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the complete review - science fiction / reference
Out of This World
Rachel S. Cordasco
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- Speculative Fiction in Translation from the Cold War to the New Millennium
- With 28 black and white photographs
- With contributions by Emad El-Din Aysha, Sonja Fritzsche, Edward Gauvin, Maria Haskins, Dale Knickerbocker, J.Pekka Mäkelä, Julie Nováková, Keren Omry, Wojciech Orliński, Sunyoung Park, Mingwei Song, Takayuki Tatsumi, and Francesco Verso
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(--) : a very good and useful overview, well-presented
See our review for fuller assessment.
The complete review's Review:
[Note: in considering this review, readers may want to take into account that Cordasco lists me and mentions several reviews from the complete review under her sources.]
As the subtitle has it, Out of This World looks at Speculative Fiction in Translation from the Cold War to the New Millennium -- works of (adult, prose) speculative fiction published in English since the 1960s (though these include many works written earlier, or previously translated but also newly translated after 1960), which Cordasco identifies as the: "decade that brought Anglophone readers the first major wave of SFT from multiple source languages".
The 'speculative fiction' Cordasco considers encompasses a wide range of fiction, including science fiction, fantasy, horror, and some forms of magical realism and surrealism.
Limiting herself to speculative fiction available in English translation -- i.e. readily accessible to readers of a volume such as this one, while not originally written in English --, Cordasco further cuts down the pool of titles by confining her survey to the fourteen languages which she finds at least ten works in translation from (well, thirteen and Korean, from which she finds nine): Arabic, Chinese, Czech, Finnish, French, German, Hebrew, Italian, Japanese, Polish, Russian, Spanish, and Swedish.
The fact that there are still just so few languages from which even such a modest number of speculative fiction titles have been translated into English is, in itself, quite remarkable (and rather disappointing); nevertheless, these languages do cover the vast majority (if not the entirety) of the significant speculative fiction that has been translated into English over the past six decades and do offer a more than adequate overview.
Cordasco arranges her book by language, alphabetically, with separate chapters for each.
A nice touch is having a brief introduction -- a thousand words or so -- to each chapter written by someone with greater familiarity with the speculative fiction written in that language (the exception being Russian, where the introduction is by Cordasco herself).
Each chapter then looks at what (and how much) has been translated into English, with brief descriptions of the works; depending on how much has been translated, chapters are also variously divided and subdivided by, for example, genre or, in the case of languages covering multiple countries, nationality.
At the end of each chapter there is a useful chronological (by date of original publication, not that of the translation) bibliography of the 'Primary Sources' (the discussed texts) -- a handy reference-list.
The introductions to each chapter offer helpful overviews of each language's speculative fiction.
The writers take different approaches and, along with their different voices, this makes for a nice change of pace from chapter to chapter.
Here readers also learn about the speculative fiction tradition in these languages and countries extending beyond what is available in translation (which can often give a skewed(-to-a-few-authors-and-examples) impression.
From Wojciech Orliński noting that while speculative fiction is unlikely to figure on anyone's list of ten greatest American novels, a Polish list: "would be full of fantastyka" (the Polish (and Slavic) umbrella term for speculative fiction) to the shocking/disappointing realization, per Emad El-Din Aysha, that: "none of the classics of Egyptian SF have been translated into English" , there's a great deal of helpful insight and information here.
The introductions offer good potted historic overviews, but also bring up language-specific issues, as in Keren Omry's discussion of the Hebrew-language issues in writing speculative fiction in Hebrew, and translating it to and from Hebrew, such as the fact that in Hebrew verbs always indicate gender -- much as, as Julie Nováková points out, in Czech, too: "the gender is always there".
(Curiously, the material -- specifically, the author-names -- mentioned in the introductions is not indexed, with the occasional exception of names that are then also mentioned in the chapter-proper by Cordasco.
This can be somewhat frustrating.)
In each chapter Cordasco then tackles the titles that have been translated into English, providing quick, brief summaries, while pointing out commonalities (of theme and interests, for example), trends, and the like.
Cordasco almost entirely avoids being judgmental, noting when books were particularly well-received or have proven very influential, but avoiding, at nearly all cost, making any claims whether they are 'good' or 'bad'.
(An amusing exception comes in her mention of Aramaki Yoshio's The Sacred Era, about which she's willing to go so far as to say: "Aramaki's The Sacred Era has been described as a masterpiece of new-wave science fiction" -- noting only via a reference-footnote that she was the one so describing it, in a 2017 review).
This neutrality is certainly defensible, though some readers might also prefer slightly more guidance, especially as the quality (and other elements, from verbosity to complexity) of speculative fiction can vary greatly.
Major authors are covered in proper depth -- Stanisław Lem gets five full pages -- and a variety of trends pointed out and followed, from the sudden (if not unexpected) interest in Arabic speculative fiction in the past decade (and the prevalence of dystopias among the works translated into English), to the sudden shift, in 1989, from science fiction dominating translations from the Russian to fantasy becoming ascendant.
With the number of works that have been translated into English relatively limited, Cordasco can, and does, really introduce practically everything out there (at least from the fourteen languages covered here).
By subdividing her chapters where and as necessary, even the overview of translations from a language which there have been a larger number from, such as Japanese, does not feel overwhelming.
Certainly, there are some titles, mainly from the periphery of the definition(s) of 'speculative fiction' that one could argue merit inclusion, but within her parameters Out of This World is impressively comprehensive.
(Among missing titles, the one I'd most like to have seen is the curiosity that is Casanova's (written-in-French) Icosameron -- though given that the 1986 English translation is abridged (i.e. inadequate), it isn't a huge oversight.)
Cordasco is also good in presenting, incidentally, publishing history and trends, and giving due credit -- and also pointing readers -- to the publishers most active in this field, noting, for example, that:
Five publishers in particular -- Alfred A. Knopf, Kodansha, Haikasoru, Kurodahan, and Vertical -- are responsible for the majority of the Japanese SFT that we have today, with the University of Minnesota Press also starting to publish classic Japanese SFT.
Usefully, her survey is also not limited to works by individual authors but rather acknowledges the importance of anthologies in bringing foreign-language speculative fiction into English, and she mentions and discusses these at length as well.
Minor cavils include the always problematic issue of different titles in different markets.
Cordasco does, for example, note in her primary sources-list that Johanna Sinisalo's Troll: A Love Story was published in the UK as Not Before Sundown, but does not note that in the text proper, referring to it only as Troll: A Love Story, while in the introduction to the Finnish section J.Pekka Mäkelä also refers to it, but only gives the title as Not Before Sundown.
(Adding to the confusion in this case is that the book is one of those where the index does also point to the mention in the introduction -- but only under the entry 'Troll', not the title actually given in the introduction, i.e. someone looking up "Troll: A Love Story (Sinisalo)" is pointed to both J.Pekka Mäkelä's mention on page 36 and Cordasco's mention on page 39 -- but the title itself does not appear in that form on page 36.)
A completist would also approve of a mention that the original UK edition (admittedly published after the US one) of Pierre Boulle's Planet of the Apes was titled Monkey Planet and the like .....
(And, to be obnoxiously pedantic: the original US and all subsequent publications were titled Planet of the Apes, not, as Cordasco has it throughout, The Planet of the Apes.)
(Also, regarding a local favorite: good to see Cordasco include the works of Murakami Ryu -- but there are considerably more than "four novels available in translation" by him (and Coin Locker Babies was not the first to be translated).
And while several of his other works aren't speculative fiction, Popular Hits of the Showa Era might have been a good fit..)
Nit-picking aside, Out of This World is an excellent survey of the subject-material, and very well presented.
Despite necessarily being something of a surface-skim, with Cordasco only able to devote limited space to each author and work, she presents a good picture of these various speculative fictions and the different kinds available (in English) from these fourteen languages.
It reads well, despite tending, in its presentation, to the encyclopedic -- a difficult balance to strike, but which Cordasco (and her introduction-writers) pull off well.
Out of This World is a useful reference work for any reader, and surely essential for anyone interested in speculative fiction originally written in other languages.
It also serves as a very good introduction to the field -- and readers eager to expand their reading of speculative fiction will find this to be a great guide and resource for finding new reading.
- M.A.Orthofer, 21 July 2022
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Out of This World:
Other books of interest under review:
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About the Author:
Rachel S. Cordasco is the founder of SFinTranslation.com.
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© 2022 the complete review
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