If you write speculative fiction, you write in English.
Let me qualify that bold statement—for fiction, and speculative fiction in particular, is being written in just about every language that knows a written representation.
If you write successful speculative fiction, you write in English.
Of course, this is not true either, or if it does contain a core truth, there are so many notable exceptions that it’s a huge generalization. Nevertheless, the international speculative fiction scene is dominated by English-language authors, publishers, agents, and contests. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that many authors attempt to build a speculative fiction career by writing in—or translating their work to—English, even though it’s not their native language.
At LonCon3, the 72nd World Science Fiction Convention (Worldcon), four such authors came together in the panel “Always Outside, Looking In” to discuss the ins and outs, the challenges and pitfalls, the choices and trade-offs of writing and getting published—or attempting to—in a language that is not our own.
Though born in the US, Aliette de Bodard grew up in Paris with French as her mother tongue, and has a part-Vietnamese background. Her English-language fiction earned her a Writers of the Future Award and two Nebula’s as most notable accolades; she’s published numerous shorts as well as a couple of novels.
Ju Honisch is a German author writing her fiction in English, but succeeded in getting her work published only after translating it back to her native German.
Thomas Olde Heuvelt, a native of the Netherlands, built a successful career in horror in his native Dutch before hazarding the English-language publishing world with professional translations of two stories and one novel. His efforts promptly resulted in two Hugo nominations and a book deal with Tor.
And I myself am as Dutch as Thomas, but gave up on the Dutch speculative fiction market in 2002 and began writing in English. I soon began selling my short fiction to various markets. This quickly resulted in a Writers of the Future Award (2004), and I’ve had numerous short story publications since then. In 2013 a Dutch publisher showed interest in my work, whereupon I translated a handful of stories to my mother tongue and finally saw my work published in my own country.
We are four very different authors, with one thing in common: we write in (or translate to) English because the market is larger, the audience is greater, and we aspire to success and readership at a level that is not available in our native tongues.
Is it even possible for non-native speakers to write publishable fiction in English? While Aliette and I have shown that the answer is yes, Ju submitted to English markets for a long time without getting more than a nibble and finally turned back to German. And Thomas, though a student of the American language and culture, feels unqualified for the task and chooses to have his fiction translated by professionals.
Translation comes with its own challenges, however. The obvious one is the cost: it’s entirely realistic to expect to pay 10 cents a word for a good fiction translation. But there are deeper, more subtle complications. A good translator needs to capture not just the literal text, but also the voice of the author. Humor is notoriously hard to transfer between languages. And most, if not all, works of fiction will contain physical, sociological, and cultural aspects that need to be translated not so much in a linguistic, but in a cultural sense.
Thomas accepted the cost of translating the two stories that won him Hugo nominations, considering the money a worthwhile investment in international exposure and networking opportunities. And it was, in a very real sense: the exposure these publications gave him resulted directly in the Tor deal for his horror novel HEX. There, too, he has invested both time and money in the opportunity: not only by having the first chapters translated, but also by rewriting them first, changing the setting from the Dutch countryside to upstate New York and the historical background from the European Middle Ages to the first Dutch colonists in New England. Now that Tor has bought the American rights to HEX, they have begun a selection process for a translator who can capture the style and voice of the original work while creating a unmistakably American new text.
Though I had circumvented this problem myself by (a) writing in English and (b) using English settings and cultural underpinnings, I stumbled over it in reverse when the time came to translate my stories back to Dutch. In style and voice I could take tremendous liberties, since I was translating my own work. As for the cultural aspects: one of the stories, “Meeting the Sculptor,” is a time travel tale set in New York City, and I had to choose whether to leave it there or move the entire story to Amsterdam or one of the other major Dutch cities. I decided to move it, partially to create more resonance in my readers, but also because of another cultural point that became the main challenge of the translation.
In the story, the protagonist is only convinced he has really traveled in time after he is taken to the Gettysburgh Address. In the States, this is an unmistakable historical scene with which every American is familiar. In the Netherlands, however, this scene is almost unknown; worse, the Dutch are much less patriotic and far less aware of their own historical background. The search for the perfect historical event took about the same amount of time as the entire translation.
The deeper challenge of translating fiction is that language itself is the medium that carries style, voice, rhythm, and culture. To attempt a literal, or even a true, translation is to fail. The best option is to choose a translator who “gets” your fiction and who can create a style and voice in the target language that is the best possible fit for your original work. This means the ideal translator is more writer than linguist (which is no dilemma, since the nitpicky details are in the editor’s domain). As for the culture that is carried by your language: that means that a translator must make many choices in dealing with unclear, ambiguous, or untransferrable content. A fiction translation is always a collaboration between the translator and the original author; if your translator does not approach you with questions before the work is done, something is definitely wrong.
Writing—or translating—an English-language text is only the most basic aspect of creating a work that might appeal to English-language readers. For any story, short or long, the author also needs to decide what setting and cultural background to choose. “Write what you know” is sound advice, but if that results in fiction too exotic for your foreign readership, you may still not achieve the success you aim for.
Aliette has made clear choices in her fiction. In her alternate history fantasy, she uses the Aztec world of Central America as her background. Her award-winning short fiction is firmly grounded in a gorgeously rendered far-future galaxy where an entire starfaring civilization has sprung from Chinese and Vietnamese roots. And her most recent novel takes place in her hometown of Paris. Aliette has a definite preference for backgrounds and cultures that resonate with her or are a part of who she is and what she knows; her success demonstrates that this can be a strength rather than a weakness.
Thomas set the original version of HEX in a very Dutch setting, using Dutch culture, society, and geography that he is very familiar with and that are recognizable to his Dutch readership. For the translation, he has chosen to convert the entire novel to an American setting, with American culture and history. Of course, we don’t know yet whether the novel will be successful, and we will never know if it would have been less successful with the original cultural background. But I can hypothesize that while a Dutch background would definitely have been exotic to the readers, it might not have been exotic enough: Western European culture is possibly too close to American culture to appeal through its strangeness.
For my award-winning novelette “Meeting the Sculptor” I was very aware of the market I was targeting: the Writers of the Future contest. I knew this was a fairly mainstream speculative fiction market, and that it was international on paper but very American in practice, and that it was judged by Americans. I therefore made a conscious choice to use that knowledge as much as I could, by situating the story in New York City and using the Gettysburgh Address to make my historical point. This left me with a story that was difficult to translate, as discussed above.
Of course, the risk any writer runs who sets his narrative in a culture he is not familiar with is that he will be accused of cultural appropriation. And there are many examples of authors who err in that direction or worse, by depicting the culture they’re writing about in a stereotypical or even colonial manner. There’s a fine line there: cultural appropriation is a real risk, but one can also be too critical of an author’s choices. Thomas’s “The Ink Readers of Doi Saket” is set in a Thai village where Thomas has spent significant amounts of time; on which he’s done much research, mainly by speaking with the local people; and where his family has lived for fifteen years. Still, there were readers—not even Thai readers, but Americans—who saw the need to challenge his choices and to question whether it was appropriate for a Western European author to choose that setting.
However, our general impression is that publishers and short story markets are more open now to submissions from different geographical and cultural backgrounds than they have ever been.
Then there are the practical aspects: having written English-language fiction, how does one go about marketing it? There are some challenges there as well.
Ju told the story of how she once submitted a novel manuscript to an American publisher but was unable to add the SASE (self-addressed stamped envelope) for their response, because there was no way to obtain US stamps in Germany. Her manuscript was rejected. And Aliette once considered sending her novel to a publisher across the Atlantic but decided against it because they wanted the entire manuscript, all 700 pages of it, in hardcopy.
The Internet has made life much easier. For markets that still want hardcopy submissions and SASEs, US stamps have become slightly easier to obtain (the USPS actually sold them online for a while, although they have now stopped shipping them abroad), and the International Reply Coupon is available in some countries. Better still, the vast majority of short story markets and many novel publishers now accept electronic submissions. Hardcopy submissions are still expensive, especially to the States, but those expenses can be kept down by paying a friend overseas to print and submit your manuscripts and create the SASE. I worked that way myself for a while, with an American colleague as my relay, until e-subs became common.
The Internet has also made it much easier to find markets—and to know what they want. Searchable indexes such as Duotrope and The Grinder ensure that you can find suitable markets for your fiction; most markets have websites where their submission guidelines are readily available. (I’ve written a long and detailed series of blog posts about finding markets and submitting to them.)
Always outside, looking in? On the contrary. There are significant challenges in attempting to build a career in English-language speculative fiction if English is not your mother tongue. But the spec-fic scene is growing more and more global, and there is ample room, it seems to us panelists, for so-called outsiders to merge seamlessly into the international community of English-language speculative fiction.
A special thanks goes to Grayson Bray Morris, speculative fiction author as well as professional translator, who contributed valuable insights concerning the translation process and challenges.
© Floris M. Kleijne
Floris M. Kleijne is an award-winning dutch author of speculative fiction, who began writing as soon as he was able to, and writing in english since 2002.
Since then, he has sold a dozen short stories , won the Writers of the Future Contest, qualified for active membership of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, and been translated into french (Ténèbres anthology, Dreampress, 2013) and his native dutch, 2013).
His first fantasy novel, an alternate world fantasy epic about a broken world, is in progress.