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Worlds without Borders

The First Horn by Richard Schwartz.  Last Year Was Probably a Good Year by Yamamoto Hiroshi.  And Despite All… by Juan De Dios Garduño.  Have you read any of these?  They're all best-selling, award-winning works of speculative fiction.  They're all written by well-established authors writing at the top of their game.  But... I'll bet you haven't read them.  How am I so certain?  Because none of them were written in or translated into English.*

SF readers, perhaps even more than readers of general fiction, are eager for stories of other worlds and other cultures.  America is a country of immigrants.  Why, then, do we read so little from beyond our borders?   By best estimate, less than 3% of all new titles published in the United States annually are translations (and that number is for all new titles, not just fiction).  It's not for lack of material-- speculative fiction does a thriving business all over the world.  There are dozens and dozens of societies devoted to locally-grown horror, fantasy, and science fiction literature in Japan, France, the Netherlands, Italy, Spain, Finland, India, Germany, Poland, Israel, Romania... the list goes on. 

It's certainly not lack of quality.  Some of America's favorite classic SF authors wrote in a different language: Jules Verne (French), Stanislaw Lem (Polish), Jorge Luis Borges (Argentinian).  Look at the roots of English-language fantasy-- J. R. R. Tolkien's works were drawn straight from Germanic and Scandinavian legends.  And while we're on the subject of inspiration, how about those fairy tales we grew up on?  The Brothers Grimm? German.  Cinderella? French.  Hans Christian Andersen? Danish.  The classical myths, with all of those amazing monsters-- the kraken, the hydra, Medusa, Cerberus? Greek. 

So, what keeps us from reading foreign SF?  Are Americans really that insular?  Of course not.  Japanese manga packs the shelves of our teen room, and we devour British SF, trainers and all.  The real stumbling block is language.  It takes time and money to acquire the foreign rights to a title and get it translated, and publishers are loathe to gamble that money away on anything less than a sure bet.**.  An editor who can't read a book is highly unlikely to acquire it, although some editors will rely on the recommendations of trusted colleagues when they can't judge a book's appeal themselves.  The countries which produce SF primarily in English-- Canada and Britain, Australia and New Zealand-- see more material imported into the United States simply because editors can read and decide for themselves if their books will fit their market's demand.   In countries like South Africa, Finland, India, and Japan, native SF authors sometimes choose to write in English or do their own translations, because it will secure them a better market abroad.

Given all the roadblocks to books in translation I suppose we're lucky to have that 3%, but that still leaves us with a wealth of fantastic material beyond our reach.  So what can you, the hungry reader, do about it?  Well... you could take up xenobiology and figure out how to genetically engineer the Babel fish.  (Wildly improbable, I know... and besides, you'd have to stick to audiobooks.)  You could learn another language, which would expand your reading options.  (I know this option will sound nearly as improbable as the Babel fish to some people, but learning a language is extremely rewarding and has all kinds of side benefits.)  If you already have another language under your belt, you can find recommendations for (mostly untranslated) award-winning foreign SF in the SF Award Watch Foreign Language archive

But if you're looking for a simple, easily achievable response... just read more diversely.  Actively seek out speculative fiction from beyond our borders.  By reading their work and recommending it to others, you support the many small presses that take a gamble on foreign SF.  (If you need more recommendations than those I offer here, you might try the newly established Science Fiction & Fantasy Translation Awards.)  If you're eager to explore distant realms and worlds through your reading, why not start by getting to know the diversity of our own?

International SF:
(There are plenty of amazing British, Australian, and Canadian authors out there, but for this list I've tried to concentrate on countries where English is not the primary language.)

Dark Matter by S. W. Ahmed (SF Ahmed)
Zoo City by Lauren Beukes (Pbk-Fantasy Beukes)
Labyrinths: Selected Stories & Other Writings by Jorge Luis Borges (Fiction Borges)
Planet of the Apes by Pierre Boulle (Fiction Boulle)
Angel Maker by Stefan Brijs (Horror Brijs)
The Castle of Crossed Destinies by Italo Calvino (Fantasy Calvino)
Nine Fairy Tales by Karel Capek: And One More Thrown in for Good Measure by Karel Capek (Fiction Capek)
The Blood Countess by Andrei Codrescu (Horror Codrescu)
Cosmos, Incorporated by Maurce G. Dantec (SF Dantec)
Mistress of Spices by Chitra Bannerjee Divakaruni (Fiction Divakaruni)
The Voyage of the Short Serpent by Bernard Du Boucheron (Fiction Du Boucheron)
Youth without Youth and Other Novellas by Mircea Eliade (Fiction Eliade)
The Neverending Story by Michael Ende (Fantasy Ende)
The Stranger by Max Frei (Fantasy Frei)
The World Treasury of Science Fiction by David G. Hartwell, ed. (SF World)
Harmony by Project Itoh (YA Itoh)
The Ghost Rider by Ismail Kadare (Fiction Kadare)
Wicked City: Black Guard by Hideyuki Kikuchi (Horror Kikuchi)
A Dybbuk and Other Tales of the Supernatural by Tony Kushner, ed. (839.108 Kus)
Solaris by Stanislaw Lem (SF Lem)
Worlds Apart: An Anthology of Russian Fantasy and Science Fiction by Alex Levitzky, ed. (SF Worlds)
Let Me In by John Ajvide Lindqvist (Horror Lindqvist)
Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord (Fantasy Lord)
Nightwatch by Sergei Lukyanenko (Fantasy Lukyanenko)
The Dragon and the Stars by Derwin Mak & Eric Choi, eds. (SF Dragon)
Season of the Witch by Natasha Mostert (Horror Mostert)
Usurper of the Sun by Housuke Nojiri (SF Nojiri)
The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht (Fiction Obreht)
Zoo by Otsuichi (Horror Otsuichi)
Map of Time by Felix J. Palma (Express SF Palma)
Shadow Prowler by Alexey Pehov (Pbk-Fantasy Pehov)
Dead Mann Walking by Stefan Petrucha (Pbk-Fantasy Petrucha)
There Once Lived A Woman who Tried To Kill Her Neighbor's Baby by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya
    (Horror Petrushevskaya)
The Cardinal's Blades by Pierre Pevel (Fantasy Pevel)
The Chosen by Ricardo Pinto (Fantasy Pinto)
Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi (SF Rajaniemi)
The Angel's Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon (Fiction Ruiz Zafon)
Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie (Fiction Rushdie)
The Swarm by Frank Schatzing (Fiction Schatzing)
Secret History of Moscow by Ekaterina Sedia (Fantasy Sedia)
Of Bees & Mist by Erick Setiawan (Fantasy Setiawan)
Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Suskind (Fiction Suskind)
Ring by Koji Suzuki (Horror Suzuki)
People of the Book by Rachel Swirsky & Sean Wallace, eds. (SF People)
    (contains stories by Theodora Goss, Elana Gomel, and Lavie Tidhar)
The Bookman by Lavie Tidhar (Pbk-SF Tidhar)
The Strain by Guillermo del Toro (Express Horror Del Toro)
Cage of Zeus by Sayuri Ueda (Express SF Ueda)
20,000 Leagues under the Sea by Jules Verne (SF Verne)
We by Yevgeny Zamyatin (SF Zamyatin)
The Fourth Circle by Zuran Zivkovic (SF Zivkovic)

 

 

 

 

 

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* I listed the English translations of those titles, by the way.  In case you'd like to look for them in the original, they are: Das Erste Horn by Richard Schwartz; Kyonen wa Ii Toshi ni Narudarou by Yamamoto Hiroshi; and Y Pese a Todo... by Juan De Dios Garduño.  (And no, I haven't read them, either.)  (back to the text)

 

 

** If you'd like to know more about the translation gap in U.S. publishing, there was a really good article written on the subject a couple of years ago: The Translation Gap: Why More Foreign Writers Aren't Published in America (back to the text)

 

Babel fish: What, you haven't read Douglas Adams' _Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy_ yet?  Oh, you must!  (No, really.  Go ahead, I'll wait.)  But if you're in a hurry, here's the important bit about the Babel fish. (back to the text)

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