If Anglophones Were Civilised They Would Read Angelica Gorodischer

by Arthur B

Arthur really enjoyed Kalpa Imperial.
In the discussion following Dan's article on race in fantasy fiction, it was pointed out that we don't seem to get much in the way of translations of SF beyond the English-speaking world. While cultural myopia probably bears much of the blame, I believe there are other factors at play. There's the economic reasons, of course - why spend the money on translating someone's work on top of the effort of getting the rights to their work when there's always another English-speaking mug who thinks that he or she is Tolkien? Then there is the inherent difficulty of translating SF and fantasy - how to translate one particular made-up word such that it makes sense in another context?

Of course, some authors are of sufficient stature that you can't not translate them. Stanislaw Lem's fiction has been praised within the English-speaking world for years. But there's certainly not enough effort being made to translate the best of the world's SF into English, and we anglophones are suffering for it. It is completely unjust that of all of Angelica Gorodischer's work, only Kalpa Imperial has been translated. Then again, maybe the translation of great fiction requires a translator of comparable talent to the author. As you have probably noticed to the illustration to the right, Kalpa Imperial was translated by none other than Ursula le Guin. (Incidentally, my copy claims that she wrote the Bartimaeus Trilogy, which as far as I am aware is wrong - although John Stroud should probably take it as a compliment.)

Kalpa Imperial is evidence that great minds think alike; published in two volumes in the early 1980s, it is an oral history (in the form of a series of short stories) of a powerful empire somewhere in the northern hemisphere that arises from the ashes of our own civilisation (or some distant successor to our civilisation) and might occupy the same space that the United States does. That such a thing was written around the time that Gene Wolfe was writing The Book of the New Sun, an epic science fantasy novel set countless millennia in the future in a powerful empire somewhere in the southern hemisphere and more-or-less occupying the same space as Gorodischer's native Argentina. If anything, Gorodischer is even more oblique than Wolfe as to the past and origins and location of her empire, with the notable exception of the final story (in which a man tells a story which is clearly the Iliad populated by Hollywood legends and recast as a creation myth).

To be fair, the actual facts about the Empire's history are somewhat irrelevant: the focus here is on the storyteller's art, and the tales he tells, and the people he tells stories about. We are treated to the childhood of the Emperor Ferret, as two humble janitors help him break free of his mother's grudge against his dead father. We are entranced by The Pool, in which a doctor prescribes fantastic remedies for the ailments of powerful and poor alike and a revolutionary tries to get him to see things her way. We avidly burn through a biography of a city, the story of the isolation and death of an usurper, an Empress's account of her origins and rise to power, and further brilliant gems await us. Eventually we finish the book and wish we had more Gorodischer to read.

In terms of style, the influence of Borges, the other major Argentine fantasist (that we English-speakers know about) is clear. Like in many of Borges' stories, the fantasy arises simply from the counterfactuality and dream-logic of the tale, as opposed to things being explicitly magical. To my understanding, Kalpa Imperial is held up as proof that science fiction and fantasy can also be great literature in Argentina, just as much as we hold up 1984 or A Wizard of Earthsea over here. We owe a great deal to Small Beer Press for translating it, finally, twenty years after its initial publication; we are enriched by it, just as we are deprived by the failure of any English publisher to pick up the rest of her work.

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Comments (go to latest)
Wardog at 20:23 on 2008-04-18
Sorry ... Emperor Ferret?!! This book is a must read!
Arthur B at 02:40 on 2008-04-19
Indeed. A relevant quote:

"Ferrets," said the black-eyed giant, "are small, tawny animals with four paws and a snout. They use their front paws to dig their underground cities, to hunt rats, and to hold food and baby ferrets. They use their hind paws to stand up, to mount females, and to jump. They use all four paws to run, walk, and dance. They use their snout for sniffing and to grow whiskers on, for eating, and to show their kind and benevolent feelings. They also have a furry tail, which is a source of pride to them. Justified pride, moreover, for what would become of a ferret who wasn't proud of being a ferret? Their congenital trait is prudence, but with time they acquire wisdom as well. For them, everything in the world is red, because their eyes are red, that being the appropriate eye-color for ferrets. They are deeply interested in engineering and music. They have certain gifts of prescience, and would like to be able to fly, but so far have not done so, prevented by their prudence. They are loyal and brave. And they generally carry out their intentions."
Wardog at 09:26 on 2008-04-21
Hehe, wonderful! I am very fond of ferrets.

The only translated fantasy I've read recently was relatively modern - it was The Last Wish, the novel on which The Witcher computer game was based, originally written in Polish. I found it disappointing almost entirely due to the abjectly mediocre translation. He has a very irreverent, modern-day style of doing dialogue that just didn't come across at all so much of the humour and irony was lost. It's a shame because I think, beyond translation, I think it was quite good.
Alasdair Czyrnyj at 18:48 on 2010-02-06
Yeah, language barriers are a massive pain, especially for someone who's never been all that good with languages to begin with. Right now I've been fixated on getting ahold of Jacek Dukaj's Ice, but despite picking up a number of awards in European SF circles a few years back, there's still no English publisher for it.

'Course, sometimes you get lucky and someone makes a video game based on a book and the book gets translated as part of that whole synergy thing.
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