At the conventions I attended this year, the conversations that I had with writers, editors, and publishers would inevitably come around to the subject of translations and language use. (I confess that this is also partly because I am something of a language geek and can’t help talking about language.)
That the conversation around translations is one that is vital and welcomed, was made clear to me by the reception to the discussion as well as the outright statements given by publishers on their desire to see more translated work.
At Loncon3, I was introduced to Toni Jerrman, who is the editor of the Finnish magazine Tähtivaeltaja. (Here’s an interview with Toni, which says more about him than I possibly could.) What Toni had to say about the importance of language and the use of language resonated very clearly with me. It had me thinking on how translation does more than bring us original work for consumption and pleasure.
Because the center of power still lies in the English-speaking world, some writers are making the choice to leave behind writing in their mother tongues in order to write and publish in English. The reasoning behind this is complicated and completely understandable.
One is the prestige that being published in English brings to the non-Anglo author. Another is the cost of translations being too high. Yet another reason is the fact that the time and energy invested in translation of one’s own work is time and energy taken away from the creation of new work.
During our conversation, Toni Jerrman spoke of the danger we face when we choose to write, converse, and engage with literature in a homogenous language.
“There is a danger,” Toni said, “that work becomes homogenous, because language is connected to thought process and to culture. Translation is vital because it helps keep that process intact.”
Translation then takes on a deeper meaning for me, as I look at how it works not only to help bring non-Anglophone to a broader audience.
How much does translation contribute to the preservation of language? How much does it help keep living cultures and individual cultures alive?
It becomes clear to me that translation plays a greater role when we talk about inclusivity and diversity, not only in the field, but in the wider world as well.
But what about us? What about those of us who are descendants of colonized nations, who have lost the ability to write fluently or skillfully in their mother tongues? What about those of us on whom the English language has been imposed?
During a panel at Loncon3, I spoke of how I see the field of science fiction as one that is filled with possibilities. That if there is a place where we can carry out work that challenges and disrupts the status quo it is in this field.
Already, readers accept languages that aren’t the lingua franca. The fact that science fiction readers are used to reading Klingon, Elvish, and other invented languages means that the field is receptive to the use of languages that aren’t English.
There is also a growing number of readers who see the value of putting other languages on equal footing with the English in a text.
I do find myself wanting to take the concept of language use one step further.
At this year’s Nine Worlds, I was on a panel on fairytales and myths that strove to find the answer to the question of the relevance of myths and fairytales to storytelling today.
Coming from intensive reading of indigenous work and indigenous myth, I was completely unprepared to think about fairytales and myths that were popular in Western culture.
It was perhaps one of the most surreal experiences I’ve had on a panel, as I found myself unable to make the switch from thinking in my lived culture to the culture of the predominant West. While I knew of Red Riding Hood and Snow White and Cinderella, while I am aware of vampire myths and werewolf legends, at that particular moment all of these sounded like strange tales from a different planet.
How to find common ground between these stories and the stories that I had been immersed in? How to translate the stories of Bugan and Wigan, and Malakas and Maganda into English, which suddenly felt clumsy on my tongue?
Is there indeed a commonality in themes? How much do we really have in common when we talk about lived experience and lived culture? How could I express how reading myths and tales from indigenous culture has helped me in my decolonization journey? At that moment, English felt very distant to me, and the task of finding words to reduce this experience into a number of pithy sentences felt impossible.
So how then to write in the mother tongue, when the writing brain is already used to writing in English? What language do you use when the intuitive language of your childhood hovers just beyond your grasp? How do you create a narrative that feels closer and more intimate and also at once accessible?
Junot Díaz provided us with a glimpse at the answer with his quote on the inclusion of Spanish in English texts, but I find myself wondering if it’s possible to push that a little further.
At Nine Worlds, I purchased a copy of Zen Cho’s beautiful collection entitled Spirits Abroad, published by the Malaysian press Buku Fixi. I was struck by the publisher’s manifesto, which appears on the back of the flyleaf. In this manifesto, the publisher states:
We will not use italics for non-American/non-English terms.
The publisher then goes on to say: “Nasi lemak and kongkek are some of the pleasures of Malaysian life that should be celebrated without apology; italics are a form of apology.”
Reading this and considering italics as a form of apology, I find myself thinking of writers coming from countries that have endured colonization, from countries where English is an imposed tongue. I find myself asking: do we really need to explain everything to the imagined Western reader? I think of italics, apologies and explanations, and the connecting line between these words.
If we have read and consumed work from writers from the West without complaint, if we have gone that extra step to fully engage with that work, surely we can trust that those who seek out our stories will also take that extra step to meet us halfway.
I suppose some will think me naïve, but this choice to trust in those who choose to read and engage with the work is also an act of resistance.