Urban fantasy, our genre’s discomfort with emotion and the cultural issues of translation

My latest e-book is still missing in action at the Kindle store. I contacted Amazon support today, but haven’t heard back from them yet. This is pretty frustrating.

So the book announcement is postponed for another day. In the meantime, check out these neat links:

A few days ago, I linked to a Library Journal on new SFF books which was highly problematic with regards to popular subgenres like urban fantasy, e.g. by singling out urban fantasy written by male authors while being condescending about urban fantasy written by women. Hence I am pleased to present this post on urban fantasy by Juliet McKenna at the Solaris blog, which manages to avoid the pitfalls of the Library Journal article. Juliet McKenna recommends a nice mix of urban fantasy titles by both men and women, Brits, Americans and Canadians. The books all tend towards the grittier and less romantic end of the urban fantasy spectrum, but there is no condescension towards the more romantic titles. Plus, she has sold me on Desdeamona by Ben MacAllen which goes on the “to buy” list now.

Meanwhile, Strange Horizons presents an example how not to write about urban fantasy by none other than the venerable John Clute who reviews two new anthologies of urban fantasy stories.

John Clute starts out by quoting his own definition of urban fantasy from his Encyclopedia of Fantasy, the same definition which I also quote in my PhD thesis at one point with the reservation that does no longer quite cover the current incarnation of the urban fantasy genre.

Unlike myself, whose research focus is the current hybrid incarnation of urban fantasy, John Clute isn’t all too happy about the changes in the subgenre. Part of his problem is that he believe that the urban setting should be central to urban fantasy – a point that I happen to agree with. Alas, the stories he does not like are inevitably stories told from a female first-person POV that deal with emotional and relationship issues. And of course, they are mainly written by female authors, though he doesn’t like Jim Butcher either. He does not directly state that he does not want to read about women, emotions and sex, but the implication is there.

Here are two choice quotes:

stories recounted in the first person singular by protagonists fascinatedly resolving (or not resolving) issues of dysfunctionality attendant upon their being vampires, or werewolves, or creeps, as explained down to the last detail through long wallowings in wadded-kleenex Me-Infodump: that they might be stories that brailled the world. They might be stories where—as I scribbled in a fit of rage on the rear endpaper of the Beagle/Lansdale werewolf’s breakfast of a book after reading Carrie Vaughn’s “Kitty’s Zombie New Year,” a listless vignette from 2007 set in an anonymous Denver—the setting mattered. “If it’s the same story wherever it happens to be set,” I wrote, “it isn’t Urban Fantasy.”

And here’s the second quote:

Part Two, Paranormal Romance, introduced by Paula Guran, is heavy on the first person, heavy on puberty and menarche, heavy on fangs and infodump; Suzy McKee Charnas’s famous werewolf-tale “Boobs” from 1989 holds its own against the damp flannelling that followed (as per here) her use of the paranormal to say something about the world […]

In short, get your womens and your emotions and your first person narrators (why the hatred of first person narration anyway?) out of my urban fantasy and give me more worldbuilding.

Indeed, I suspect that a big part of the issue many people in the SFF genre have with urban fantasy and paranormal romance as well as with the more romantic edges of the science fiction genre is the fact that they are deeply distrustful of emotions, particularly the sort of messy emotions that involve love, lust and attractions. Emotions like rage, anger, thirst for revenge and ambition to invent the best scientific/technological doohickey ever are generally okay.

Hence it is intersting that Strange Horizons also runs the following article by Vandana Singh in which she discusses science, science fiction, emotions and culture.

This very interesting article also briefly touches on how Western suspicions against emotions and/or sentimentality in but not limited to the science fiction genre are often connected to misogyny, which matches my observations. The misogyny is often latent, e.g. Tom Goodwin who wrote The Cold Equations (a story I fucking hate) has always protested that he loved women whenever he was accused of misogyny. But there often is a definite misogynist undertone there, even if the author is not consciously aware of it.

Vandana Singh also touches upon the issue that Western society in general prizes rationality or what passes for it and is deeply suspicious of and uncomfortable with emotion or sentimentality. This becomes very obvious whenever a piece of SFF fiction contains emotional scenes and the audience or significant parts thereof began to laugh and giggle because emotion makes them uncomfortable. It’s very similar to how children and young, usually male teenagers react to love scenes in films and TV shows. They either laugh or fast forward, because emotions are uncomfortable. Films and TV shows are best for observing this phenomenon, because watching them is often a communal experience.

Marjorie M. Liu has a great post about translations and cultural references.

The issue of what to do about culture specific references actually comes up a lot in translation, even if you mainly do tech documents and business correspondence. For example, Americans love sports metaphors. However, a lot of these sports metaphors don’t translate well, particularly if they refer to baseball or American football, which are largely unknown in Germany. So whenever I run across a sports metaphor in an American text, I change it to a metaphor that works for Germans. With business correspondence, this isn’t much a problem. However, it quickly becomes one if you’re dealing with literature, film subtitles, etc… where nuance is more important. I remember one older (1960s or 1970s) film which replaced what I assume was a lengthy conversation about baseball or American football or another US-only sport with a discussion of soccer.

Some years ago, I translated the entire website content for an elaborate online world, including character profiles, dialogues, etc… Cultural issues quickly popped up, e.g. there was an old sea captain character who spoke in Hamburg dialect, which suggest old grizzled sea captain to Germans. I had to find an internationally understandable equivalent and finally peppered this character’s dialogue with “Arr, matey” pirate slang. Another problem popped up with the character profiles which listed favourite foods and drinks, many of which do not exist outside Germany. So I replaced brands unknown outside Germany with internationally known brands, e.g. the sea captain character drinks Astra beer in German and Becks in English, because the local Hamburg beer brand Astra is not sold outside Germany. In another situation I replaced a local German food specialty with an American specialty that had similar connotations of working class and down-to-Earth. I always alerted the creator of the characters to any changes of this sort and gave my rationalization for the changes, so he could veto them in case they violated his vision of the character.

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8 Responses to Urban fantasy, our genre’s discomfort with emotion and the cultural issues of translation

  1. Rosario says:

    I’m very interested in the issue of cultural references in translations. Not sure if the approach Liu describes is ideal, especially if you know something about the original culture. The film example, for instance, with the conversation about an American sport turned into a discussion of football, would’ve completely changed my vision of the characters, as I would have applied my somewhat stereotypical assumptions of what Americans who like football are like (more sophisticated and engaged with the rest of the world, etc.).

    It’s a pity, though, if the reader misses out on all the connotations a particular cultural reference would have to native readers. Maybe that’s something enhanced ebooks could be good for… e.g. when someone is described as a Guardian reader, the translator can insert some sort of comment you can call up if you want to, explaining what the connotations of that would be to British readers.

    • Cora says:

      To be fair, the football/soccer example was from the 1960s at a time when the average German knew a lot less about the US than today (and many of them don’t know a lot today either) and when translators, particularly those who translate film and TV scripts, deviated from the original a lot more than they would today. Sometimes, the results were very good indeed, e.g. the German version of the early 1970s TV show The Persuaders is widely considered superior to the original, because the translators were basically trying to see how much innuendo they could get away with. Sometimes, it doesn’t work so well. For example, I only remember the football example, because it stuck out and left me wondering, “Why are those American people talking about a legendary German coach and his strategies? – Ah, they were probably blathering on about baseball and the translator changed it something more palatable”.

      Another example that works is an episode of the final season of The A-Team, where the A-Team goes undercover into Communist East Germany to rescue a scientist, while disguised as an American Football team. Now the producers of the A-Team clearly knew nothing whatsoever about East Germany, starting with the fact that no one in either East nor West Germany plays American Football, and it shows. So the translators went wild and included all sorts of jokes, political allusions, references to East German TV programs, etc.. and had all the East German characters dubbed with a heavy Saxonian accent and the result was absolutely hilarious, at least if you’re German.

      Books are something else altogether, because books translated from English into German end up approximately 20 percent longer. This isn’t much of a problem with e-books, but it is a huge problem with print books, particularly with category romances, which are often ruthlessly cut, or with huge doorstopper fantasy epics which are often split into two volumes. The 12-part Wheel of Time epic is 24 parts in Germany. I once bought a book that had been split in two as a present for a German friend without knowing about the split. When I later asked her how she liked it, she said, “Oh, it was good, but that cliffhanger was annoying.” And I thought, “What cliffhanger?”

      I generally prefer it if a translation sticks as close as possible to the original, but then I also find cultural references fascinating. However, a lot of things simply don’t translate very well or a reference is so obscure or linked to a particular culture that it will be incomprehensible to 99 percent of the audience. For example, the German dub of Life on Mars faithfully translated Gene Hunt listing about twenty different colourful synonyms for “gay” but replaced a reference to Mary Whitehouse with something else. This is legitimate IMO, because hardly anybody in Germany knows who Mary Whitehouse was, besides they managed to preserve the rather unique speech patterns of Gene Hunt very well (and Life on Mars must have been a nightmare to translate). Though the Manchester accent was lost, of course. Still, Mary Whitehouse is the sort of reference where an enhanced e-book could help.

      I generally seek out the original over a translation whenever possible, because there always are nuances that are lost. Besides, with audio drama or filmic work, you also lose the accents.

  2. Urban fantasy, our genre's discomfort with emotion and the cultural issues of translation – http://t.co/BCHBg1u via Cora Buhlert

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        • Cora says:

          I’m not sure about this one, but it did bypass the spam filter, which sometimes eats even legitimate comments. This suggests that a human at least typed this comment into the comment box, so I gave him the benefit of the doubt.

          I’ll disable the link, at any rate.

  4. Pingback: Of Hard SF and Messy Emotions | Cora Buhlert

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