I was recently at Fantasticon, which is an annual Danish convention held in Denmark, and the conversations I had over there were mostly about language and the use of language. These are inevitable conversations in countries where the need for and the use of translations is a very current thing.
In an article from 2007, Janus Andersen provides an overview of science fiction in Denmark from 2004 to 2007, which is not merely a listing of names and titles, but also gives us an idea of what Danish science fiction writers face.
With regards to the current state of Danish science fiction, Danish writer Jesper Rugård Jensen says that, as printing costs have gotten cheaper, it’s become easier to publish anthologies and books. But while the Danish talk about a golden age for Danish SF, a great deal of Danish work remains untranslated into English. Unless one makes the choice to study Danish, it’s difficult to grasp the full range of voices and the current state of speculative and science fiction. (Instead of reading it for myself, I have to rely on what’s said about it.)
This difficulty of language is one that’s shared by writers in Sweden. A lot of fantastic work is being written, and while there is a bit of exchange when it comes to Denmark and Sweden, the rest of the world only gets to read what’s been translated into Lingua Franca.
Listening to Danish fans and writers and listening to what Swedish writers like Karin Tidbeck have to say, I can’t help but think about where our struggles intersect—not just when it comes to making voices visible, but also when it comes to growing a richer and more mature field of science fiction in our respective countries.
For the smaller non-Anglophone countries in the EU, one of the problems of the moment arises from the way in which science fiction and fantasy are considered children’s literature. “Many people here look at you strangely if you’re an adult who loves science fiction and fantasy. They will watch Game of Thrones but they won’t say it’s fantasy,” Jesper says.
The challenge for Scandinavian writers is a double-edged one. Not only is there a lack of visibility to the world of English-language readers, there is also a lack of acknowledgment and visibility in their home countries.
Despite these challenges, the science fiction communities in these countries have proven to be quite hardy ones. And I can’t help but admire the determination and the optimism that continues to keep writers writing and fans reading.
But it’s not like there isn’t anything available to read in English.
In fact, Science Fiction Cirklen has produced the anthology Sky City, which is composed of short stories by Danish authors that have been translated into English by the writers themselves. There is also the anthology Creatures of Glass and Light, which bundles together translated stories from non-Anglophone countries in the EU. And then there is Science Fiction, the Danish fanzine edited by Knud Larn, which contains stories from Danish writers as well as from Anglophone writers.
Some writers who have more time or are more fluent in English also volunteer to translate the work of writers who cannot translate their own work.
“It takes a lot of time,” Danish author Lars Ahn says. “And it takes more work to translate the work of another author because you have to remain true to what that author is trying to tell.”
Richard Ipsen says that translating the work from Danish into English is like writing a completely new story.
And Danish writer Majbrit Hoeyrup speaks of how each word that she writes in Danish carries a certain weight with it. “There is a history behind the word,” she says. “I remember when I first used it or in what context I encountered it. Somehow, it changes once it’s been translated.”
Majbrit says that she once tried to have her work translated into English. “But it was completely different,” she says. “It was literally correct, but something had been lost. I think what it means is that I should try to translate my own work into English.”
English writer Kari Sperring says that translation carries social and political ramifications with it. And I think that this is true not just of translation but also of use of language—how we choose to use it, when we choose to use it, why we choose to use it.
I had to think yet again of the relationship between language and story, the relationship between language and writer, and the relationship between language and reader. As readers and writers, we are keenly aware of the power of the written word. How words written in certain ways can trigger a certain response.
As we talked about translations and what our respective mother tongues mean to us, I found myself thinking of the resistance to the use of non-English languages or dialects in the stories that we read. If a translator can’t find the meaning for a word that expresses the full meaning of something like, say, hyggeligt, why not just keep that word in the text and let the reader go on a journey of exploration or take the meaning of that word from context?
In an interview that I held with Karin Tidbeck, she talks about how concepts and stories work differently depending on language. That certain words taste and sound differently in English when compared to Swedish. Karin talks as well about the cultural shorthand and the process of translation.
As a writer, I can’t help but think of how stories change when we make use of the mother tongue. It also makes me wonder how the reading experience is affected when the writer makes that choice not to translate but instead to break the English text’s immersive motion.
I find myself pondering, too, to what extent our tolerance for untranslated foreign languages or dialects in English work is related to the perceived place occupied by that language in the wider world.
I once posed the question with regards to making use of languages not English in my work. One of the respondents said that it was okay but I would need to include a glossary. Another said that it would be necessary to indicate or imply meaning by usage. There were more who said, just go ahead and do it.
But use of non-English in literary and science fiction work is nothing new. During my first evening in Copenhagen, I found myself discussing A Clockwork Orange with Lars and Jesper and the extensive use of Russian in the text.
“But how did you experience it?” I asked. “How did this use of unexplained and unglossarized words affect you as a reader?”
“It was difficult,” Jesper said. “It was a very strange experience.”
I can’t help but think of how writers use language in order to shape and create an experience for the reader. And as a writer who makes use of a borrowed language, as a person engaged in decolonial work, I find myself thinking of how the work changes as I come to understand these kinds of connections.
I think about the power of words. Of the intimacy or distance that can be created with words. I also think about letters and the history of codes hidden in stories written by those in the resistance. I think of how writing our mother tongues into our stories is very much like code writing. It could also be seen as acts of resistance towards language hegemony.