Speculative Fiction: the future happens everywhere

by Sue Burke

(This article was originally published the No. 81, Spring-Summer 2022 Edition, of The Source, the journal of the American Translators Literary Division.)

In 2021, award-winning Spanish author, editor, and friend Cristina Jurado asked me to translate her short story “Abrazar el movimiento” into English (Embracing the Movement). As soon as I read it, I enthusiastically said yes: an intense science fiction story whose beautiful images hide horror.

Like any translation, at least one word caused problems, and it came in the first sentence: No somos tan diferentes, forastera. “We are not so different…forastera.” That word was used throughout the story, and I had to get it right.

It means, more or less, stranger or outsider, specifically a female one, and the female sense mattered in the story. After some research, I selected sojourner, a female name established by Sojourner Truth, born Isabella Bomfree, who chose it because she felt called to travel and testify. Better yet, Sojourner was the name of a Mars rover, and the character in Cristina’s story is also exploring space.

The next step took a satisfying turn. Cristina submitted the story to science fiction magazines, and Clarkesworld published it in the June 2021 issue. We were ecstatic to have it in an award-winning venue (which also paid us nicely), but not entirely surprised. Like many science fiction and fantasy publications, Clarkesworld welcomes and even seeks out translated works.

Several years back, the community of speculative fiction (the genre that includes science fiction, fantasy, and horror; confusingly, it often refers to itself simply as science fiction or SF) made a commitment to be more inclusive of works from around the world, including translations. There is a close-knit SF community. One way it meets is at the World Science Fiction Convention, or Worldcon, held somewhere around the globe each year. Its highlight is the presentation of the Hugo Awards, science fiction’s most prestigious prize, chosen by readers.

The awards have reflected this inclusive interest. The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin, translated from Chinese by Ken Liu and published by Tor Books, won the 2015 Hugo Award for Best Novel. “The Day The World Turned Upside Down” by Thomas Olde Heuvelt, translated from Dutch by Lia Belt and published by Lightspeed Magazine, won the 2015 Hugo Award for Best Novelette. “Folding Beijing” by Hao Jingfang, translated from Chinese by Ken Liu and published by Uncanny Magazine, won the 2016 Hugo Award for Best Novelette.

The most recent Worldcon emphasized a global view. Called Discon III, it was held in Washington, D.C., from December 15 to 19, 2021, with 2300 (masked and vaxxed) members in attendance and with more members attending on-line. Panels included “Sin, Sine and Cosine in African SF,” “Solarpunk: A Positive Future” (solarpunk originated in Brazil), “Non-European Vampires,” and four panels on translation.

Apex Book Company and Apex Magazine have been publishing translations for years. Francesco Verso, an award-winning Italian author and publisher, offers a strong argument in favor of translated SF in a guest editorial for the December 2021 issue of Apex Magazine. The power of English-language authors around the planet can drown out voices in other languages, he writes, even in their own countries. He asks:

“What happened to all the other futures? What happened to representations of the world that do not conform to current standards, to stories that are different at their roots because they express customs and traditions that are historically distant, alien, and not aligned with the needs of global publishing?”

Science fiction drawn from a wider global context, Verso says, can “explore the elusive contours of all those futures that have been denied and neglected, ignored, and forgotten, to try to improve our present.”

While all venues for SF accept translations, some explicitly say so, and others even seek it out. The magazine Strange Horizons founded the quarterly magazine Samovar in 2017 to publish fiction and poetry in both their original language and English translation. “We showcase the work both of writers and also translators, whom we have to thank for opening doors to new worlds,” the magazine’s guidelines say.

Constelación is a quarterly bilingual Spanish-English speculative fiction magazine “with the goal of amplifying the voices of Latin America and the Caribbean.”

Future Science Fiction Digest seeks translations and stories by authors for whom English is not their first language or who reside outside primarily English-speaking countries. Its editor-in-chief, Alex Shvartsman, an author and translator himself, says he’s seen a surge of interest in translated fiction, both short- and long-form. “Readers are eager to discover fresh voices and perspectives from across the globe,” he says, and science fiction readers are used to thinking differently:

“A good speculative story often demands flexibility of thought; it asks the reader to accept complicated what-ifs and unusual worlds; to embrace alien settings and intricate magic systems. Fortified with that training, readers have far less trouble understanding concepts and naming conventions from another contemporary human culture. As such, there’s less pressure to over-explain or oversimplify, less need to rely on a footnote or another editorial intrusion. The reader is capable of—and eager to—do more of the heavy lifting.”

Shvartsman’s biggest challenge, however, is sourcing material from languages he doesn’t speak:

“To solve this, I’ve developed a network of international editors, critics, and translators. We strive to keep each other informed of the exciting developments in our respective language spheres: award nominations, new stories and authors generating buzz, etc. I ask translators to provide brief synopses of the stories they’re pitching, and I’m always open to considering unsolicited translations. I also pair our international selections with at least one story per issue from a well-known author (be they an Anglophone or international writer) to help generate excitement about the issue and draw readers to material from the authors they don’t already recognize.”

He says the appetite for translation is voracious, and he hopes to see many more translations in the near future. “It is more a matter of logistics and funding to bring translations to light. Thankfully, crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter and Patreon are helping prop up independent projects, and we’re seeing some increased interest in corporate sponsorship as well.”

Rachel S. Cordasco is a little less sanguine but no less enthusiastic. She has a PhD in literary studies, is an editor and translator, and in 2016, Cordasco started SFinTranslation.com, which tracks all translated speculative fiction available in English.

Despite the commitment to being more inclusive globally, she contends:

“From what I can see based on what’s being published in English translation these past few years, nothing has really changed. The Anglophone genre awards have opened up just a little bit to SF in translation (SFT), but they’re still dominated by English-language fiction. Smaller publishers are still the main sources of SFT.”

After a peak in 2017-2018, the number of works published has been falling slowly, but she doubts it will return to the low levels of the pre-2000 era. “Despite this, SFT is being discussed more in genre circles—at conventions, in magazines, etc.—and more markets are encouraging submissions of translated genre texts.”

Cordasco also points out:

“Interestingly, some places that publish mostly translated fiction (Open Letter, New Directions, etc.) are the same places that publish SFT, though the latter are usually not marketed as such. Unfortunately, literary fiction and genre fiction in the US, specifically, seem to suffer from the same problem: the fact that American readers don’t seem as interested in translated books.”

Lanternfish Press is a small publisher whose editorial director, Christine Neulieb, says is considering a venture into translation because that would fit well with its literary goals:

“Lanternfish searches for fiction of the ‘rare and strange.’ In more practical terms, that means literary fiction with strong speculative elements or speculative fiction with tone or structure that’s unusual for the genre. This kind of genre-blending was rare in American fiction until recently, but it’s been common outside the US for a long time. Elements of the surreal or magical occur with high frequency in international fiction.”

Neulieb has faith in readers:

“I think that the work we and many other small presses have done to build a readership for not-wholly-realist writing has paved the way for more translations of such works. Personally, I have a ton of love for the Latin American magical realist tradition, and I always have it in the back of my mind as I’m building my list. How can I create more space in my own language for that kind of magic?”

Cordasco is also hopeful, and praises magazines like Clarkesworld, Future: Science Fiction Digest, and Samovar for offering translators fair payment, which should encourage more translated submissions:

“It’s great to see publishers like Luna Press, Rosarium, Restless Books, Angry Robot, Apex, Twisted Spoon, and others bringing out exciting SFT over the past few years. And though the two major publishers of Japanese SFT (not including manga and light novels) have closed this past year, hopefully others will spring up to fill the void.”

Based on experience, however, I can add that, while US-based publishers and editors will accept translations, they might not understand how overseas payments work. I’ve also had to explain that translators often hold the copyright to the translation and must grant permission for its use, and that they should be credited in the same way as the original author. Still, editors seem happy to learn.

Cordasco remains optimistic:

“In terms of future interest in SFT, those of us who read, translate, and review it should continue doing so and writing about it whenever we can. We should propose these books for our libraries and suggest panels at conventions. We can add SFT to little free libraries and recommend these books to our friends. Eventually, more people will see the richness that SFT offers and become obsessed like we are!”

Neulieb has hopes, too:

“I look forward to seeing a more globally interconnected literary world. Variety of perspectives is one of the greatest gifts fiction has to offer. Taking the time to read a book in translation means seeing life for a while through the eyes of someone immersed in a culture, landscape, language, and history different from your own; that kind of seeing builds empathy like nothing else. It’s a fundamental part of the straying across boundaries that Lanternfish Press strives for.”

I share their enthusiasm, and so do my Spanish friends Cristina Jurado and Sofia Rhei, whose writing I’ve also had the pleasure to translate. We’re working on a project, Todos los demás planetas [All the Rest of the Planets]. We’ve put out a call for speculative fiction stories whose theme and language explore and move beyond binary gender roles in a creative, non-conforming way. Some of those stories will be chosen for publication in the Spanish magazine SuperSonic, and we’ll choose one for me to translate into English.

Then we’ll shop it around to try to bring English-language readers a boundary-crossing story that comes from elsewhere in the future.