Translation Wishes

Translation Wishes

So I recently wandered past a place called Smartling, a website translation business, and saw a question about books people want to see in translation, the nature of language, communication across cultures, and other weighty things. As a blogger who regularly deals with Japanese books in translation, this made me think a bit. The original question may have had more noble novels in mind: Dickens, perhaps, or Proust. This blog being what it is however, thoughts quickly went in more, shall we say, exciting directions. We have our reputations to uphold after all, and what would the masses think if something called “Two Dudes in an Attic” suddenly transmogrified into a sock puppet for Camus? That said, it seems wrong to just give up and search for pulpy space opera about carnivorous, spacefaring arachnids who molest scantily clad, but daintily nubile maidens, so some middle ground must be found. In that spirit, Two Dudes presents Two Things in the Attic that we would love to see in Japanese, if they have not already somehow been translated without either of us realizing it.

First up is the imminently respectable 2312, by Kim Stanley Robinson. Long time readers will remember this as my pick for best book of 2012, longest review of 2012 on the site, and one of my most-cited books out there. I want this to be translated because I find 2312 to be the ultimate in science fiction. It is ten pounds of wild but plausible future imaginings in a five pound bag. It is warning about our current foolishness, but paints a wildly optimistic picture of how we might rise above the looming disasters. It has progressive and challenging gender concepts, and is one of the few voices out there urging a progression past capitalism to something better and more sustainable. There are cities that move across the surface of Mercury on tracks powered by the Sun and space elevators on Earth with participatory opera. Hollowed asteroids with all sorts of habitats and cultures hurtle through orbit while extinct animals parachute through the Earth’s skies. There is a deadly mystery and an intrepid romance, both spanning the Solar System. If there is one book out there that says, “Hey, pay attention to SF! It shows a new way forward,” it would be 2312. I can’t think of another book that deserves more attention and conversation.

As a potential translation, 2312 has the bonus of being fairly straightforward. There are lots of big ideas, but nothing we don’t have plenty of words for. It doesn’t depend on humor or cultural references, nor is it excessively poetic or dense. Just lots of fascinating topics that can cut across any language or society, and so eminently translatable.

Now that the high culture stuff is out of the way, I present my next translation dream: Star Control II. Plenty of obstacles to this one, not the least: who has the spare time and money to translate a 20+ year old computer game? Once available, who is going to play it? Another massive challenge would be somehow making this game as funny in Japanese as it is in English. I like to think of myself as a relatively humorous guy, and I can get Japanese people laughing with the best of them. (No mean feat, that, especially Japanese from outside the Osaka region.) But even I am at a complete loss when it comes to translating the Spathi or Umgah. The Mycon? Forget it.

I don’t know that one could pick a “best” computer game of all time, but SC2 has to make the Top Ten. The Ur-Quan are some of the best villains in SF history. The exploration aspect remains unmatched. The future history and denizens of the SC galaxy are both among my favorite in all SF, not just games. There is an entire generation of gamers in the West that should play this game, and there must be millions of gamers around the world that will never have the chance due to language. Star Control II translation is the humanitarian service project that gamers everywhere owe it to the world to undertake, if for no other reason than to put “I grow turgid. Violent action ensues” into as many tongues as possible.

And there you have it. I don’t know if Smartling had this foolishness in mind when they wrote to me, but I can pretty much guarantee that nobody else will give these answers. Now, on to the translating!

Tilting at Rainbow Windmills

Tilting at Rainbow Windmills
How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Sad Puppy Hugo Ballot

It’s that time of year again and I am thrilled – THRILLED – to see another Sad Puppy Crusade being launched. One year ago at this time, I went through predictable cycles of outrage, despair, and trepidation until the Nebulas were announced (sweep for the ladies) and then the amazing 2014 Hugos happened. For those not current on genre politics, the so-called Sad Puppy ballot is the brainchild of certain Baen Books writers (who else?) that tries to roll back the encroachments of women, brown people, and gay people into our once pure community. In this case, it is by gang nominating politically acceptable entries for the Hugo Award. Last year there was an impressive ruckus about the whole thing that concluded in a crushing Sad Puppy defeat at WorldCon and victory for people like Kameron Hurley. One imagines the results will be similar this year, though the 2014 host city, London, is a cosmopolitan, urbane, and cutting edge city and the 2015 host, Spokane, Washington, is … erm … none of those things.

This was originally going to be a scathing take down of an article linked to on The Fantasy Review Barn, especially the part where the author condemned the Nebula Award for leading readers down unsafe and apostate pathways. The more I think about it though, the more sympathetic I become. This year, Grand High Eternally Saddest Puppy Larry Correia appears to have anointed Brad Torgerson the 2015 Saddest Puppy. The torch has been passed for a season to brave Brad, who must lead the (suicidal?) charge to Take Back the Hugos. Let us all spare a thought for valiant Brad, who is faced with a most thankless task.

And this is where my snark drained a bit. See, Brad and I have a lot in common. We are both Mormons from Utah. We both love SF. We both left Zion for the first time as missionaries, as we spent two years proclaiming the joys of Utah to people who didn’t care. (That was my experience at least. I don’t know if he was a missionary, though I assume he was, and I have no idea where he might have gone.) Brad joined the Army Reserve and I taught JHS English, which is kind of the same thing. There are a few crucial differences, i.e. though born in Salt Lake, I was actually raised in Idaho, which has a much better state song. He is a famous author, and I am … not. Still, I think we would recognize facets of ourselves in each other. Thus I am confident that Brad is a genuinely nice guy, because most Utahns I know are genuinely nice people, who go out of there way to help others more than almost any other group. Most people I know from Utah also have political opinions that make me physically ill, so there is that small issue.

So I feel a touch of melancholy as Brad leads the Charge of the Old White Dude Light Brigade against the ever globalizing forces of the SFF community. After all, he is a representative of my people and my heritage, the very same that mourned Mitt Romney’s unfortunate encounter with a steamroller known as The Future during the 2014 Presidential Election. Heritage or no, is it wrong to be gleeful when I think of the final vote counts we are likely to see in Spokane? Part of me wants to cop Aragorn’s speech at the gates of Mordor: “There may come a day when the strength of humanity fails, when angry and fearful white males lurch forward and reclaim their overlordship of nerd communities and vaguely phallic awards statues, when all those creepy colored folks and women and transgendered types and other minorities, who now together might claim a majority, are relegated to the back benches and closets and kitchens and possibly once again forced to endure harassment, BUT TODAY IS NOT THAT DAY!” And then everyone cheers and rushes forward with, well maybe not swords, but maybe glitter and pan-Asian cuisine, and casts their votes for City of Stairs or The Peripheral or maybe even, heaven forbid, The Three Body Problem, and all of the sad puppies are forced back into wherever it is they usually hang out. Montana, possibly, or Georgia.

Which is not to say that Brad Torgerson is an orc. John Ringo might be, but I’m pretty sure Brad and I could hang out at a board game function, sip root beer, and swap stories of our kids. I wish we didn’t feel quite so differently about some of my favorite books and authors, but such is life. The Culture for me and Galt’s Gulch for the puppies.

Honestly though, where would you rather live?

The Three Body Problem

The Three Body Problem
Liu Cixin

Everyone, read this book. Then tell a friend, or write an article, or take some action to make more people pick it up. Tor Books has given us a rare opportunity and it is up to us, the reading public, to show them (and other publishers) that we want more.

The cost to purchase rights and pay translators makes non-English books considerably more expensive to publish than locally crafted stuff. A market saturated with English authors and famous names means noticeably more risk for these more expensive books. These and other travails of the translated book market have been well documented, so there should be no surprise that we English speakers see so little SFF from the rest of the world. (And really, with our TBR piles teetering under their own massive weight already, who clamors for even more books? Oh wait.) It may be that Tor found some reason to believe that Liu Cixin would be a goldmine for the company, but I have to imagine that they are making a sizable financial gamble to bring not just one book, but an entire trilogy across the Pacific. I commend Tor for this, and am well aware that the gates will shut just as quickly as they opened if The Three Body Problem settles without a ripple.

For background, I recommend checking out interviews with popular author Ken Liu, who translated this and the third volume of the trilogy. He has spoken widely about the book, the author, and the process of translating from Chinese to English. (As a part-time translator myself, his insight is invaluable and fascinating.) I’ve seen several reviews of Three Body in notable venues like Locus and, and while they are heavy on praise for the book, they are light on detail. I hope to change that if I can, though the greatest pleasure comes from watching the book unfold in unexpected directions. It is, at heart, a first contact story, but Liu takes a rather different path to get there and spoiling the details of that path would be a great disservice.

The central argument of the book is summarized by a single sentence in the afterword: the author’s recommendation that we assume the best in our fellow humans, but maintain healthy suspicion about anyone we may meet from other stars. We are often quite the opposite, giving way to cynicism about other people while maintaining utopic visions of grand, interstellar civilizations. (I am guilty as well.) This is not to say that the people in Three Body are good and the aliens are bad, but people thinking the worst of each other drives most of the conflict in the story. This can happen at a state level between governments, at a society level between classes, or a personal level between individuals, but the characters are continuously expecting others to be selfish and stupid. The shadowy group behind most of the action is convinced that humanity can’t be trusted to take care of itself and is working to remove our agency; this embodies the ultimate expression of the author’s stated fear.

Liu’s secondary theme is the necessity of science. On its own, this is no surprise in a science fiction novel, but China’s history presents a very different lens than the Western rationalism that pervades our SF dialog. The novel opens in the Cultural Revolution, with that particular orgy of anti-intellectualism setting the stage for the above mentioned desperation and hinting at what a completely anti-scientific society would be like. Two digressions: First, I don’t have my finger on the pulse of Chinese politics, but I am surprised that Liu could be so blatantly critical of the Cultural Revolution. We all know it was a catastrophe, but one has to tread carefully with criticism. I did note that he never condemned any leaders, least of all Mao, but I didn’t expect something so honest. Second, we Americans shake our heads sadly at the Cultural Revolution, but really need to be more vigilant. Of any developed nation, I think the US has the most open hostility to intellectuals. I doubt it will get out of hand, but it’s plenty bad enough already.

Anyway, back to science. One of the prominent bad guy groups specifically targets science, finding any way they can to discredit it in the eyes of the public. Their intention is to weaken humanity by driving them in more Luddite directions. The main character in the book finds himself targeted specifically because he is on the cutting edge of nanofiber development. It’s not all clear cut though. Many of the disenchanted are there precisely because they are smart enough to see what’s going on around them. Their own superior understanding of the world leads them to despair, and, eventually, betrayal. Things are very complicated.

Some highlights of Three Body: the online RPG that initially draws the protagonist into the conspiracy is mind-bending and almost worth a novel of its own. The Hard SF aspects of the novel are suitably crunchy, whether the eponymous math problem, the Three Body star system itself, or the ways the Chinese deal with SETI questions. Finally, the Chinese setting is everything that a reader could want from translated SF. The historical background and society wherein the characters operate is different enough to be exotic, but carefully explained and never bewildering. (Ken Liu’s footnotes are impeccable and never intrusive.) Three Body brings the new perspective that SF veterans look for in their books and the glimpse into another culture that international fiction can provide.

Three Body also tells a fascinating story that is clearly going places in the upcoming sequels. Even without the international appeal, this would be one of the premier Hard SF releases of 2014. I don’t know the exact rules for translations, but if eligible, this is going on my Hugo ballot and has rocketed into the top three or five books from 2014. Tor made a solid decision to publish Three Body and should be rewarded for it with all the sales and publicity we can give the book. If the community can make a big enough ruckus for Three Body to be a money maker, we may see a steady stream of translated SFF, and hopefully not just from Asia. Tor was brave enough to take the first step here, it’s up to us push things to the next level.

Tagging Game

A Tagging Game

That’s not a book title, though maybe it should be. I was sort of tagged by Nathan at the Fantasy Review Barn, so I will answer some random questions about myself. And no, this has nothing to do with today currently sitting at one lone hit for the blog and no, I am not trying to drum up traffic with senseless click bait.


1. Pep – The blog name was chosen as an obscure European football joke. My namesake is now blowing things up at Bayern Munich.
2. Brit – My real name is too long for some people, so Brittain becomes Brit.
3. Baba-chan – Japanese people have an awful time with my given name, so they instead murder my last name and call me a homonym for “old woman.”
4. All sorts of awful, gender-bending and/or pronunciation challenged permutations of what my parents allegedly thought was an easy name to say.


1. Potato factory assembly line worker – Not much available in E. Idaho for temp work during college breaks, so I did a fair amount of time at various brainless positions. “Good potato, bad potato…”
2. Credit card collections agency plebe – My main tasks included sending form letters to the families of deceased or bankrupt people reminding them how much money they owed the credit card. Also bagel runs.
3. English teacher at Rust Belty Japanese JHS – This surprises the Japanese as well, but there are bad schools with delinquent kids even in Japan. More than one of my students left in a police car. Fewer drugs and less violence than US bad schools, but a challenge nonetheless. Also one of my favorite jobs thus far.
4. Janitor in the university PE building – Didn’t last long here, waking up at 4 to vacuum weight room floors and clean gym toilets.


1. Star Wars – Of course I have.
2. Princess Mononoke – Or any Studio Ghibli movie, but this is my favorite.
3. So I Married an Axe Murderer – Underrated classic.
4. UHF – Weird Al forever.


I believe I have now written four “Best of ….” articles, from years 2011 – 2014, so that’s a place to start.


1. Idaho Falls, Idaho – While born in Salt Lake, most of my growing up was in this placid hamlet.
2. Logan, UT – Utah State, Hey! Aggies all the way! Go Aggies, Go Aggies, hey hey hey!
3. Sendai, Japan – First two years in Japan were spent in and around Sendai. At least one former apartment was flattened by the tsunami in 2011, so I’m a bit emotionally involved in the area.
4. Kyoto, Japan – Best city in the world, after Seattle (current home). UNESCO sites during the day, good food from anywhere in the world for dinner, and a great music/nightlife scene until the dawn. Aside from stifling summers, I’d move back in a heartbeat.


1. Mt. Fear (Osore-zan) – A haunted, mystical spot in Northern Japan, famous for hot springs and communing with spirits. Smells terrible and the only hotel is run by a crazy, but friendly and entertaining, older couple.
2. Borneo – Loved it. Best trip of my life.
3. Ina, Nagano, Japan – Wife’s hometown. Not a place that any foreign tourist would ever go.
4. Ummm, Las Cruces, NM? – I had all the luck on college band trips. Reno, NV multiple times (yuck), Birmingham, AL, Anaheim (at least it’s SoCal?), and lovely Las Cruces.


1. In outer space – Doesn’t matter where, but in space. My ultimate dream is to leave Earth.
2. Japan – Always love being there. I may or may not move back in the future, but life is instantly happier when I step off the plane. (Of course, I moved to Seattle once I stopped feeling that way about Japan.)
3. I’m actually running out of ideas here.


1. Natto – Fermented soy beans that smell like cheese crapped out of a cow. My wife loves the stuff.
2. Onions – Well, I eat them a lot I guess, but I don’t like them!
3. Small, whole fish – Sorry, I don’t eat heads and eyeballs.
4. Rocky Mountain Oysters – Haven’t tried them though, so maybe they’re delicious?


1. Potatoes (I’m from Idaho)
2. Chocolate
3. BBQ (KC style)
4. Tonkotsu Ramen (pork-based soup)


1. Seattle summer – Best city in the world in summer. Last year we camped at least seven times.
2. Japan – Probably going back for a week, since the last trip involved a funeral and wasn’t fun at all.
3. Gigs – My main band has been rebuilding over the winter, but will start playing out again next week. There hasn’t been enough music in my life.
4. HS Reunion – It’s the big 20 Year in Idaho Falls this summer. Oh my.


1. Mystery Science Theater 3000
2. Sports
3. Sports
4. Um…., more sports? We’re not a big TV family.


1. Indeed – This has become a running joke in the family: “Indeeeed, says dad.”
2. Nandeyanen – Versatile bit of Osaka dialect. Roughly, “What are you talking about?”
3. Drive stupid – Pops out of my mouth with disappointing regularity.
4. I am out of catch phrases. Someone else can probably answer this better than I can.


Too lazy. No tagging.

The Peripheral

The Peripheral
William Gibson

Now that we are shambling raggedly out of Vintage SF Month, it’s time to take another look at The Future as seen from the cutting edge of now. That description fits William Gibson better than anyone else I can think of, and wouldn’t you know it, there’s a brand new Gibson book out there, illuminating the path to tomorrow like a cheap, buzzing, neon sign for some establishment our mothers would never recommend. All the cool kids know that Gibson’s place is where it’s at, that no matter the décor, we’re going to leave with something mind blowing. We also know the squares will never understand what’s hip and Chez Gibson won’t ever get that Michelin star or Booker prize. It’s their loss though, so put on your mirrorshades and jack in.

Most reactions to The Peripheral call it a return to form for the author. Not that The Peripheral is traditional cyberpunk, but that the author is back to bigger futures, deeper themes, and a more colorful palette. Or at least a palette with more shades of black than before. I enjoyed the preceding Blue Ant books, but each felt progressively narrower. While the stories were as slick and hypnotic as ever, the stakes and characters grew more rarefied as the trilogy progressed. In The Peripheral, Gibson opens up his vision again and creates two futures for the price of one, on the biggest canvas he’s used since the Sprawl books. The plot beats are familiar, but the book maintains deep connections to right now while showing a radically different future.

While all SF naturally reflects that era it was written in, Gibson makes that more of an obvious feature in his writing. Think of the 80s sheen of the Neuromancer books or the embryonic otaku culture in Aidoru. The Peripheral is no different, with its meth cooking, 3D printing near future and deconstructed post-Singularity secondary timeline. We all feel right at home in Clanton County, where the entirety of the local economy is drug production and illicit printing and many of the prominent locals are wounded, messed up vets. It’s pretty clear from the outset that the US has slid into an untenable economic state, that the superrich have sucked the country dry, the climate is out of control, and things are going to get very bad, very soon. Some people have called this “political,” but to me it just seems an all too plausible destination of the track we’re on.

The parallel, further future timeline is wildly different, but still connected intimately with today. An anti-Singularity called The Jackpot has depopulated most of the middle and lower economic classes, finally bringing environmental problems under control simply by eliminating much of humanity. This future is run by kleptocrats, the very rich and very corrupt 1%, though one could argue that what portions of humanity remain are doing alright. Most of the political questions are toned down in this future though, with more of the focus on the requisite array of very strange people out there in this brave new (sparsely populated) world. The action centers around a London populated by PR flakes, whacko conceptual artists, Russian organized crime, strangely omniscient policewomen, body guards with quirks and flaws, and other typically Gibson-esque creations.

The Singularity isn’t Gibon’s only target for subversion. There are nods to cyberspace, consciousness transfer, and time travel. The last makes for the core of the book, as Gibson posits a mysterious ability of the future to view and interact with the past. There is no “travel,” per se, though people can cast their consciousness into empty vessels on either end. It’s kind of like time travel, but more like on online game. Time passes in parallel, one’s body stays in the same place, and destruction of a vessel does not necessarily equal death in the “real” world. In this way, people from Clanton County and London visit each other, meddle in the other’s affairs, wonder who’s really manipulating who, and solve the mystery driving all of the action.

The writing and plot will be familiar to veterans of other Gibson campaigns. Things take a bit of time to get rolling, but the action is dizzying once the final quarter begins. We are dropped into both worlds with little to no infodumping, puzzling out the situation from hints dropped through interactions and language. A completeness is present in the details that somehow never overwhelm the bigger picture, though looking back one is surprised by the small things that appear in the story, little descriptive nuggets that are optional but somehow perfect and appropriate. Gibson is almost pointillist in the way he creates the bigger scene through tiny dots of language and minutia; I often had to read passages more than once to figure out exactly what happened, though it all made perfect sense once I saw the whole outline. I’ve always found his writing both elegant and spare, with a mix of humor and cynicism that is immediately recognizable.

I realize as I go that by trying to dig out the crunchy fun inside The Peripheral, I’m obscuring it, and by explaining my long-running Gibson fandom, I’m reducing his overall cool stat by at least two six-sided dice. Many of the interviews and reviews I’ve been reading are written by people like me: Gen X types who discovered Neuromancer and the primitive internet at roughly the same time, who grew up on computer games like Star Control and Bard’s Tale, and who got an electric vibe from cyberpunk that still resonates, even as the aesthetic of the subgenre has long since been absorbed by its surrounding society. I try to separate my unavoidable hero worship of the author from hard hitting literary analysis, but it’s will nigh impossible. I am a massive William Gibson fan and I’m ecstatic that he wrote something huge and complex like The Peripheral.

So sycophantic fawning aside, everyone should read this, except maybe people that just don’t like Gibson’s books, but I don’t know why they’d be reading this blog anyway.