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On The Net

by James Patrick Kelly


SF set in space is a literature of speculative gizmos, some more likely than others. We writers love to deploy faster-than-light drives in their many incarnations, despite their patent impossibility. Our more realistic starships often come equipped with force fields, ray guns, and cold sleep pods for hibernating astronauts. Given vigorous handwaving, none of these inventions need threaten our readers’ suspension of disbelief. One common tool in the kit of our interstellar explorers is the universal translator Some versions are powered by a hyper-AI that can pick up alien languages on the fly—particularly handy in first contact stories. Given recent strides in machine translation, maybe the universal translator isn’t so farfetched.

Not so fast, space cadet.

The notion of machine translation goes back at least as far as the start of the twentieth century. In its entry on the subject, the Science Fiction Encyclopedia reminds us that in 1911 a “Language Rectifier” appeared in Hugo Gernsback’s execrable novel Ralph 124C 41+ More recent examples of SF machine translation appear in 4 Sci-Fi Universal Translators (And 1 Possibly Real One), which mentions Doctor Who, Star Trek, Star Wars, and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The “possibly real” tech shows a video of two people in translated conversation using prototype Pixel Buds and some iteration of Google Translate As impressive as it is, the conversation is pretty simple and more than a little awkward, with a translation lag about the same as talking to astronauts on the Moon. Not exactly the technology to settle an argument!

While machine translation is an important tool, some science fiction writers have reminded us of the many challenges we’ll face when we talk to our galactic neighbors. Depending on how alien the aliens we discover, humans will have to be involved in any first contact chat. I’m thinking in particular of Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life”, which was adapted into the marvelous film Arrival Both versions argue—as do many linguists—that our perception of reality depends on the language we use to describe it. This raises the stakes for translation beyond the ability of mere algorithms to convey deep meaning, especially when we’re interpreting for people from other planets.

The failings of machine translation become particularly obvious when we look at translating fscience iction. Native English speakers have the privilege of writing to vibrant markets that are seen in other countries as the gold standard of the genre. It’s easier for me to be published in Italy than for an Italian writer to break into print here. Only 3 percent of all books published in the United States are works in translation, and only a fraction of this fraction get any publicity. Why? Because their stories must be translated, of course—and translated well. Machine translation doesn’t cut it, and the skills of professional translators come at a cost. In effect, foreign language SF is subject to a kind of “translation tax” before it can compete with our domestic product. Since this is not only an injustice but our loss as readers, I’ve asked a couple of friends who work in translation to explain its rewards and challenges.

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Sue Burke

Sue Burke is a novelist and translator whose short fiction has appeared often in these pages and whose debut novel Semiosis was a finalist for multiple awards. She holds advanced diplomas in translation from the Chartered Institute of Linguists Educational Trust and in Spanish from the Instituto Cervantes

Is it possible to earn a living as a translator of science fiction?

Like any freelancer you should add up your expenses and figure out how many hours you can reasonably work if you’re working full time, and then you do some division and come up with your hourly rate. And then there’s what the market will bear. If you were doing translations of medical or legal records, you could get fifty dollars an hour, which would be a pretty good income. Literary translations don’t pay so well, but they’re the Holy Grail where you can really use your skills and your creativity. Because if you spend all day translating insurance contracts it’s kind of dull, but translating the novel is cool.

Are most translators accredited?

No, I don’t think so. It’s a field in which anyone can start in, the way that anyone can say “Yeah, I can write.” Some of them can and some of them can’t. You see fans doing things fast and dirty and that’s better than nothing.

Do you need to be a published writer to be a translator?

You can only be as good a translator as you are a writer. If you really don’t have the skills to put together a beautiful sentence, you will not be a good translator. You don’t have to be a fiction writer to be a translator, but you have to be a good writer.

With all the advances in Computer Assisted Translation, why not have Google Translate do a rough draft and then polish?

People think they can do that. But if someone came to me with that kind of draft, I would throw away the Google Translate and start over. The problem is that Google Translate is too literal. DeepL is much better and very good at contracts. But for literature, it’s just not creative enough. I wouldn’t use it because you wouldn’t get beautiful English out of it. Serviceable English, maybe, but it’s not going to get the music. And the English market is so competitive that if the prose is not on, it’s not going to work. You get the translation you pay for!

What about AI translation in the future?

Literature is so hard in the same way that fine art is so hard. Software can come up with some interesting things, but it can’t do something creative, it can’t make something new. So I’m not too worried about my specialty. Look, I have fired some of my clients. I had one guy who spoke English reasonably well, but not as good as he thought. He kept wanting to translate his piece into what he believed was good English. For example, he had a sentence in the original Spanish that literally translated into “There is rain in the street” which is something you would say in Spanish. But he didn’t like it when I translated it as “It was raining outside.” He said he himself would say “there is rain in the street,” in English. So I fired him because I’m not going to put my name on something that was so badly translated.

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Francesco Verso

Francesco Verso is an Italian writer and editor. His novels have twice won the Urania Award, and last year his collection Futurespotting won the Best Written Work of Fiction award given by the European Science Fiction Society He is the force behind Future Fiction, a multicultural project, scouting and publishing the best SF in translation from ten languages and more than twenty countries. In 2019 it won the ESFS’s Best Publisher Award.

How many translators do you have working with Future Fiction?

I started with three or four from English into Chinese, who could also translate into French and Spanish. Now we have around twenty—some doing two or three projects a year and some come and go.

You are always scouting for new writers in new languages. How do you find translators?

It’s about networking. The big languages like Spanish, French, or even Chinese are very simple. But I had some problems finding translators in Turkish and Polish—a big problem in Romanian, so I asked people I knew. There are networks of translators and they keep in touch with blogs or forums, so someone might tell me about a friend who translates the language I need.

How do you know if you are getting a good translation?

Again, it’s word of mouth. I ask for samples, but it’s a matter of trust. It’s a bet, a risk, but there’s a cultural loss of not having a translation from a marginalized language like Romanian—and I would say marginalized just because it’s spoken by fewer people, not because its less relevant. Every new translation compensates for that cultural loss. Maybe the translation isn’t exceptional, but because I make visible what is invisible, I’m willing to pay the price of not having the perfect translation. What is the perfect translation anyway? How many books written in their original language are perfect themselves? So I’m willing to invest in discovering stories that would otherwise not be heard.

You’ve had your work translated from Italian into English, a language that you speak fluently. How does it feel to read someone else’s translation of your work?

It’s strange, of course, because the work of translation is rewriting. Completely. From scratch. It is an art to capture the original intention or the original flavor. Of course you get the sense, you get the plot, you get the story. People talk about what is lost in translation, but I think more is found in translation. In my experience, it’s really a discovery. It’s like having another editor in another language who can dig into the original text—an invaluable experience for a writer. It’s difficult to match the two frequencies. I have an original frequency and I don’t know if it can be replicated. Sometimes there are differences, but that doesn’t mean it’s good or bad.

Is it better to have a translator who is also a published writer?

Whatever I say here I will break some eggs! Eighty or a hundred years ago, there wasn’t work for professional translators. Writers were translating other writers. Edgar Allen Poe and Baudelaire, right? The publishing industry developed an intermediary that could just do translations for a growing market that wanted more books. The growth of the industry created this specialized work. From this point of view I would say it’s not necessary for a translator to be a writer because they really go to schools to study the art of translation. But as the industry grew, the quality suffered because it became important to publish more and more books—the long tail. Some translators don’t care as much about what they do as how many words they can translate in a single day! But it’s not a matter of writers or translators but how much time they can dedicate to the work. And how much they are paid. We will need both.

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Sue and Francesco are just two of many, many professionals in our genre who believe that we will be better off for having access to stories from around the world. I might also have mentioned writer and superstar translator Ken Liu and Hugo-award winning editor Neil Clarke, colleagues who are making a difference in the cause of global literary diversity. If science fiction is truly about the future, we need to be reading all the writers who are taking us there.

Copyright © 2023 James Patrick Kelly

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