Today is a reflection about the writing world, so if that isn’t the kind of thing that interests you, you can always read about parties.
Still here? Cool. Let’s talk about the current glut of translations hitting the market. I will focus on the science fiction and fantasy worlds for this particular post, because that’s the world I know best, but I see similar trends elsewhere.
The English-language market has traditionally been the largest market on the planet (although I suspect that the Chinese market might have surpassed it), and the great works from many literatures are usually easy to find. In fact, it’s often the case that the best translation for those unable to read the original is the English.
The reason for that, intuitively, is that the competition for a slice of the market is so fierce that only the best of several translations survives. This is good for readers and also forces translators to up their game.
This isn’t always true, however. The science fiction classic Solaris sat in bad-translation limbo for decades because the bad English translation came from what was reputedly a bad French one as opposed to having come from the original Polish. So it doesn’t always work perfectly.
In general, though, English readers had the best of both worlds. The very best foreign fiction was published in what often were the best translations.
The downside was that second-level foreign work usually didn’t make it, and short fiction was pretty much ignored by the translators (even though a lot is available, there is a LOT more that isn’t).
But social and academic trends change and, for whatever reason, it is now considered wrong that English-speaking authors have an advantage… and translations have become trendy, whether novels or short stories.
This is a mixed blessing. On one side, there are some wonderful books available to English-speaking audiences that would probably never have been translated in other days. It’s probably even more notable on the short fiction side. A good example is American Monsters, which we discussed here a few weeks ago.
But there’s a downside. What we said for the translation side of things, also goes for the writing side. The English-language market is much more competitive than any other market on the planet. There are more writers competing for fewer publishing slots than anywhere else.
The reason for this is simple: the English market’s huge audience means that writers get PAID for their work. That seems like an obvious thing, but sadly, it’s very much isn’t.
I get together once a month (when pandemics don’t intervene) with the local Argentine SFF writing community. There are some very good writers and editors there, but the only one who gets paid to write is me. And that’s because my writing is good enough to break into the US and British markets.
In Argentina the dynamic is different. Publishers see the writers as either providers of free content (in the best of cases) or as investors in the printing process. This is often done with the best of intentions, and often art is the first priority, but the dynamic drives away all but the truly obsessed, creating art for art’s sake. Only bestsellers and celebrities make even pin money from their writing.
This situation is extended to most of Latin America, and I know that most worldwide SF publications don’t pay, so I’d assume it can be extrapolated to a certain degree everywhere.
The competition in those places is naturally less. Therefore, the quality is also proportionally less.
That doesn’t mean that there aren’t geniuses writing in every language on Earth, but I would definitely say that the second-level stuff wouldn’t be good enough to make any impression at all in the English-language marketplace.
Unfortunately, it’s often second-level stuff that’s now the bulk of what’s being published in the translation fad. Perhaps talented writers, but ones that would need to hone their craft in the crucible of the most competitive market before they can earn their place.
This situation is making the life of English-language writers a little difficult. I’m lucky enough that I’ve been selling steadily, both on the novel and the short fiction fronts (perhaps because I’ve been in the market long enough that readers know my name – ironically, having a weird name makes name recognition easier), but many are finding this new market reality impossible. They are being forced to the sidelines by work that would normally be rejected… just because it’s translated.
I think a lot of writers just entering the market will be turned off by this… and we’ll lose them, possibly even some major talents. Of course, we’ll also get a taste of translated work, so it should even out for readers.
In the future, I think the market will sort itself out. I think the upper level translations are here to stay, but the foreign-language writers on the second tier will either need to up their game or find that these automatic acceptances are no longer the case. Fashions do not last forever, and the English-language market is a strict meritocracy: you need to impress both editors (to make the cut) and readers (to ever make the cut again). A lot of the translated stuff from the past couple of years won’t meet this litmus test, and will gradually disappear.
But what remains will make the genre stronger, so I say welcome aboard.
Gustavo Bondoni’s well-received science fiction novel Siege is a sweeping story of desperate survival in a galaxy ravaged by war and incomprehensible intelligences. You can check it out here.