Translating Fantasy Fiction part 1 – The Rules

Presently the mage said, speaking softly, “Do you see, Arren, how an act is not, as young men think, like a rock that one picks up and throws, and it hits or misses, and that’s the end of it. When the rock is lifted the earth is lighter, the hand that bears it heavier. When it is thrown the circuits of the stars respond, and where it falls the universe is changed. On every act the balance of the whole depends. The winds and seas, the powers of the water and earth and light, all that these do, and all that the beasts and green things do, is well done, and rightly done. All these act within the Equilibrium… But we, in so far as we have power over the world and over one another, we must learn to do what the leaf and the whale and the wind do of their own nature. We must learn to keep the balance.”

Ursula Le Guin, The Furthest Shore (1973)

By some fortuitous universal alignment, I have gained a reputation as a translator of fantasy, sci-fi and young adult fiction. There is great creative satisfaction in this type of work, partly because it’s fun and appeals to my daydreaming inner child, and partly because I perceive a clear template to follow in order to create a successful piece of fantasy writing.

What makes successful fantasy?

Mediocre and unsuccessful fantasy is not our concern. For the purposes of this article we are dealing only with texts of quality (a fantasy indeed). So what is it that makes fantasy, in any language, in original or translation, be it in film, book or graphic novel form, successful?

Successful fantasy is equilibrium.

The most important aspect of this equilibrium is the balance between magic and logic. Fantasy and science fiction have no bounds in regards to time, space or the fundaments of reality as we know it. In Philip K. Dick’s Counter-clock World, time runs backwards; people are born from the grave, get younger, and then are absorbed into the void in the womb. In Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, people traverse near-identical parallel dimensions through gaps in the subtle borders between universes. Et cetera. If you can imagine it, you can write it. But in order for readers to accept it, there must be a certain integrity to the internal logic of the invented world. Each one has a set of guiding principles, and any magic or horror or miracle in the plot has to work within these rules. Fantasy is not an excuse for anyone to wave a magic wand and say ‘Alakazam’ to instantly remove any obstacle. Not only would this irk the conscientious reader, who requires consistency of cause and consequence, but it is simply bad plotting. Magic, that glorious catch-all, needs to be complicated and effortful. Mages must be trained; witches go into a magical trance, fairies need their fairy dust. Take this example of ‘realistic’ magic from my translation of Maria Turtschaninnoff’s Naondel. In this extract we see Garai, a high priestess from a nomadic clan with a powerful connection to the elements, leaving her physical body to fly on the wind.

I plunged my fingers into the wet earth, feeling twigs and leaves crumble apart. There was a powerful odour of life and decay. I shut my eyes. I heard water gently dripping from the branches of the trees. Mist crept slowly over my cheekbones, my eyelids. A barely perceptible breeze rustled through the crowns of the zismil trees. My breathing was calm and even. There was a pulsing murmur in my blood. I surrendered my body. I was completely free. Nothing was tying me to this place. My spirit became light and I started to rise into the air. First I saw my body way down on the ground, then it became obscured by the canopy below me. I saw the ocean in the south, Areko in the east. The fields and spice plantations in the south and west. Paths like narrow ribbons streaking across the green landscape. A flock of geese stained the sky with their black bodies, and I followed them northwards as they flew. Mountains, lakes, rivers below us. The wind beneath our wings.

Maria Turtschaninnoff, Naondel (2017), Pushkin Press

This works because it shows the concentration necessary for her to leave her body; it shows her connection with and attention to the earth and wind; it gives vivid sensory descriptions so that we can experience the flight along with her. What is more, there is a soothing rhythmic tempo to the paragraph that suggests falling asleep or slipping into a meditative state, therefore invoking a sense of physical disassociation that most people can relate to. With this set-up, the reader will accept anything that happens. The reader is onside.

Another aspect of the fine balance between reality and imagination is the right proportions of rollicking adventure and realistic 3D characters. No matter how spectacular a plot – and fantasy literature is surely second to none when it comes to mind-blowing plots – a story becomes hollow without a human heart. We must believe in the characters and be invested in their fate. Ultimately, readers will buy anything, as long as they can empathise with the human (or humanoid) reactions to the other-worldly circumstances. We relate to the hobbits’ love of green pastures, and good food and ale, before we agree to follow them to Mordor.

Then there is the balance between truth and imagination in a broader sense. No matter whether authors are writing about suburban housewives, 25th century space explorers, or rainbow-haired mermaids, the authors are humans, and they will tell human stories. Indeed, the central philosophical and moral themes of fantasy do not necessarily differ greatly from contemporary fiction. The themes of fantasy and sci-fi tend to be large-scale, universal and timeless: good vs evil; what it means to be human; do the ends justify the means?; the ethics of playing god; integrity in the face of corruption…

Commonly, fantasy employs metaphor and archetype to address these issues. It can be argued that this form of fiction is truer than truth (as it were) because, rather than telling you directly what it means to say, it speaks to the unconscious and allows for personal interpretation. Rather than attempting to draw a box around facts, it points to the wordless truths just beyond the horizon. Platonic forms, fairy tales, and Jungian psychology all proffer the theory of essential, immaterial truths being revealed only through manifestation in ideas.

Consider the power of the following archetypes, and how many memories, images and expectations can be instantly invoked: white-bearded wizard; fire-breathing dragon; the deep, dark woods; the beautiful queen; the orphan child… Repeated imagery is comforting and useful. Tropes have depth beyond their individuality. The white-bearded wizard is already endowed with the qualities of Gandalf and Merlin, meaning the reader has a relationship with him before they meet him. Whether these relationships are confirmed or subverted is up to the author.

Of course, archetypes cannot be leaned on lazily. We are not creating copies, rather variations on a theme. We tell a new story each time, knowingly employing the baggage and techniques of all the stories that have been told before. According to many theorists, notably Christoper Booker in his The Seven Basic Plots: Why we tell stories, there are a very limited number of essential stories we ever tell. This is arguable, of course, but certainly a basis from which to view fantasy fiction.

Formulaic story lines are often looked down upon by those who consider ‘literary fiction’ to be a purer form of art than ‘genre fiction’. But there is a reason why certain things are popular. There is a reason why the hero has to leave home to go on a quest to defeat the evil that threatens their way of life, and there is a reason why they tend to succeed in the end. It is satisfying. It is a story that, for whatever reason, we yearn to be told over and over again. It fulfils a need within us and helps us to live our lives in which good and evil are not always so clear-cut.

Of course none of the aforementioned arguments are an excuse for cliché. Each story has its own reason for being told, despite, or because of, its similarities and reference to others. As any artist knows, far from the crippling freedom of the blank page or canvass, the creative muse is best served within the beauty of constraint. We seek the equilibrium between familiarity and novelty. Perhaps this is why fantastical worlds can thrill us so powerfully: the author overlays our primal experiences with wonders we have never dared dream before.

That’s all well and good, but where does the translator come in? Read part 2 and find out.


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