Helsinki Worldcon write-up Part 5: Translation, Cats, award categories #Worldcon75

My account of the recent World Science Fiction Convention continues.

Fear the buffet

Saturday at Worldcon was the day on which I hate a disgustingly large lunch. Or so I recall and have the photographic evidence to prove that this event took place, yet when I look back at the programme I cannot see a gap in events I attended large enough for me to consume an obscenely large meal. This may remain a Flaming Carrot Unsolved Mystery.

Because of all the post Hugos excitement of the night before I arrived a bit late at the conference centre where Worldcon was talking place. The first event I made it to was a presentation by Ken Liu on translation that was so brainy it could have featured in the academic track. Liu is an SF writer himself but he is also a translator; the English version of Liu Cixin’s The Three Body Problem is his. His talk was a quick run through the general theory and practice of translation before switching to a discussion of the particular questions surrounding translation to and from Chinese. The theoretical stuff (formal v dyanmic equivalence, metaphrasing or paraphrasing, domesticising v foreignising, etc.) will come in handy next time the London Review of Books has a big ding dong about translation and also had me thinking about my feelings with regard to translations into English of Tolstoy (broadly summarisable as Maude good, Pevear-Volokhonsky bad), with the different ways in which Denisov’s speech impediment in War & Peace is rendered in English being based on different theoretical approaches to translation.

He also talked about how power relations are hard to remove from translation, mentioning how Greek names are rendered phonetically in English but the names of Native Americans are translated. With that particular example I wondered if he might be over-egging things, taking two sets of conventions in translation that have emerged and making more of them than is really justified. I think I would need to hear Native Americans complaining that their names were being translated into English rather than rendered phonetically before feeling that this was another example of their oppression.

Still, this bit reminded me of how place names work in my own country. Most place names derive from the Irish language, with the English name being a corruption of the Irish pronunciation (e.g. Dublin in English is a corruption of the Irish Dubh Linn, which literally means Black Pool (though just to complicate things, the actual Irish name for Dublin is Baile Atha Cliath, which translates as Town of the Ford of the Hurdles or something)). The only exception to this seems to be those places that were originally given English names – in these cases the Irish place names tend to a translation (e.g. Newbridge is written in Irish as Droichead Nua). This may indicate that in Ireland the anglophone majority live under the iron brogue of the Gaeilgeoir.

I do not want to just summarise Liu’s talk as it would spoil the fun for any readers who find themselves with an opportunity to hear him speak in real life. Nevertheless I greatly enjoyed his account of how in the early 20th century Lu Xun translated early science fiction works by HG Wells and Jules Verne into Chinese. Lu Xun appears never to have come across the texts in the original languages and worked from versions in Japanese (a language he had studied for a year). His Chinese texts sounds like they are very far removed from what the original authors had written, yet sounded like they would make fascinating reading if translated back into English.

I was also intrigued by the discussion of how it is problematic to think of there being a single Chinese language or even of Mandarin as the official Chinese language. The relationship of regional dialects to a standardised formal version reminded me of the somewhat imaginary nature of Arabic as a single unitary language.

After that I needed something a bit less intellectually demanding so I went to a talk called Authors And Their Cats, in which authors talked about their cats. Jeff Vandermeer revealed an important top tip: always include a picture of your cat in social media posts. Here is my cat, name of Billy Edwards.

A discussion on future proofing the Hugos, chaired by none other than Hugos administrator Nicholas Whyte, was presented as being about how Hugo categories should be designed to accommodate changing practices (e.g. moves from print to electronic media, etc.). However it broadened out into a more general discussion of where the Hugos are going. One Hugo trend that I think is dangerous is category inflation. This year’s ceremony saw a new category introduced, for Best Series, while the business meeting of Worldcon has decided in its dubious wisdom to introduce a Young Adult fiction category to next year’s awards. Proposals have also been floated to split the best novel category into best science fiction novel and best fantasy novel. Other proposals have been made to split the current two best dramatic presentation categories into four (and in a way that would appear to exclude non- TV or film works like Clipping’s Splendor & Misery), with the best related work category also being eyed by some for division into multiple new award classes.

I mentioned previously that the Hugo Award ceremony goes on a bit. If all the proposed new categories were added then it would become interminable. I feel strongly that the addition of any new categories should be resisted and no additions made unless old categories are removed on a one-for-one basis. I also strongly oppose genre categories. Adding the YA novel category was a mistake and it would also be a grave error to split the novel into science fiction and fantasy categories (if nothing else, why would a science fiction convention be giving an award to a fantasy novel? And if it is giving awards to fantasy novels, why not also to fantasy short stories, novellas and novelletes?). I may have to start attending Worldcon business meetings and banging the table in front of me with a shoe while shouting “This aggression will not stand!”.

I need to go and lie down now but I will be back with more Worldcon talk soon.

Ken Liu image source (Wikipedia)

Lu Xun image source (Wikipedia)

More of my Worldcon pictures

More of my cat pictures

More of my pictures

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Helsinki Worldcon write-up Part 4: New Wave, Hugos #Worldcon75

Continuing my account of the 75th World Science Fiction Convention in Helsinki, this episode is mainly concerned with the Hugo Awards and the New Wave of Science Fiction.

The Hugos loomed large over my Friday at Worldcon. I had assisted with the preparation work for the Hugos in their earlier stages (doing the barest minimum quantum of work that counts as doing “something” rather than “nothing”). I also assisted on the day with a last-minute re-check of the ceremony’s In Memoriam scroll. At one point I was also going to be the person who clicked the next button on the ceremony’s PowerPoint scroll, but wiser counsel prevailed.

For various reasons I saw very little of the day’s programme stuff, being particularly disappointed to miss a discussion on The Prisoner. I did however make it to a session of the academic track that looked at the New Wave of Science Fiction. This began with a discussion by Päivi Väätänen on the influence of the New Wave on the fiction of Samuel R. Delany. Delany is one of those writers who sounds fascinating but whose work I have never got round to. The discussion focussed on two novels, The Ballad of Beta-2 (1965) and The Einstein Intersection (1967). Väätänen said that the two books are thematically somewhat similar but the second is much more experimental and “difficult”, with the difference arising from Delany’s discovery and embrace of the SF New Wave, in which ideas from modernist fiction and the counter-culture invaded Science Fiction.

The New Wave is again one of those things that I am interested in but have not read that much of. I know that some old school SF fans were very dismissive of the attempt to import modernism into Science Fiction (Kingsley Amis is very eloquent in this regard) while others saw the New Wave as a necessary reaction to a creeping formulaicisation of the genre. The New Wave opened the floodgates for stylistic experimentation and exploration of new themes in 1970s SF but in retrospect it seems sometimes to have been a failed experiment, with the rise of cyberpunk in the 1980s putting SF back into less literary and experimental territory. The 1980s was a decade of reaction so it is not too surprising that this was the case in SF too.

Coming away from this particular discussion I found myself thinking that it really is high time I actually read something by Delany and perhaps also the Gollancz SF Masterworks reprint of the Dangerous Visions anthology of New Wave short stories.

Then Audrey Taylor discussed Decision at Doona, an early novel by Anne McCaffrey that is apparently more formally interesting than McCaffrey’s later works (books I have a perhaps unfairly low opinion of). This one is about human-alien first contact on a planet called Doona, with deliberate misdirection being used in the chapters to mislead as to whether we are following events from the human or alien point of view. Taylor suggested that, unusually for McCaffrey, this showed the influence of the New Wave (or the ideas outside SF that gave rise to the New Wave).

Taylor asserted that normally in this kind of book we are presented with a Cowboys and Indians In Space setup where the human colonisers are portrayed as the good guys while they roll over the aliens. I felt like calling out “[citation needed]!” here, as I am unaware of books that take this line, being more used to books portraying colonisation as bad thing (which might be an effect of living in a country that was colonised). Be that as it may, in Decision at Doona the focus is more on the humans and aliens fumbling towards an accommodation and being determined not to repeat adverse events in their own histories of interaction with other species, all the while hampered by their difficulties in understanding each other.

The book sounded intriguing, playing with ideas of the kind of character who gets to be the hero and subverting normal plot models by having non-confrontational but still difficult resolutions of problems. I see also from looking at covers of the book online that the aliens are anthropomorphic cats, which makes this surely a book ripe for rediscovery as a lost classic.

That really was it for me until the Hugo Awards ceremony itself. Like many awards ceremonies, theses went on a bit. I am something of a slow reader so I had read none of the winning works or any of the nominees. I was a bit disappointed that Chuck Tingle did not win though I can see why voters might have decided to pick someone who had a more direct relationship with SF. Clipping did not win either though they did receive one of the biggest cheers of the evening. The most amusing moment at the awards ceremony was when the name of sinister dipshit Vox Day was read out as a nominee in best editor category; a couple of people clapped politely and then trailed off, with the other nominees all receiving thunderous applause. However the best bit was hearing my own name read out from the stage, though of course next time this will be because I have swept all the fiction categories.

For all that the Hugo Award ceremony goes on a bit, it nevertheless felt like an important celebration of the greatness of Science Fiction. These awards are voted by the fans and they reiterate the community aspect of SF. On that basis I have decided that I broadly approve of the existence of the various fan categories.

I must also praise the performance of Karen Lord as the Hugo Awards toastmaster. I would support having her do this at every Hugo Awards ever. I would also love to tell you about what happened at the post awards party in a Helsinki steampunk bar but Chatham House rules apply.

Hugo Administrator: Nicholas Whyte

Decision at Doona image source (Science Fiction Cover Art; artist: Bruce Pennington)

More of my own Worldcon pictures

Doona cover: http://www.djabbic.co.uk/BookCoverDetail.php?filter=1&ID=2&bookID=82&currentBook=14&totalBooks=64&currentEntry=0&totalEntrys=0&startCover=0&currentCover=1&totalCovers=2