Notes from New Sodom

... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Notes on Strange Fiction: Magic

Let's define magic. In essence, magic is metaphysical causality, a circumvention of the laws of nature, a causing of effect that works outwith the temporal protocols of the cosmos. It is the activity and it is the capacity for that activity invested in a force, a location or state through which that force can be accessed, or an object (agent or artifact) charged with that force. By this definition time-travel and FTL are magical. Significantly, in DUNE they are one and the same thing, the Guild navigators travelling through larger distances of space in shorter periods of time than are allowable within the temporal protocols of the cosmos by manipulating time itself. That they do so by means of a mental state bought on by melange is also significant.

Ted Chiang has pointed to a key distinction between science and magic: the former is reproducable industrially, on a mass scale, while the latter is not. Generally, in fact, magic is the preserve of a select elite of exceptional individuals, so much so that at it may become a signifier of their selection by the ultimate magic of the divine, a signifier of their destiny. Unpacking this and looking across the field of fiction though, we can say that human application of magic is located on a spectrum of methods of production that runs thus:

facility (gift) | art (talent)| craft (skill) | technique (process)

The rarity of magic is a product of where it is placed on this spectrum by the fiction it is found in. Magic may be presented as a facility, a gift that only the exceptional have; it may be presented as an art that only the exceptional will have a talent for, but that is learned almost as much as it is innate; it may be presented as a craft, a skill that does come naturally to some, but that is more learned than innate and therefore open to use by anyone; it may be presented as a technique, a process which can be reproduced industrially because it is abstracted to mechanistic procedures.

The last presentation of magic is rare, used largely as a deliberate subversion of conventions (as critique or satire), and it this that places magic in distinction to science, the system of abstraction by which craft is transformed to technique, process identified in skill and therefore rendered reproducable, open to industrialisation. What marks DUNE out as utilising magic rather than science is that the Guild navigators' manipulation of time and space is a craft (signified as such by the term guild in its referencing of pre-industrial skilled-trade organisations.)

The division between craft and technique is however blurred when the non-reproducable nature of magic is explicated (or implicated) as a ramification of it being a semiotic phenomenon. Which is to say, the activity may be an emergent feature of language and consciousness, requiring the four key abilities of an agent dealing with a world of signs: reception; perception; conception; inception. For a machine to be an agent it must be able to receive stimuli, perceive those stimuli as signifiers, conceive what is signified (i.e. process sensation into thought), and initiate action (i.e. act on thought rather than automatic response). Magic can be presented in these terms, as a semiotic interaction with reality, a reading of its language and a (re)writing of its text through the application of that language; it is a hacking of reality. Here magic is reproducable (this is why it is a craft, a skill) but for it to be mechanically reproduced requires that machine to replicate the semiotic agency of a sentient being who knows the code.

In Asimov's "Let There Be Light" this is essentially what is achieved by the end-product of AI technological development, but in general a more conservative outlook pervades the field, one where such semiotic agency is considered limited to human beings (or entities anthropomorphised with sentience). Ironically, that magic is not mass-reproducable might be taken to indicate a less fanciful worldview, a skepticism about the possibility of machine sentience. Alternatively, it may indicate an anti-materialist notion that semiotic agency is the product of some sort of metaphysical enspiriting that human beings have and machines do not -- a soul. Either way, note that in the TV series ANDROMEDA for a ship to travel through the slipstream (FTL) requires a human pilot because even machines with a fully-sentient AI are not capable of navigating this (magical) location/state. Note that jaunting, in Bester's THE STARS MY DESTINATION is a skill (craft) that pretty much everyone can learn but that jaunting through space is a talent (art) that only Gully Foyle has achieved. Note that at the end of the book he considers teaching this ability to humanity (transforming the talent to a skill, distributing it as he does PyrE) but has not yet begun this task. Note that either way jaunting is an essentially human capacity, not open to mechanisation.

The characterisation of magic as a semiotic skill has, in fact, resulted in a back-reading whereby it becomes symbolic of semiotic skill itself -- a metonym of the power of language, of consciousness, of "spirit". It is the extent to which the last of these is profoundly resonant as figurative metaphor and profoundly religious as literal concept that renders magic both pervasive in SCIENCE FICTION and reviled as FANTASY.

Note that the magic of Bester's jaunting is associated with the Promethean fire of PyrE, an enervated and explosive substance triggered by thought (i.e. magic), a blatant concretion of the metaphor of semiosis-as-power.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Meanwhile, for the French...

... Le Cafard cosmique posts an interview with meself and a review of Vélum that, if Babelfish's translation isn't too errant, looks pretty damn good to me.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Lost in Translation -- Luis Gallego

Another interview with one of me translators, and again I'll let the poor fellow introduce himself. So:

OK, let's start with the basic pimpage -- your name, the language you're translating the book into, which book and for which publisher:

This is easy! My name is Luis Gallego, I’m translating Ink by Hal Duncan in Spanish. I’m working for La Factoría de Ideas:

Can you give us a little sense of where you live and what it's like. How would you describe it to a would-be visitor from foreign shores?

Well, at the present time I’m living in Essaouira, Morocco. Although the publisher address is in Madrid, I work via the Internet, so I’ve decided to live here to see if I can cram my head with some Arabic and French nonsenses... and for windsurfing too!

The Medina of Essaouira is very nice, UNESCO World Heritage and home of movies such “Kingdom of Heaven”, but Moroccan people can be very annoying with foreigns in that place. I’m trying to find the spirit of Jimmy Hendrix instead of going there, but I still can’t find it, maybe in Festival Gnaua: Musiques du Monde in June. Sex, drugs and darbukas (goblet drums)!

Essaouira is also a Mecca of wind sports due to trade winds that blow nearly the entire year.

More info:

What kind of stuff do you get up to when you're not working? Do you write yourself? Any other involvement in the wider scene? Or other scenes, for that matter? Basically, what do you do for kicks?

I’ll talk about my constructive habits (my vices another day). No, I don’t write myself. The few things I wrote was some kind of midnight revulsive to wash over my soul, but I haven’t got imagination, haven’t got the Sight to conceive such fantasy like Vellum. Maybe in the future...

I play a lot of sport to compensate for all the hours a day I’m seated. I practise climbing, bike, Quan Ki Do (Vietnamese kung fu directly to your heart chakra) and now I want to make friends with wind and sea in a lustful trio of sorts.
So, how long have you been translating and how did you get into this line of work?

Let me begin with the ending. I was in my last year of Veterinary and I didn’t make it. I failed one subject -again-, the last one, and I was going to spend the following months studying only one annoying subject. I needed to do something useful with my life -and make money too-, so I started to look for a job in various employment pages on the Internet. One of the requests was from one publisher who was “looking for people with translation qualifications for a job translating English books –sci-fi, fantasy, historical, suchlike- into Spanish”. I thought myself that work would be great for me while I was finishing Vet, so I wrote the publisher telling them that “I don’t have any qualification, but I love reading those literary genres and I think I have good English level, so why don’t you send some test text to prove myself”. They sent me the text, they enjoyed the translation and they sent me my first book: Vellum by Hal Duncan in October 2007. I really tried to do my best to honour the work of the author, although I think it was a really difficult book for a science boy like me, a rookie in all this literary world. Ink, my present task, is my second work. I want to apologise Hal if there are some translation mistakes that I didn’t or won’t realize due to my inexperience, and I want to thank him too, because working with his books has made me love my job.

What sort of range of works do you normally translate? Are you mostly focused on English-language genre fiction, or do you translate from other languages, other fields?

I think I’ve answered this in the previous question. As a remark I can say that I’m also in Morocco for learning Arabic and French to open possibilities in my new life of translator.
Do you have a specific approach to a project, a daily routine?

Well, the editor wants from me a mean of 30 pages a week. Apart from that, I’m completely free to organize myself whatever I want. I’ve removed the batteries of the alarm clock and only when Morpheus leaves I meet Hermes to begin my work.

Basically I translate my text (which I’ve previously digitalized) phrase by phrase using Trados and when I finish one chapter I read that entire chapter again in a fast reading looking for some “musicality” in the text. When I have a doubt I mark it with ??? and I leave it until I get the answer from whatever source may be.

When I finish the book I read it all again looking for coherence (every time I read the same text I punish myself: How I can write such nonsenses? How can I be so stupid? Spanish people don’t talk like that, so why don’t I do it better?... and I scourge my back with a lash).

What sort of resources do you turn to? What's the handiest thing in your office?

As I said before, the first thing I do when I get one book is scanning it to get it in Word format.

Mainly, there are two valuable programs I use; without them I don’t know if I would have killed myself with a spoon a long time ago. They’re registered, copyrighted, trade marked and you can “buy” them completely free on emule (I didn’t tell you):

- TRADOS: This tool integrates in Microsoft Word. Basically, it works phrase by phrase (from one dot to next one) bringing you two windows. In first one you have the original text, and in the second one the translation. This is a silly program, that is it don’t have any previous database but it remembers everything you write. Example:

You have "A red house”, and program gives you an empty window. You type “Una casa roja”. Next time “A red house" appears, Trados automatically brings you “Una casa roja” in second window, obviously; but if a similar phrase appears like "A green house", Trados will bring you the most similar phrase in its database, in this case "Una casa roja" and you will only need to put verde instead of roja. The program grows up with you and your way or writing, and when some text repeats on your work you cheer up because virtually you don’t need to work.

- BABYLON: My dearly Babylon, this is a modular dictionary which works on taskbar of Windows. When I have any doubt with a word (in whatever other program, Mozilla, Word, anything running under Windows) I Alt+left mouse click on it and Babylon automatically opens bringing me the translation in English, Italian, French, German, Arabic, Spanish, synonym and antonym and definition in Spanish and, if it’s a number, a conversion chart (measurements, currencies, time...); but, as I said, its modular. You can put and remove a huge selection of dictionaries. It’s my useful lifebelt.

- INTERNET: What can I say? WordReference, Answers, Urban Dictionary, Online Dictionary, RAE... without forgetting Wikipedia and Google, of course. This son of Information Era has provided me the opportunity to work some thousand miles from my bosses. It’s strange, but it gives you quite a freedom sensation.

How much do you think is lost in translation? Do you think there are stylistic effects, for example, that just don't transfer between languages? Do you ever have to choose a looser translation over a more literal one to convey a better sense of what the author's trying to do?

With my little experience translating I can only talk about my troubles with Mr Hal Duncan´s way of writing. In his work I really fear when some Classic stuff appears because it has an equivalent writing in Spanish that I must respect (some old fashioned Spanish).

I also shudder when I see a 20 lines sentence without any f--- dot on it. I assume it’s meant to be read in some frantic way and is quite difficult to find that cadence in Spanish (but it won’t beat me).

There are some wordplay that simply are untranslatable in Spanish, but I’m allowed to express that in some annotations on footer page.

I’d got problems with Irish accent too. I wanted to express it in some way; I tried to emulate it using Basque issues (I think Irish people and Basque people have similarities in their attitude), but the publishers had rejected my idea telling me that a foreign accent is untranslatable. I suppose they’re right, but I don’t like seeing Finnan talking in a perfect Spanish. I’m learning quite well that is inevitable losing some information in translation, though.

About stylistic effects, well, the English way of thinking and therefore way of writing is quite close to Spanish. Literal translation fits perfectly almost in everything (I’m a lucky boy not being Mongol or Swahili, in language disparity terms, of course) with little word order changes in the sentences. Logically, I must adapt set phrases on my own language, and for slang I have Urban Dictionary on the Web. And for the author’s sense, I really try to imagine, to visualize what is written before putting it in my own language. My feelings are a marionette on an emotional rollercoaster when I’m working. It’s easier this way...

Can a work ever gain something in translation? Let's say you're translating a doorstop blockbuster with dodgy prose; how much freedom do you have to fix bad grammar or clunky dialogue? Do you see translation as creative at all?

Am I allowed to talk bad of maese (master in ancient Spa) Duncan MacLeod? No, I’m joking. I really try to emulate everything in whatever I’m translating. I mustn’t express my opinion in my work. For me it's a high creative task to find something in Spanish that sets really close if not perfectly matched with author’s will. It’s some kind of challenge.

Sometimes I change some dots to commas, or I change the order of some allocutions or use different verbal tense looking some cadence that a literal translation can’t obtain, changing slightly the original intentionality of the text, but I’m not saying I’ve found a better way of telling that in English.

In other words, The author is my guru, the author is my leader, loving the author will bring you happiness, let’s praise the divine wisdom of the master, but don’t let your faith blind you. Spanish people are who will read the holy, oh the sacred, word of the author, so let’s make the minimum changes in the book to make it comprehensible for them. For example, translating Ink I’ve found some clear errata in some Spanish writing in the original text. I assumed the author did want to write them correctly, so I put them right, thinking of Spanish readers who will be disappointed with such trivial mistake.

Finally, I don’t like some tricks some colleagues used in some show (actually was South Pank) where some American characters who appeared in the Spanish version took Spanish characters names. That wasn’t the intentionality of the authors, and if you don’t know one character or other issue, mister translator, please don’t suppose everybody in your country will either. Please study, mister translator, and leave your pride aside, it doesn’t hurt.

How closely do you generally work with authors whose works you're translating? Without naming any names, have you ever had problems dealing with the writerly ego?

My limited experience sends me again with the creator of Vellum and Ink. Herr Duncan always was very kind and compliant with every little question I’ve made him. He had the idea of give common answers to my French and German colleagues and me —It’s curious, we (including Hal itself) are the representation of four of the more mentioned countries in his books—, and to make this interview, only begging us, as a repayment, to call him Your Highness from now on (it’s only a joke about the writerly ego. There were no problems at all).

[Note: actually it was Hannes's idea to share responses between translators, to give credit where it's due -- Hal]

Apart, of course, from the work of blinding genius / unmitigated folly by yours truly, which book that you've worked on gave you the most pleasure to translate, and which translation are you most pride of? Is there a difference?

I regret to say Monsieur Duncan has little competitors in this question. I enjoyed Vellum and I’m getting really amused with Ink. Why? Am I improving myself in my no-so-good English? Am I improving my way of writing in Spanish (that I’m learning too!)? Am I getting used to the author’s way of writing? Am I getting used to the author’s sickening mind? I can’t answer that nowadays, but I really love how the author turbomixes sooo many different subjects, such prodigality of culture, so discordant and similar, to forge with such energy something like that. Perturbed and rational, careless and sensible —all the interrelations amongst the Vellum!— I’m really proud to try to find the same emotions these books generate in me in my own language.

Sincerely, I don’t know if I like the books the most because I love the work I’m doing or because there were moments in my life I’ve felt like some characters in the books and I feel sheer empathy with the author’s mind. Ego trip.

And on the subject of ego... sorry, I have to ask: as the person who had to translate it, what aspects of VELLUM/INK were a) the biggest problems, and b) the biggest pleasures? Why?

I think I’ve answered this questions in the previous ones. The biggest problems came in from the Classics, Finnan accent and some quotes and wordplays painting black the lust for life of jumpin´ Jack Flash sympathizing for the Devil who’s searching to destroy the sheriff and the deputy too. Kaleidoscope Madness.

I think I have the same reasons for loving these books. They’ve forced me study hard and I really love the screams for freedom —with F instead PH— these books distillate. I feel less strange to myself when I know people —or characters— whose motivations I think I understand and, in some way, I share. I say motivations, not knowledge, because it’s obvious for me Hal Duncan is much wiser than me in a lot of subjects. I really love learning things, so I love his books.

And to stir things up a little... as a reader of the original, if you were also a reader of the translated text rather than the person who created it, what do you think would be your biggest problems and your biggest pleasures with the translation? Would they be the same as with the original?

I really don’t know. For instance “crack of doom” was translated in one way for Shakespeare, in other way for Tolkien and I was obliged to take third option for Duncan. This detail is lost in translation, I really want the editor allows me to put a note about that, but something is lost anyway.

Some expressions can be more accurate in Spanish about using pronoun (you) that in Spanish can be plural with genre differentiation (vosotros-as) or singular (tú) or some respect form (usted-es), but something is lost using the possessives (her-his-its-their) that are resumed in Spanish (su-sus).

Other examples come from words and expressions we have in Spanish but not in English. For instance, “troupe” that is an English word (and a Spanish word too) taken from French has a good substitute in Spanish “farándula” without using foreignness.

I really can’t remember other examples, but there are similar situations that this language allows me to improve the text from the original, in some Spanish way, of course.

And a few wider questions to close things off. Ease of reading aside, do you have any preferences between languages? Are there qualities of the languages themselves that you appreciate?

I don’t really think one language is better than another. They had their natural evolution from the generations of people who talked them, and they’re useful in their surroundings. I’ve heard Norwegian people had 50 ways of naming snow. In Spain we don’t have such close relation with the snow but we have plenty ways of insult people while English people have fuck, shit, whore, fag... don’t know, maybe ten or twenty more.

I think English is a very useful language because it's easy learning, almost stenographic. Verbal tenses are sooo easy in comparison to other languages, and words are so plastic. I mean, one sound, one onomatopoeia, can easily become a noun or verb; one verb can easily become a noun, become an adverb, become an adjective and its interrelations; and English has great capability for creating neologism (only need to see computing world).

In the spirit of internationalism, what writer in your own language (in whatever genre) are we missing out on in the anglophone world because they haven't been translated into English? Or who should we be reading that has been translated? What is it about them that rocks?

I regret I don’t know any Spanish book untranslated in English that could be nice for reading. About translated ones I can’t miss One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Marquez. Sorry if I don’t make any comment, wikiwiki does it great:

Another great novel is Hopscotch by Julio Cortazar. Translating this book must have been an enormous torture, because the author played with the language itself in some different ways:

Eduardo Mendoza, Jorge Luis Borges, Mario Vargas Llosa, Miguel Delibes, Pérez-Reverte... I don’t want to type down more writers because I know I’ll miss somebody.

And lastly, do you have any upcoming translation projects you're really looking forward to, or novels that you'd really like to work on if you had the chance?

No, nothing at all. I’m still acclimatizing to my new job and my new city. Maybe in a future I’ll seek some concrete stuff, but at the moment I’ll take thankfully everything the editors would gave me.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Mind Meld -- Gender Imbalance

SF Signal asked me for some thoughts on gender imbalance within genre fiction, as part of the most recent Mind Meld. The results are here. To be honest, I'm not really sure I'm qualified to talk about such matters. When you don't have to deal with the consequences, it's easy to remain complacent & ignorant in yer privilege; and even if you do have an awareness of the issue, that doesn't equate to insight as to dealing with it. So I'm not really sure I've got anything to say here that hasn't been said a thousand times before (vis-a-vis the backlash bullshit arguments of the reactionaries and the "keep it in yer consciousness" truism); but there are quotes from other pros much more central to the debate. So go read it on that basis.