an awareness of the international dimension of science fiction history. It was widely known that one of the fathers of science fiction avant la lettre was Jules Verne, or that one of the greatest prospective dystopias is Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (1924). Now these are not just token international names as they used to be in the first considerations of science fiction as a particular genre of fiction. Competent translations into English having appeared in series such as ‘Early Classics of Science Fiction’ from the Wesleyan University Press, among other academic initiatives, are showing the variety and originality of European and Asian scientific romances. Thanks to these and other translations Anglophone readers can find quality renditions of significant science fiction classics from China, Bengal, Italy, Spain, Germany, Russia and other literary regions. Furthermore, Brian Stableford has undertaken a colossal task of translating into English a cross-section of the huge French output in scientific romance and related genres. He has translated into English dozens of novels and stories, some of which are quite difficult to come by in France and other French-speaking countries. Many of them have appeared with his own prefaces, where his astonishing literary learning and critical acumen make of them examples of what science fiction scholarship should be about.

Contemporary international genre science fiction has not fared equally well, though. Liu Cixin’s success can be explained by Ken Liu’s adaptation of the original works to the American pop style of writing, as well as the chance of having occupied the same niche as the Strugatsky brothers as ‘the’ representative of science fiction coming from the main geopolitical, ideological and economical rival of the United States: earlier the Soviet Union, now China. There are signs, however, that science fiction with different origins will not be ignored this time. One of the main Anglophone publishing companies, Penguin, has a new collection called ‘Penguin Science Fiction.’ Among its titles so far announced, almost half of them are translations from languages as varied as Japanese (Kobo Abe), Russian (Yevgeny Zamyatin, Arkady and Boris Strugatsky), Spanish (Angélica Gorodischer) and German (Andreas Eschbach). It is hoped that this catalogue will continue to be internationally balanced as it seems now. There are still many fine science fiction works awaiting translation under the good editorial and marketing conditions that Penguin and similar corporations can afford. Only if they are translated into English, the lingua franca of science fiction, this genre could become truly global and multicultural in a meaningful way. A monolingual multiculturalism, with supporters unable to read anything but English, as it is unfortunately the case in all too many instances, is a contradiction in terms, a mockery of true diversity. Does it genuinely serve multiculturalism that scholars and critics eulogize science fiction works by ‘non-white’ writers produced in English following postmodern-leftist American biases while ignoring genuine world-views from other cultures, ‘white’ or not, expressed in their own languages and conceived having their own local readerships in mind? An example among those appearing in the above-mentioned Penguin science fiction collection comes especially to mind.

Gorodischer’s Trafalgar (1979) deconstructs in one of her stories the Whig stereotype of Anglo-American good imperialism versus Spanish evil imperialism (beware the Spanish inquisition!). Its eponymous hero intervenes on an alternate Earth to ensure that the Spanish Empire does not neglect the Northern subcontinent during its colonization of the Americas. He thus prevents future US interventions in Latin America like those supporting the dictatorship oppressing Argentina at the time when the book was published. Such an approach is nowhere to be found in alternate histories in English, which tends to portray any victorious Catholic Spain as intrinsically evil (c.f. Keith Roberts, Harry Turtledove, etc.). Exposure to translations of speculative and science fiction written in languages other than English (for example, Italian alternate histories re-assessing Benito Mussolini’s rule) by authors averse to the current politically correct consensus would be helpful to achieve a truer form of multiculturalism. We might want to embrace that consensus for its being perhaps fairer and more (post)humane; but democracy as well as literature thrive in a varied cultural ecosystem. It is this wealth of dissenting voices that science fiction can tap into through the power of the translated word.

We might well rejoice, while still regretting that the number of translations remains lower than desirable. There is the huge obstacle of the diminishing linguistic skills of all too many Anglophones, who seem less and less willing to make the necessary effort to learn foreign languages. What is the need for memorizing thousands of exotic words and difficult grammar when English is, at least in theory, understood everywhere? Is there anything interesting to read or talk about that it not produced in English? Laziness being a fundamental feature of human nature, there is now little use of trying to convince anybody of the pleasure, if not the convenience, of learning how to encounter foreign ‘others’ as they really are, even if only to enjoy holidays abroad, in a more humane way than just getting drunk and suntanned (or burned, rather) in, let’s say, Benidorm. When classic languages are no longer treasured by educated Anglophones, when French is no longer the language of diplomacy, when cultural studies and various postmodern ideologies have displaced philological research at most universities, it is perhaps understandable that quite a few native speakers of English dismiss foreign languages as an utter waste of time, unless they are encouraged to learn them by enlightened entities such as the Irish Republic or the Mormon churches… Nevertheless, there still remains a sizeable demographic able to translate all kind of texts into English including, dare we say, literature. Globalization is increasing the number of bilingual people due to international marriages. Growing proficiency of English allows native speakers of other languages to skillfully translate texts from theirs to the current global tongue.

For many of them, the issue might be either to be paid for their endeavors or, if they translate for the sheer love of languages and culture, to find a publishing venue. Sci Phi Journal is one of them, at least for short fiction. Translators have, however, rarely answered this journal’s call, perhaps for obstacles that no publication can overcome on its own. Students and scholars able and willing to translate foreign science fiction into English are not encouraged to do it in a competitive academic environment where the principle of ‘publish or perish’ prevails and translations are not acknowledged as highly as, say, original scholarship. Writers able to translate seem to have forgotten that their earlier peers found translation to be an excellent school for good writing. The formidable rhetorical and stylistic resources of English seem to remain all too often untapped simply because writers forget that literary fiction requires a deep understanding of its raw material, language. The act of translation makes writers transcend the comfort zone of their mother tongue. When trying to reproduce the effects that arise from foreign authors successfully exploiting the rhetorical potential of their native language, translators are forced to reflect on the resources of their own language, and use them, both in their translation and eventually in their original writing. Is monolingualism an explanation for the limited rhetorical skills and the flat (“easy listening”) language now sadly prevalent in Anglophone (science) fiction? Is that the reason preventing us from having more stories written using sophisticated syntax, rich vocabulary and effective rhetoric? Such a statement would be a risky contention. It is not, however, that translation helps to improve one’s linguistic proficiency and therefore literary abilities, what more, it opens one’s mind to the world through the deep identification with the Other that literary translation always entails. The increasing numbers of translated science fiction works suggest that these advantages are being understood. Let us hope that many more will follow this path. Because the science fiction universe is too vast to reduce it to the literature produced in one single language.



  1. Attempting to create an opposition between a love of languages and “postmodern leftism” is fairly ridiculous to me. What do even mean by this huge umbrella term of postmodern leftism?

    Do you mean the post-structuralist philosophers like Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault who challenged the power of language, science, and enlightenment rationality to truly understand reality? Because any academic who takes those guys seriously knows they have to learn French.

    Do you mean the Marxist and post-Marxist theorists like Walter Benjamin, Theodore Adorno, and the rest of the Frankfurt School who developed critical theory as a way of understanding how class struggle and ideology impact cultural production? Because if you want to have any idea what those guys are on about, then you damn well better start polishing your German.

    Do you just mean modern popular social justice movements that are primarily based in the Anglosphere? Because I really have trouble understanding how some people looking to more greatly enfranchise various minority groups – including minority groups that don’t speak English as a first language – are somehow a threat to the linguistic variety inside SF.

    I don’t think you have a very strong idea of what you mean by “Postmodern Leftism.” I think you’ve just made it a catchall for all the social and intellectual movements you dislike, and since you seem to like reading in other languages, you’ve calculated that all the postmodern lefties must be aggressively monolinguistic. As a “postmodern leftist” myself, however, let me assure you that we have just as much love for the spinning kaleidoscope of world languages, that we, too, study and appreciate the power of tongues to focus, refract, and remake the light of phenomenal reality into new shapes. You don’t get to claim that all for yourself.

  2. Dear A.J., your energetic rebuttal of the point on “postmodern leftism” is a most welcome addition to the debate. You come at it from a different angle than Mariano seems to have intended, but you certainly make a valid point.
    Personally, when I first read the essay, my takeaway was rather a recognition of a phenomenon I had experienced first hand. You see, back in the so-called Golden Age of modern Anglo-SF, the Campbellian tone prevailed, against which more ‘sensitive’ narrative voices like that of (prolific literary translator) Le Guin arose as a kind of counter-movement. In a similar fashion, there is a ‘social progressive’ ideological mode of writing that dominates the contemporary English-language SF scene, to which works translated from cultural milieus not yet infused with Americanisms could act as an interesting counter-balance. Having access to more works from ‘exotic’ philosophical backgrounds could enrich readers’ exposure to a wider range of ideas.
    A practical example: in my native Hungary, the prevalent ethical framework in literature tends to be agnostic, i.e. protagonists often avoid contemplating or engaging with the ethical dimension of their course of action. They tend not to think of themselves as heros or villains, but rather as forces of nature locked in an evolutionary struggle. A recent novel by a best-selling Hungarian SF author, Sándor Szélesi, follows the path of a genetic scientist whose parents were murdered by people of a specific ethnic background and who then devotes his life to develop a virus that targets that ethnicity. (He succeeds. And that’s not a spoiler, the novel starts with the sweeping effects of the outbreak he engineers.) One of the novel’s strengths is its exploration of how a singularly focused individual can twist a politically correct institutional and social environment to serve his politically incorrect objective. However, it doesn’t tie in with the presently prevalent mood in Anglophone SF. When I suggested to an otherwise open-minded international publisher that I wouldn’t mind translating it into English, their reaction was, in effect, ‘we wouldn’t dare publish a novel like that NOW’…

    • Hey Adam, thanks for the interesting and thoughtful response. Let me see if I can’t answer in kind…

      So here’s a point of fact I think we both broadly agree on: one of the side effects of the “social progressive” mode of writing coming in vogue in modern SFF circles is that it has narrowed the window of acceptable discourse. Publishers are so sensitive to avoid putting out anything that might even possibly be construed as bigoted against a marginalized class. I will even go as far as to agree that, in many ways, this is to SFF’s detriment! Fiction is at its richest when exploring all those weird ambiguities of the human condition, in exploring all the twisted ways human beings interact with each other and their environment, and it’s a loss to us as readers when we bar those stories which dare to walk a line.

      However, even acknowledging this, I still broadly defend SFF’s recent move towards being more socially conscious and woke. I support it for a couple reasons: 1) the genre was overdue for an accounting. SFF has long had a problem with reproducing racist and sexist tropes, and I’m glad that there’s finally seeing a large scale effort made to acknowledge and criticize that stuff. 2) SFF is now making a concerted effort to be more welcoming to various marginalized groups, and that is far from a trivial victory. I think it’s a shame that folks like Szélesi are finding the English-language market harder to break into, but then consider all the black/queer/female etc. etc. writers who have also complained about not being able to break into the English-language market even when English is their native language! I’m willing to acknowledge that publishers are unfair and that a lot of great writing never finds its reception because of reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of the stories, but we can’t pretend this problem started with the current wave of more socially progressive writing. And finally 3) The window of discourse always tends to narrow during contentious times. America and many countries across Europe a experiencing a resurgence of far right populism, there’s a plague, climate change, economic and social unrest, and a whole lot else going on right now. People are stressed, paranoid, and scared, and that makes them a lot less willing to flirt with ambiguity and nuance. Szélesi’s novel could be a beautiful exploration of the blind spots that gross social systems create and even the human condition generally, but your brief synopsis also makes it sound like it could just be a genocidal revenge fantasy, and people are just too close to that sort of thing right now to examine it with a proper air of contemplative, philosophical detachment. If God is good, then hopefully things will calm down enough in the next couple of years so that publishers will feel comfortable risking books like that again.

      It’s okay if you don’t like the direction modern SFF is going in–I think it’s valid to feel upset about the ways it sometimes narrows the expressive possibilities of the genre and all the authors it pushes out in order to make room for others–but what I won’t accept is the implication that it’s all some sort of conspiracy by bad actors. I can’t stand when people describe the efforts of countless readers, writers, publishers, philosophers, and scholars to think through and respond to some of the problems in SFF like they’re just some irrationally triggered SJWs who only want to ruin your fun. Or worse, that this is all some grand conspiracy orchestrated by (((someone))) to destroy rationality, masculinity, and true ethical principals. The reason why I was incensed to respond to Mariano’s use of the umbrella term “postmodern leftism” wasn’t just because it insulted my discipline, but because it’s really easy to follow that train of thought to anti-intellectual conspiracy theories that claim that all the professors in all the universities are uniting to collectively deceive and screw over our country, or in this case, our genre.

      Let me be perfectly clear that there’s a ton of dumb stuff you can criticize leftists for–lefties do just that to each other all the time–but it only means anything when you’re willing to actually read into what you’r criticizing and get specific. When you use a term as huge as “postmodern leftism,” then the only thing you’ll find yourself sparring with are your own fantasies.

      • Many thanks for the detailed reply and thoughtful analysis, A.J.
        Broadly speaking, I believe we are in agreement. I understand that authors and publishers based in the USA are probably more directly caught up in what you aptly describe as the narrowing window of discourse, and feel the need to engage or adapt accordingly to these contentious times.
        In my defence, we are to some extend products of our very different backgrounds. My childhood memories are shaped by Soviet-occupied Hungary, where deviation from the Party Line could easily mean the end of one’s career or trouble for the whole family. Therefore I’m perhaps overly sensitive to limitations on the freedom of thought and expression in the name of any horizontal (social, environmental) or vertical (political, institutional) -isms.
        In extremis, I sometimes think back to those Slovak football fans who used to carry a “Smrt Madarom” banner to every derby between their team and Hungary’s. (It means “death to Hungarians”.) Now, I don’t necessarily agree that exterminating me, my relatives and compatriots, and all people sharing my ethnicity would magically improve universal wellbeing. But what I know is that I would probably oppose attempts to ban those fans from carrying their banner. (Trivia: the Hungarian response was actually kinda witty. The hard-core fans rebranded themselves as the army of Mathias Corvinus, a late medieval king of military fame who had ‘pacified’ the Slovak hill tribes. It’s all macho banter, admittedly, but makes for fun contemporary anthropology. It also shows that sports can act as a handy safety valve to let off steam instead of, you know,
        Anyway, this takes us a bit far from the original discussion. The point is, voices from a non-Western background will likely not conform to the current ideology and sensitivities prevalent in ‘Western’ SFF, but it might still be worth giving English-language readers better access to works written in another ethical/philosophical framework, to broaden their horizon.
        I appreciate the time you took to elaborate your observations on the current direction of English-language SFF, which I think are spot on.

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