Global SF Project… Just an Idea, For Now, But…

A friend’s recent post (on a mailing list, so no link) has me thinking about the fact I’m in a slump in terms of sending out stories and even in terms of writing. The last semester just really took it out of me. Between the stress of considering hunting for a new job, getting my freelance gig done, staying on top of my classes, and dealing with personal stuff, there’s been little energy or brain-space left over for writing.

Which drives home to me the importance of priorities. What’s more important: freelance gigs, or writing? What’s more important: making each of my classes “the best ever” or writing? I’m not saying that one should throw aside everything and write, because really, my day job is a good job, and I like it, and I want to do a good job on it. (I find teaching good classes highly rewarding, too.) But there’s a law of diminishing returns that kicks in at some point, where the effort to make the class not just excellent but truly outstanding yields only marginal benefits for a marginal percentage of students.

I was asked, in my interview on Monday, about my intentions regarding research. I responded that I wanted to look at SF, which initially was misinterpreted as, “Okay, but we don’t mean creative writing, we mean academic research.” I clarified that SF in Korea is in an odd position, since it’s quite marginal as compared with SF in China and Japan. I was immediately asked whether I speak/read Chinese and Japanese, and I’m not sure my response clarified much — “Well, I don’t intend on studying Japanese and Chinese SF in the original languages, personally: a lot of research is available on Japanese SF in English, and some is available about Chinese SF… so I figure I’ll focus on the Korean SF first, since there’s basically no scholarship in English on the subject.”

But what I really wanted to say was something more like this.

“Back in the 19th century, until sometime shortly after the turn of the century, in Anglophone universities, one of the great academic projects was translation. Ancient Greek and Roman writings were being translated into English for publication and dissemination. Some academics made translation of non-English language literature an important component of their scholarly ‘research.’ That project dried up at some point, but it is incomplete. As yet, for example, there is scant little Korean SF translated into English. There is perhaps no Korean fantasy or horror literature translated at all. I think that the translation of this work is a worthwhile endeavour, not only because what I’ve seen of Korean SF so far has a very unusual character when compared with SF from Anglophone countries, but also because looking at the avenues of adoption for this genre here can give us insights into the dissemination of Anglophone popular culture to non-Western cultures on a global scale. Besides this, however, the translation of this work in itself is a worthwhile project, not only because it would allow Anglophone SF researchers to get at Korean SF in an academic capacity, but also because it could be a part of the larger project of globalizing SF — creating a body of non-Anglo SF-in-translation and also bringing those visions of the future to bear on mainstream Anglo SF itself.”

But did I say that? Oh, no. No, I didn’t. But I think it’s definitely my plan of attack, should I actually get the position I applied for. A co-translation project, plus hopefully some kind of clearing-house for global SF in translation. Wouldn’t it be cool to see what kind of SF is being written, however marginal, in Viet Nam? In India? In Cambodia? In Mozambique? In Brazil? In Greece? In Poland? And making them available online, especially if there was a decent payment for each work — pro rates — would be a good way to get the stuff out there. (Though it’d be good to look at ways of monetizing such a site, as making it help pay for itself would be ideal; who knows, maybe there would be a market for an anthology down the road, too?) I could follow up with academic articles on the fictional works that got translated this way, as well as academic articles on the uses of this stuff in teaching English Culture to non-Anglo students, and some general critical work on SF and other genre lit in general.

However, I musn’t lose sight of my own writing: that’s a project that needs to keep in motion too. While working on a global SF project, unlike other “freelance” stuff, might not pay so well, it also wouldn’t necessarily eat away at my writing time and energies the way that editing (read: rewriting, multiple times) random sheafs of pages from a middle-school textbook would do.

16 thoughts on “Global SF Project… Just an Idea, For Now, But…

  1. You make a good point that there is no translation of Korean genre fiction. The why is simple: genre fiction will never will the Nobel prize. I know that may sound cynical, but translation here is in large part driven by government funding and thus by government agendas, and I doubt they would support genre fiction. Also, anyone not translating with government funds is probably an academic, and we can’t very well go around translating genre fiction when there’s all this other “legitimate” fiction that needs to be translated, can we?

  2. Such a project would be fabulous; for some reason the ones I know about have failed….only found out about this apparently short-lived experiment because there was an ad for it in the English-language edition of Kosmoskynä ( from 2006 when the Worldcon was in Glasgow….

    Hmm. See, exactly for this sort of reason I want to get Hekuman huipulla ( translated and published in English….although I’m more of an intermediary than anything else…

  3. Charles,

    Exactly. Which is why we can’t sit around waiting for it to get translated for us. :)

    I happen to suspect the same respectability issues may also have some role in why genre fiction is marginalized to begin with, mind you; as recently as when I first got here, younger authors were being browbeaten by their elders for failing to write about the Korean war and the schism between the two Koreas. I swear, some of the old guard made it sound like a crime (indeed, the word “betrayal” came up IIRC) that young denizens of Seoul dared to write about their own concerns and interests, and not follow in the oldsters’ footsteps.

    I also suspect that such “respectability issues” are often exacerbated by peripherality or postcolonial inferiority complexes. Canada, though it shares its culture with the US very deeply, produces (and publishes) WAAAAAAAAAAY more “literary fiction” (that is, fiction that is self-consciously high-arty and “literary” in a generic sense) than SF or other speculative fiction. Canada has a number of major poetry journals, but only a few SF venues.

    But to be fair, I think another BIG reason translations are rare for genre stuff is that stuff is moving in the other direction at the moment. Most of the hardcore fans of the genre are just writing new stuff in their native tongue, or translating SF into their native tongue, and most bilingual Koreans involved in the field are still heavily involved in bringing foreign SF into Korean translation; while playing catch-up, it is understandable (though unfortunate) how little effort is going in the other direction. Plus they rightly suspect limited interest, I think. (And a certain degree of untranslatability. I have a hard time imagining Western audiences would grasp much of Bok Geo-Il’s In Search of an Epitaph without a fairly involved foreword about what he’s doing with his alternate history.)

    Then again, very little short Japanese SF got translated until Judith Merrill and some other Western SF writers in Japan hooked up with with Japanese translators and made it an ongoing project. (Though she and the others involved made a point of submitting the stories to genre magazines at the time. Which is worth considering: editors I’ve talked or corresponded with have expressed interest in translations, after all.)


    Yeah, there was another such webzine that was run out of Germany, I think, and it too failed. I suspect the killer is making it pay for itself.

    We’ll see what I can make happen. If not now, maybe sometime in the future… Thanks for the links, by the way! I’ll be sure to check them out more thoroughly once I’ve finished grading.

  4. I’m always thrilled to read science fiction from places where you wouldn’t expect it. I wonder though how much of it is imitation. In the preface to McSweeney’s Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories, Michael Chabon talks about genre writers (specifically science fiction/fantasy writers) typically being of two separate types of story teller. I don’t buy that it’s just that simple, but I have seen that there are writers who focus on writing about their community and those who write about far away lands and adventures. I’d like to read a speculative fiction writer whose focus is on their country, but I imagine that might be hard to come by–even I write to escape my community. I’m so exposed to US centered media and literature, just reading something–anything–our of Vietnam translated into English would probably seem like speculative fiction to me.

    Short version: Sounds cool. Roll with it!

  5. “I don’t buy that it’s just that simple”

    Looking back over the preface, neither does he. He’s actually referencing Walter Benjamin’s, “The Storyteller,” and using the two distinct types of story tellers; the “tiller of soil” and the “trading seaman.” I haven’t read the essay, but think I need to now.

  6. See, one argument for academic respectability in the old fashioned sense for translating sf as much as something literary is (And a certain degree of untranslatability. I have a hard time imagining Western audiences would grasp much of Bok Geo-Il’s In Search of an Epitaph without a fairly involved foreword about what he’s doing with his alternate history.)
    …as a entree for talking about world history, as a primary source text.

    “Not So Quiet”, a pulp novel from the 20s I think it was has since been published academically by womens studies folks as a portrait of gender mapping and relations at the time of the Great War, although I didn’t get that angle when I read it at age 13 and enjoyed it just as much.

    One can argue for the educational value of trying to explain the untranslatable and the educational value of exposure to cultures other than one’s own.

    At least in the West, I know in Korea all that is pretty fraught even though foreign sf is pouring by the bucketload….and this makes me remember a conversation with Pasi about how sf started after the war with translations of Verne and Asimov and so on….

  7. Shawn,

    Actually, I find that non-Anglophone SF seems more likely to focus on the country of the author than Anglophone SF. (Almost all the Korean stuff and Japanese stuff I’ve seen thus far does so, anyway. Same with Russian stuff.) Maybe that’s a reaction to the fact that SF is so dominated by Anglophone visions of the world, or maybe it’s part of the project of “retooling” SF to non-Anglo cultures/societies. Something to write about, eventually, there.

    Thanks for the encouragement, and yeah, I’ll need to look at that Benjamin essay. (Benjamin’s also got a very interesting piece, very relevant to today, called “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.”)


    Heck, I’ve seen a few SF novels (or novellas) published that way. I’d like to think that if H.G. Wells’ 110-odd-page novella Star Begotten warrants a 30-odd-page introduction by a scholar, then 30-odd pages could be worked in for a full-length novel in translation as well. (But since Minsoo Kang has expressed an interested in translating Bok and other novelists, maybe I’ll focus efforts on getting more recent short fiction translated for now?)

  8. Yeah, the new direction of Korean literature is most certainly not to the liking of the old guard — but I think it is definitely time to move beyond the war and division. An entire generation of writers was shackled by these issues; you literally could not write anything else at the time. First it was novels about the war and its aftermath, then it was “social” novels, but they were still “meaningful.” Now writers dare to write about meaningless things! Don’t get me wrong–what was written in previous generations needed to get written, but it’s time to move on.

    Sometimes I wonder if the displeasure of the old guard comes from general disapproval or a secret jealousy.

    Hmm. Anyway, maybe one of these days I’ll translate a Korean SF short story for fun. That would require a bit of research into the field, though, because I know nothing about Korean SF. Actually, maybe you could recommend something? Even though I may not get to translating it for a while, I can still read stuff for pleasure over the winter break to help maintain my sanity.

    (By the way, in my first post up there: “will never will the Nobel Prize” should have been “will never win the Nobel Prize.” I’m pretty sure you figure this out, but it niggles.)

    (You know what annoys me about the comment handler? It automatically reduces two dashes to a single dash. Ah, but putting spaces around a double dash seems to work. Hmm.)

  9. Charles,

    Sorry about the comment handler issue. I imagine if I were to hack about I might be able to find a fix, but other things press for now.

    I’d say it definitely is time to move forward. In fact, I think only through moving forward can people get any kind of perspective on the War and the Separation. I don’t imagine that the thematic lock was very conducive to a diversity of attitudes or critique of the mainstream “widsom” on these events, after all.

    Now writers dare to write about meaningless things!

    Though I’d argue that, in some ways, “The War” and “The Separation” are meaningless for these writers. No, no, not quite, but those things are not omnipresent memories, but rather inherited social traumas. It’s like growing up in a world with ATMs: you’ll never quite grasp what it was like to have to drop by the bank on Friday to ensure you’d have cash for the weekend. (Or, say, growing up in a world of email and streaming video and trying to fathom sending postal letters and news reports around the earth at a snail’s pace, in a world where photography did not yet exist.)

    Anyway, yes, it’s obviously time to move on, as a number of writers have begun to do.

    Sometimes I wonder if the displeasure of the old guard comes from general disapproval or a secret jealousy.

    “I cannot do X, therefore you must not do X,” is a very popular moral formulation.

    If you’re interested in translating a piece of Korean SF (or fantasy, or horror) then I can certainly dig around for a suggestion of a piece or author who’d fit you. You know I’m a big fan of Djuna, of whose books I have almost everything, even if I can’t really read them. (I also have a full set of Fantastique, which has many original and new Korean SF stuff, as well as translations from English, Japanese, and maybe other languages.) I’d be happy to loan you some or all. There are short stories in one, including what looks like a fantasy story, if that’s more your bag. I could even recommend mags for submission, if you get around to actually translating. (Hell, if it’s some kind of optimistic, near-future SF, you could even submit it to the Shine anthology that I recently mentioned.)

    As for the typo, what scares me is that I didn’t notice it at all.

  10. By the way, Charles, I should correct you: there’s ALMOST no translation of Korean genre fiction. There is one small cache of it at Crossroads, which I’ve mentioned before (and which is linked from the sidebar, under “Read”).

  11. It’s been more than twenty years since I’ve tried to look seriously at Korean SF. (High school). At that time, native Korean SF was practically non-existent. From what you report, things seem to have gotten a lot better. However, once you go back before the current generation (before say, the mid-90s), there may be very little material to go on.
    From what you seem to imply, the Korean SF has gone beyond “rediscovering the wheel” (retreading the grounds Anglophone SF had covered in 1940s-60s), which is all to the good; perhaps within the next decade or so, Korean SF writers can contribute some genuinely unique perspectives to global SF.

    As for the interview with the school, they are interested in your research because all universities in Korea are evaluated annually by the Ministry of Education, as well as various other organizations including newspapers; and if you are hired as formal faculty, your research (or lack of it) must be counted in the evaluation as well. I’m not sure if creative writing or translations are counted in that evaluation process. (For my field, economics, the only things they count are jourjal articles and specialized, technical books or textbooks – which partially explains the absurd number of Korean economics introductory textbooks in the Korean marketplace). Like the Korean students, the Korean universities are hyper-sensitive about the ranking they get from these evaluations.

    It also doesn’t help that most Korean intellectuals who work in humanities (including literature) thinks SF is silly.

  12. Junsok,

    Yeah, I think SF has moved past rediscovering the wheel here. At least, the few stories I’ve read from the Crossroads site have at the very least been something I could hold up with other zine publication in English. (And I think Djuna’s novella there is worthy of an academic paper on the cyberpunkification [???] of postcolonial anxiety.)

    If you’re interested, I could loan you some of my copies of Fantastique (which is becoming a quarterly, alas) or the few Korean SF books I have. No problem at all.

    I suspect every society that creates a native SF reinvents the wheel first. I think it’s kind of like how every society that creates a native jazz tradition ends up glomming onto one or another chunk of the tradition and having way too much of it for a while, before diversification sets it.

    I’m hoping Korean authors can constribute to global SF, but one thing has me nervous about the idea of investing too much energy into it, which is something that came up in a discussion here: the fact that lots of Americans (and other Anglophones) just aren’t that interested in what creative people in other cultures are doing. (Hence the success of all the crappy Hollywood remakes of actually good Asian films.) This is why there’s only one famous English anthology of Chinese SF, only a few of French SF, scant little Japanese SF in English translation, and so on.

    So, then: webzine is a good idea, as it capitalizes on the Long Tail (and won’t go into publication debt).

    As for my research: yeah, actually, it’s 99% certain I will be hired on, and then I’m obligated to do a little publishing (not so much, as I’m on the Educational track). If a paper contributed to a book counts as a publication, though, maybe I’m well on my way, as I’m on a waiting list for one interdisciplinary text of papers.

    Not holding my breath, though. But the publication requirement I face isn’t particularly onerous, I think, and I can at least submit new journals to my department’s approved list.

    (Thank heaven, or I’d be stuck writing TEFL papers and grunting about how I can’t write linguistics papers.)

    As for intellectuals finding SF silly, yeah… Boo! I preemptively declare any such individual categorically silly! So there!

    And with another semester done (or, almost — I have some papers to grade) I say, we should get together for a coffee or something, or beer if you like.

  13. Alas, I have about five hundred exams to grade (about 140 of it is math – I didn’t finish grading the midterms yet…)

    Definitely coffee or beer in January sometime. :)

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