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!