The Music in Foreign Words

In Article on September 14, 2012 at 11:45 pm

Dear ISF readers we are proud to present to you a text by Thomas Olde Heuvelt about Chicon7, the 70th annual Worldcon in Chicago and also about international authors, international speculative fiction and more…

Read it, it is great!

The Music in Foreign Words 

By Thomas Olde Heuvelt

Last week I attended Chicon7, the 70th annual Worldcon in Chicago, USA. Yeah, it had George R. R. Martin and Neil Gaiman, and it had the online scanning robots accidentally cutting off the live stream of the HUGO Award Ceremony just before Neil and George started to speak, causing a huge online rage that even made it to CNN… although I thought it was kind of fitting for an SF-convention to have a man versus machine battle topping it off. But that’s not what I want to talk about.

In between all the parties and networking, I was in a panel called “Making a More Universal Worldcon”, together with Chinese author Qiufan Chen (or Stanley Chen, as his Anglophone name sounds), Brazilian-US author Christopher Kastensmidt, and US Fan Kerri-Ellen Kelly, moderated by Sri Lankan-US author and editor Mary Anne Mohanraj. Coming from The Netherlands, I proudly represented Europe.

Breaking into the English-language market for us ‘foreign’ authors is a long-term and delicate process. In an era of globalization and cultural awareness US and UK publishers and authors are in fact broadening their horizons. China Miéville recently pleaded in his speech at the 2012 Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference for the market to open up to fiction from all over the world. I’ve been going to UK Cons for a while and the publishers and agents all state the same: we very much like to read stuff from abroad, but you have to cope with our disability: we can’t speak your language.

Yup. We Dutch kids learn four or five languages at school. You guys from overseas are good at many things, but not in other languages. (One relief: the French are just as bad). It’s a simple given, and we have to deal with that.

We do. An example: a couple of years ago, my story “The Boy Who Cast No Shadow” won the €750 Paul Harland Award for best Dutch story of the fantastic. As I think translating your own work is generally a bad idea, I contacted a professional translator. Professional translation is expensive: 14 to 16 cents a word. Do the math. I put on a cute smile and the translator bargained me for €1000 euros. I bought a cheap Easyjet ticket to London and paid my convention membership plus hotel. Then I met Pete Crowther, who fell in love with the story, and bought international rights for PS Publishing for about €350. Adding up after all expenses, the story made a profit of exactly FIVE euro’s. But I had to fly like cattle and could *not* afford a burger at Gatwick Airport.

No complaints there… just to show you how hard it is. The reward is not in money. I made my first international sale and “The Boy Who Cast No Shadow” was nominated for the Science Fiction & Fantasy Translation Awards, administered by the Association for the Recognition of Excellence in SF & F Translation. I didn’t win the award, though. I got second. Qiufan’s story “The Fish of Lijiang” did.

(Yeah, there was a lot of kicking and stabbing under the panel table… that’s what you get with cultures colliding. Kidding – his story is truly amazing and the award is well-deserved. You can find both stories online.)

So how do we get around the trouble of translation? Mary Anne told us that she runs the South Asian Literature Organization. Occasionally she’s asked by writers who write Bengali or Tamil, if they can read at their poetry reading series. Mary Anne tried it out as an experiment to facilitate foreign language literature, and although no one in the audience could understand a word they were saying, the Bengali or Tamil poet read for five minutes. I asked if it didn’t come across as Vogon poetry without having a Babel Fish in your ear. But Mary Anne said it was like listening to music, and the audience loved it.

So Qiufan started reading from his story… in Chinese. And we all felt what Mary Ann had meant. Although no one in the audience understood a word Qiufan was saying, we all heard the music of his words.

There you have it. I guess we can’t get around the troubles of translation, and as money is sparse, that first responsibility is up to us, the international authors. But the world has many magical stories to tell, and how great would it be if we can share them with one another across the globe?

 Please read Thomas short story “The Boy who Cast No Shadow” at PS Publishing site: http://www.pspublishing.co.uk/the-boy-who-cast-no-shadow-etale-by-thomas-olde-heuvelt-1153-p.asp

 About the author:

Born in 1983, Thomas Olde Heuvelt is the much praised Dutch author of four novels and many stories of the fantastic. His work contains elements of magic-realism, fantasy, horror and humour, and he is well-known in Holland for evoking strong emotional responses in readers either laughter, crying, or terrible outbursts of violence. BBC Radio called Thomas (they couldn’t pronounce his last name) “One of Europe’s foremost talents in fantastic literature.”

His story The Boy Who Cast No Shadow won the prestigious Paul Harland Award for best Dutch story of the Fantastic in 2010. Olde Heuvelt tells that he wrote it in a four-day rush in between two chapters of a novel which was giving him uncontrollable screaming fits at the time. “To me,” he adds, “it’s a story about being different and coming to terms with the fact that that ain’t such a bad thing. With this story I humbly paid homage to Joe Hill’s Pop Art, which I think is the best short story of the 21st Century.” It was published by PS Publishing in PostScipts 26/27 and received an Honorable Mention in the Science Fiction & Fantasy Translation Awards.

Currently, Thomas is working on both the Dutch and English version of his fifth novel HEX, which will be out in April 2013 with Luitingh Sijthoff in The Netherlands.


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