Monday, November 9, 2015

Sci-fi novels from overseas find it to be a hard landing in U.S. and UK publishing circles

Sci-fi novels from overseas
find hard landing in U.S.

by Dan Bloom

Translating Foreign-language Sci-fi Novels Into English Not Routine In Britain or America
Sci-fi novelists in non-English languages find it hard to find
publishers in London, New York

When it comes to translating science fiction novels from France, Japan or other non-English speaking nations, the U.S. publishing industry has a rather dismal track record. Yes, Tor Books published in 2014 a popular sci-fi novel from communist China by Cixin Liu, titled "The Three-Body Problem," and not only did it win over readers in translation by the Chinese-American sci-fi writer Ken Lui, the novel also won the "Best Sci-Fi Novel" prize at the 2015 Hugo Awards in America. 
Liu's high-profile Hugo award is a good sign for future translations of non-English language sci-fi. In addition, Amazon has recently announced that it intends to pour more money into its own translations of fiction and nonfiction books from foreign countries, with a reported pot of $1 million to get the project rolling.

But the U.S. publishing industry is still not translating many sci0fi novels from overseas, and to get some background on this issue, I turned to David Brin, the well-known sci-fi novelist.

Brin told me why getting sci-fi novels from other countries translated into English is still a problem.

​"The main problem is that the English-language market is self-sufficient," he told me. "American editors are not prejudiced against foreign-sourced work, but few of them can read in a foreign language. As a result, they can only evaluate a sci-fi work from France, or anywhere else, after it has been translated, even a chapter or two [to get a feel for the book.]"

"So someone has to do some initial translation work on spec, most probably unpaid, as Ken Liu did with the first few chapters of his translation of the 'The Three Body Problem.' That is the only way it can be done," Brin added.

According to publishing sources in New York, the translation of Cixin Liu's ''The Three Body Problem'' has been selling very well in North America.  Brin said that Liu's novel had advantage of a fine translator -- Ken Liu (no relation) -- and also had some important people championing and speaking up for the book even before publication. Brin was one of them, he told me. 
When I asked why the Chinese sci-ci novel found success in America, Brin said the book had literary and entertainment traits that the Tor editors wanted and believed would sell books in an U.S. market. 
"The key [to getting foreign sci-fi novels translated and published in English] remains to get good, high-quality translations," Brin said.   ''And most publishers, with thin profit margins, will seldom commission a translation or pay for it with an advance because they are already flooded with so many submissions in English."

problem is cultural
​, Brin said​
​What works with readers with a sci-fi novel in France or Japan, might not work as well among America readers.

I don
t mean this to
​ for sci-fi authors overseas who want to break into the North American market," Brin said.​
simply that
​while ​
editors have no inherent bias against foreign
​sci-fi novels
​these American editors
are not linguists. They must see
​English-language ​
translation in front of them
and then they must feel entertained
​ by the novel, too."​

​​According to Terry Harpold, an English professor at University of Florida in Gainesville, hope is on the horizon for more foreign-language sci-fi books entering the market here. 

"The Anglo-American-centrism of sci-fi reading tastes -- in terms of the original language of the novel, but also in tems of the cultural sensibility of the work -- is loosening up," Harpold told me. "But it will take time. ​"

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