Friday, June 02, 2006

Science fiction, translations, cultural appropriation

At Wiscon 30, Madison's feminist science fiction convention, I came across the issue of language and translation many times.

Here's my rough transcript of the panel "Laádan vs. tlhIngan Hol: Differential Diffusion of Created Languages", in which the woman's language invented by the author of Native Tongue was contrasted with Klingon. It was a spirited discussion. One audience member talked about her own feeling that she did not need other languages than English to express any possible thought. Suzette Haden Elgin, with a mild bite to her reply, answered, "Millions of people agree with you." The general consensus of the room was that cross-language fertilization keeps everyone's ideas fresh.

At another panel on "So-Called 'Third World' SF", audience members talked about how much they want to read science fiction from non-English speaking cultures. Apparently the sf magazine with the highest circulation is in China. "Why doesn't anyone translate that stuff? We want to read it!" was the general consensus. It was a room full of hundreds of people, so I didn't pop up and talk about copyright problems.

Another panel, "Cultural Appropriation and Writing Fantasy Outside Western Tradition," looked at the ways that many invented mythologies use European myth as their source. What about when they don't - when someone writes about techno-Aztec gods, or Chinese dragons and nine-tailed foxes? What are some things to think about in regards to cultural appropriation, "authenticity", and exploitation? An extremely lively and intelligent discussion is happening this week, and here is a roundup of some entry points into the debates about race, culture, ethnicity, and (if not direct translation of languages) translation of cultural elements.

In this discussion, oyceter says: one is ever going to tell you that cultural appropriation is ok or that there is a way for a dominant culture to write about a minority culture without these problems rising up. If they do say that, I'm sorry, they're lying or they're from the far future, in which there is no race disparity, no racism, and all nations are on equal economic, political and cultural standing.

This does not mean you shouldn't write about it.

These same issues are important in the world of literary translation. It always comes up for me when it comes down to getting the rights to publish in translation. If someone in Uruguay wants $200 per poem (as they did for some of Juana de Ibarbourou's) and I bargain them down on the grounds that my work was a labor of love, I don't have any money, and I'll never make a penny off my putting these few poems into an obscure literary journal that's probably also losing money like crazy. At the same time, I'm aware that I can be said to be "making cultural capital" out of my translations over time, and so it would be exploitative for me to expect to get the rights to the poems for free or cheap. As oyceter says, there's no easy answer.

Meanwhile, I was on a panel with Ursula K. Le Guin, but didn't have the nerve to go up to her later and talk with her about her translation work with Diana Bellessi! I had a shy moment there - plus, she was always surrounded by starry-eyed fans.


Liz Henry said...

There's more discussion and link roundups on this at here on LJ in deadbrowalking. The discussion continues, and will likely be included in some upcoming books.

Liz said...

Oh, beautiful. Even more amazing link roundup and chronological organization: Cultural appropriation link roundup by rilina.

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