Mexican Psychedelic SF: Inés Estrada and the English debut of Lapsos
I recently wrapped up my blog Once and Future Mexico, which dealt (in part) with Mexican science fiction. But O+FM is not so much dying as being reincarnated since my Mexican SF material will simply migrate here, where it will appear along with genre news from other places around the world.
And this item is a case in point.
Inés Estrada is a Mexican comic book artist who’s had a hit with her psychedelic science-fiction epic, Lapsos, about a pair of friends in Mexico City who encounter other dimensions. Now, three issues have been translated into English and are being bound together in a single hardcover volume, supplemented by more than forty pages of new content.
And in truly international fashion, the English edition of this Mexican comic is being published by a Swedish non-profit with a name that’s half French: C’est Bon Kultur.
Lapsos premiered at the 29th Helsinki Comics Festival (September 5-9, 2014). If you don’t happen to have been in Helsinki at the right time, you can still order a copy (US$33.00 in North America, US$39.00 elsewhere), with orders shipping at the end of September.
If you want to know more about Estrada and her work, check out her interview with Giant Robot. For those of you who haven’t stumbled across it, Giant Robot is a magazine (and art gallery, and hipper-than-thou store, and all-around multimedia empire) ostensibly devoted to pop culture with Asian roots–although it sometimes strays into whatever territory its editors find interesting and GR-ish. It’s been a must-read publication in my house for more than fifteen years now.
You can read a ten-page sample of the English version of Lapsos over at Comics Alliance.
Those not familiar with Mexican culture should note that Estrada doesn’t emerge from a cultural vacuum. Comic books have a long Mexican history, and the country is one of the world’s largest producers and consumers of comics, possibly second only to Japan. I can’t visit without coming home with stacks of them. You can check out a small selection of Mexican comics in English at MexicanComicsInEnglish.com.
In An Alien Tongue: SF and Translation
In science fiction stories there tends to be a clear evolutionary trajectory for automated translation devices, from:
- primitive, clunky prototypes, to
- modestly successful devices, and then on to
- the universal translator that made life so much easier for the writers of the various iterations of Star Trek.
Although, for the sake of all the ubergeeks and nitpickers out there I’ll note that the first appearance of the universal translator came long before even the 1960s iteration of Star Trek, in Murray Leinster’s 1945 novelette First Contact.
In real life that trajectory may or may not come to pass, but even if it does we haven’t yet reached the part where I can pick up a novel by Liu Cixin from the Chinese language selection of his books on amazon.cn and simply hit the “English” button on my ereading app and go from there, although we continue to get closer (see the video below).
So we continue to rely on human translators.
But any translator will tell you that machine translation of creative writing may not turn out to be a tractable problem at all. A translator doesn’t just substitute words and expressions in one language for those in another, they rewrite a story, trying to balance a whole range of considerations. They try to preserve the author’s unique voice. They strive to render dialogue in a colloquial way that approximates the original dialogue when there may not be exact correlates in the target language. They try to ensure that the mood and pacing of the story are as faithful to the original as possible, and so on, and so on.
And if translating realist fiction is difficult, speculative fiction has demands of its own. For instance, how do you translate a word that an author has invented out of thin air for a concept, being, or technology that doesn’t exist in the real world?
Translating Science Fiction: Judith Merril, Kaributsu Ba’ in Japan
Judith Merril (1923-1997), a Science Fiction Hall of Fame inductee known as “the little mother of science fiction” (and in Japan as “monster grandma”) was a formidable presence in science fiction (Wikipedia page, JudithMerril.com).
J.G. Ballard, whose work she helped introduce to a North American audience, said of her:
Science fiction, I suspect, is now dead, and probably died about the time that Judy closed her anthology and left to found her memorial library to the genre in Toronto. I remember my last sight of her, surrounded by her friends and all the books she loved, shouting me down whenever I tried to argue with her, the strongest woman in a genre for the most part created by timid and weak men.
First published in the 1940s, Merril was a member of the New York-based Futurian group of science ficiton fans and writers that included Isaac Asimov, James Blish, and Damon Knight. She collaborated with one member, C.M. Kornbluth, and married another, Frederick Pohl.
Always a social and political radical, she left the United States in 1968 over American involvement in Vietnam, settling in Toronto, Canada, where she was a founding member of Rochdale College an experiment in student-run education and cooperative living that was also an ongoing counterculture happening.
She started the Tesseracts series of Canadian SF anthologies, and donated her considerable library of SF books and periodicals to the Toronto Public Library. The collection began as the “Spaced Out Library,” ultimately becaming the Merril Collection of Science Fiction, Speculation & Fantasy. It’s an awesome collection, the third largest of its kind in the world (anyone wanting to help sustain the collection should contact Friendsof Merrill.org).
Merril’s best known for having been an anthologist, but she was also a translator of Japanese science fiction, despite not speaking Japanese. She worked (on and off) on a collection of Japanese SF for years. What eventually emerged was not exactly what had been envisioned, but it was an excellent volume nonetheless, The Best Japanese Science Fiction Stories edited by John L. Apostolou and Martin H. Greenburg, with Merril listed as a contributing editor.
Translating Science Fiction: Judith Merril, Kaributsu Ba’ in Japan [PDF here] by Dianne Newell and Jenea Tallentire (11 pp.), gives an informative and entertaining account of Merril’s involvement with the Japanese project. It’s brief and well worth reading.
The Image of Translation in Science Fiction and Astronomy
Many science fiction writers who deal with alien contact use one of several convenient devices to elide the issue of the communication gap between humans and extra-terrestrials.
Maybe we have a universal translator that can handle even unknown languages (a.k.a.. a magic wand). Or maybe multiple planetary cultures share a common language, like latin during the Roman empire. One way or another, the question of whether we could really communicate with an alien species is often side-stepped rather than the author grappling with it directly.
And even when the issue is tackled, there’s usually an assumption that even when dealing with a non-Terran species, our languages and theirs would share enough common elements, or would operate on similar enough principles, that with enough work and sufficiently advanced technologies, one could bridge the gap. We could learn one of their languages, or they could learn one of ours, or both.
But what if that isn’t actually possible?
In The Image of Translation in Science Fiction and Astronomy, Brian Mossop, a retired translator and a translation researcher, deals with exactly this question. Mossop examined not only science fiction, but also factual science writing, to gather a variety of ideas about possible modes of communication with extraterrestrials coming from a variety of vantage points.
He notes three typical devices for dealing with the language gap:
- Machine translation that can handle even previously unknown languages
- Telepathy , and
- A lingua franca (the Space Latin solution)
As Mossop points out, there are problems with all of these putative solutions that writers typically (though not always) gloss over.
The telepathy option usually ignores the fact that thoughts are (at least in humans) encoded in the mind in language, or some other semiotic system. Merely avoiding having to speak doesn’t do away with the need for translation.
The lingua franca solution of a common language ignores whatMossop calls the “Chomsky problem.” This arises from the fact that the structure of human languages are, as far we know, shaped by the specifically human brain in our heads. It may not be possible to learn languages across species beyond the kinds of rudimentary signals we can, for instance, train a dog to recognize.
With regard to machine translation, this solution typically assumes that translation is, at its heart, a form of decryption. But decryption and translation are not the same thing:
The problem with cryptological techniques is that they can only identify recurring forms. If these forms are relatable to the recurring forms of an already known language, i.e., they are an encoded version of a text in that language, then the techniques will indirectly provide access to meaning… But cryptological techniques can never by themselves associate forms with meanings; quite simply, meaning cannot be deduced from form.
Mossop goes on to consider three issues that arise from the notion of communicating with aliens:
The semiotic-type problem: leaving aside cases where the message takes the physical form of an inscription on another planet or an interplanetary probe, a key question about any binary-coded radio signal from the stars is its semiotic type. Is the sequence of zeroes and ones to be taken as representing a text in a natural or invented language, a set of mathematical theorems, still or moving pictures, or perhaps a computer programme?
The language-decipherment (language learning) problem: if the semiotic type is a text in a natural language, and the language is learnable by the receivers of the message, can at least some of the vocabulary and syntax be determined?
The translation problem: if the language is at least partly determinable, can the intention of the message’s senders be discovered?
The balance of the paper is taken up by an examination of these issues. Along the way, Mossop confronts many of the difficulties with trying to communicate across interplanetary lines. Problems arise irrespective of whether the attempt is made using a natural language or a formal, artificial one.
A natural language may be far harder for a recipient to understand than much science fiction suggests if, as if likely to be the case, they don’t share a common environment with the sender. Mossop quotes Stanislaw Lem (from His Master’s Voice) as an author who understood this problem:
The view of many notwithstanding, the conceptual convergence of all languages of all languages of Earth’s culture, however varied they may be, is striking. The telegram GRANDMOTHER DEAD FUNERAL WEDNESDAY can be translated into any language you like… The reason is that everyone has a mother, who has a mother; that everyone must die; that the ritualization of disposing of a corpse is a cultural constant; as is, also, the principle of reckoning time. But beings that are unisexual would not know the distinction between mother and father, and those dividing like amoebas would be unable to form the idea even of a unisexual parent. The meanings of “grandmother” thus could not be conveyed. Beings that do not die (amoebas, dividing, do not die) would be unacquainted with the notion of death and of funerals. They would therefore have to learn about human anatomy, physiology, evolution, history and customs before they could begin the translation of this telegram that is so clear to us.
At the same time, Mossop suggests that an artificial language created in order to make the need for a shared environment less relevant–a common science fiction trope and an idea that’s been explored in real world science–will have a far more restricted communicative capacity than many science fiction authors posit.
We may well be effectively caught between a language that’s effective, but too parochial to be understood, and one that’s universal enough to be understood but fails to carry much meaning.
Mossop’s dissection of the issues is well worth reading. You can get a copy of his paper (in PDF format) here.
One final detail: in the notes to his paper Mossop thanks the staff of the Merril Collection, introduced in the previous section, for helping him amass a collection of science fiction dealing with the issues he wanted to examine. Judith Merril strikes again.
World’s Largest Publicly Accessible SF Collection Gets $3.5 Million Dollar Bequest
The Merril Collection may be huge, but the Eaton Collection of Science Fiction and Fantasy at University of California, Riverside is the largest publicly accessible collection of its kind in the world.
It houses 300,000 items in English, Spanish, French, Russian, Chinese, Japanese, German and many other languages. Not limited to books, it also has fanzines, comic books, films and television series, scripts, and collectibles and memorabilia
Now the collection has received a $3.5 million bequest from the estate of Jay Kay Klein. Klein worked in advertising and adored both photography and science fiction. He started taking photos of science fiction writers and fans at conventions in the 1940s and continued for much of his life. He died in 2012.