Translating Fantasy Literature part 2 – The Techniques

Successful fantasy is a balancing act. The translator’s job to uphold the equilibrium.

The translator is the ambassador between the author’s intentions and the reader’s expectations. The translator serves neither author nor reader (nor publisher, nor critic), but the text itself. And the text? The text serves the equilibrium of the world within it.

In order to do this, the translator needs to not only suspend their disbelief, but do away with it completely. Insecurity is the worst thing that can happen to a text. Like Bastian in The Neverending Story, we step into the world of the book. Like John Cusack in Being John Malkovich, we wear the characters’ skin. Like Peter Pan, we believe in fairies. We need to understand the logic behind the magic in order to re-cast the spells, sometimes literally (well, almost). As the mage’s apprentice learns the words of a spell, the translator channels the magical power of the original words into a recreation with the same effects.

Of course, as with any literary translation, fantasy requires a certain amount of sensory recreation. How can you translate a passage describing the sights and smells of a town without experiencing it in your mind’s eye and mind’s nose (yes, I’m sticking by that coinage)? In re-telling our sensory experience of the story, we are actively taking part in the storytelling process, and join the ranks of the many storytellers who have gone before us in the oral tradition.

Wafty though this may sound, it manifests in a thousand concrete decisions. The weight of every word must be respected. As well as creating an enjoyable and evocative piece of literature, the language style and word choices of the translator have to respect the genre and the internal logic of the world. As a drop of water is a reflection of the sea, every word is a reflection of the entire story and its world. Hence high fantasy tends to have ‘lands and realms’ rather than ‘countries and continents’; characters called Myrrowen and Arkan, rather than Stacey and Jeff.

Translators should always be aware of not only the denotative function of a word, but also the connotative, i.e. not just what it means, but what it implies. When working within genre fiction this can be particularly troublesome, not least because fantasy and sci-fi fans are a notoriously unforgiving readership when it comes to consistency (think comic book guy from The Simpsons) and approach each new book with a plethora of references to others. No story exists in a vacuum. Authors and translators alike have to be conscientious regarding the subgenre in which they are working, and fantasy has plenty: high fantasy, gothic, contemporary, fairy tale parody, comic, mythic… Readers have expectations of what each genre should deliver, and authors have intentions regarding the extent to which they want these expectations to be satisfied or subverted.

What do I mean by subversion in this context? Take Maria Turtschaninnoff’s Maresi (Pushkin Press, 2016). Like Turtschaninnoff’s other novels, it can broadly be shelved in the young adult high fantasy section. It is a solemn and dramatic tale of magic and violence, where the brave young heroine seeks her higher purpose in a brutal pre-technological world. However, it is a decidedly feminist novel, in which women and girls form their own tight-knit community and depend only on themselves for sustenance, education and spiritual work, worshipping a three-fold mother goddess. So, when faced with the decision of how to translate the names of the buildings in their complex, it occurred to me that the names ‘House of Knowledge’ (Kunskapshus), ‘House of the Hearth’ (Härdshus), though certainly grand and other-worldly in their connotations, made me think of too many other books I’d read before about formal patriarchal societies, and the accepted format of fantastical wording that has been the norm throughout decades of male-dominated fantasy literature. How much softer and more homely it sounds to translate the names as ‘Knowledge House’ and ‘Hearth House’. A radical feminine community needs no pomp in its language.

Genre and subgenre often guide, or indeed dictate, choices in style and register, but so too do the supposed epoch and geographical basis of the story. Even fantasy realms are often based on real times and places, such as Games of Thrones, a fantastical interpretation of the War of the Roses in 15th century England. When translating Naondel I found myself juggling a variety of influences in the invented realm of Karenokoi, which smacked of ancient Japan and the Ottoman Empire in its descriptions of customs, architecture, agriculture and weather, and yet was not truly either. So, when choosing titles for the monarch and his right-hand man, the Germanic word fursten and Arabic visir became the ‘Sovereign Prince’ and his ‘vizier’ – words without too much of an affiliation with any one country, a slight hint of the Middle East, and no relation to the kings and queens of Europe.

My brain hurts, I hear you cry. Can we get some sort of practical summary to all this theory?

Yes. Yes, we can.

Questions to ask yourself before approaching a fantasy translation

  • Who is the author? What is their intention? What are their influences?

  • What mood/genre/world/atmosphere are they invoking? Where does the story sit among the wider library of its genre and subgenre?

  • Does the author have a political or other allegorical message?

  • Who are the audience? How old are they? What are their expectations?

  • To what extent should the reader’s expectations be satisfied/subverted?

  • What is the supposed epoch and geographical basis?

Now let’s put everything I have said so far into practice. Never have I felt the weight of an individual word so much as that of the Swedish word kraften in Naondel. Swedish to English dictionary definitions include: force, power, strength, efficacy, virtue, spirit, vigour, might, energy, potency. In Naondel it is used frequently to denote the underlying power of the earth and elements, primordial, magical and divine. It evokes a certain animacy, a feminine divinity or mother goddess, but is without identity and essentially beyond good and evil. It exists within the background of nature, felt only by the few who know how, and employed to do the bidding of fewer still. Female characters interact with kraften throughout what is an unashamedly feminist book, and this power is at odds with the more brutal masculine power of political authority and violence, as symbolised by the power-hungry villain of the story. So how to translate this recurring and vital word?

Power? No, used frequently in the book to describe political power; too masculine and aggressive.

Energy? No, too New Age.

Force? No, Star Wars ruined that one for everyone else.

Spirit? Too intangible.

Strength? Too physical.

Vital principle? Too wordy.

Magic? Too many connotations of very different forms of power.

Decide for yourself. Or read my translation (!) to find out what I went with in the end. Or if you really can’t bear the suspense, email me and ask. That would make my day.

Next time you read a piece of sci-fi or fantasy literature and you come across an unusual word or phrase, ask yourself: why did the author/translator choose it? What does this drop of water tell me about the ocean at large?

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