A Whole World of SFF: A Conversation with Rachel Cordasco
Rachel Cordasco was born and raised in Baltimore, MD. At age eight she encountered Star Trek: The Next Generation, which became her gateway to genre. “I wandered into the living room while the TV was on and was hooked by the episode about the crew of the Enterprise traveling back to nineteenth century America and meeting Mark Twain. I’ve been an avid fan of TNG ever since, and after that I started reading science fiction by H. G. Wells, Arthur C. Clarke, Michael Crichton, and others.”
Cordasco put genre books down around age thirteen, though she was reading a lot of literature in translation, including German, Russian, and French literature; she was especially fond of Thomas Mann. “I went back to [genre] during grad school (though my focus was on nineteenth century American literature). I was hooked at twenty-two again thanks specifically to the excellent anthology The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Vol.1.”
Cordasco earned a BA at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, PA, majoring in English and minoring in Russian. She earned a PhD in literary studies at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. She has lived in Madison ever since. She initially planned to become an English professor, but instead went to work in publishing, as well as doing freelance writing.
After two guest reviews in 2014 on SF Signal, Cordasco joined the SF Signal crew. Her first SFT (science fiction in translation) reviews were of The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu (translated by Ken Liu), Nest of Worlds by Marek S. Huberath (translated by Michael Kandel), and A Planet for Rent by Yoss (translated by David Frye). Shortly after, her first SFT essays were for University of Rochester’s international literature resource site, Three Percent.
In 2021, Rachel Cordasco received an Achievement Rosetta Award, announced at the World Fantasy Convention in Montreal, Canada. She has written for Strange Horizons, SFRA Review, Foundation, Locus, Tor.com, Mithila, and more. Her translations of Italian speculative fiction have appeared in Clarkesworld, Samovar, Future Science Fiction Digest, and more. She co-translated Clelia Farris’ 2020 collection, Creative Surgery (Rosarium), with Jennifer Delare. She also runs website Speculative Fiction in Translation.
“Along with reading and writing about SFT, I crochet dolls and toys, which I sell at local craft fairs. I also love listening to a wide variety of music, especially opera, bluegrass, blues, and sixties rock. Up until December, I was an editor at the Wisconsin Historical Society Press, but I’ve since left to be more available for my kids and to pursue my freelance writing.”
Cordasco’s debut nonfiction book, Out of This World: Speculative Fiction in Translation from the Cold War to the New Millennium, was published by University of Illinois Press in December of 2021.
In 2016 you started website Speculative Fiction in Translation, which “tracks all speculative fiction available in English.” How did you get this project started, and why did you feel it was important?
It all started with John DeNardo sending me some Cixin Liu and Jacek Dukaj to review for SF Signal back in 2014. Having always loved languages and the art of translation, I wondered how many works of speculative fiction from around the world were being translated into English. I started a little list, which quickly grew into the thousand-text lists you can see on my site and the attached Google spreadsheet. A bit of research showed me that there was this whole world of translated SF out there but that it received little to no coverage. I wanted to highlight these works of fiction to share my love of translation and speculative fiction and invite more people to join me in celebrating the fusion of the two.
Has running this website impacted or changed your perspective on international literature in important ways?
I’ve certainly learned more about who publishes international literature, what kinds of genres those publishers focus on, and who/what gets translated. It’s a complicated system that I by no means understand fully but tracking SFT over several years so far has shown me that we definitely need more translated literature here in America.
You have translated a number of works from Italian to English. What are the trickiest or most challenging aspects of translating fiction?
Since I never formally studied the art of translation, I’ve had to figure things out pretty slowly. And yet, reading about translation, talking to translators, and getting experience doing my own translations taught me a lot. I’ve learned that inherent in the work is the knowledge that you must retain the spirit of the text while also making it understandable and enjoyable for the reader. The trickiest thing, for me, is finding the right English expression for an Italian phrase or sentence without sacrificing the author’s intention (with regard to alliteration, tone, etc.).
How did you get into doing translations, and what is your advice for people who are interested in getting started?
In the course of building my website, I realized that few works of Italian speculative fiction were being translated into English. After talking with Italian editor and author Francesco Verso about this, I decided to try my hand at helping raise the profile of Italian SF in America. Having studied that language more recently than I did Hebrew, French, or Russian, I decided to try and translate some short works of Italian SF. Verso then introduced me to SF authors in Italy, like Nicoletta Vallorani and Clelia Farris (for whom I’ve translated several stories).
My advice to those interested in translating is to find someone (be it at a university, online translator groups, etc.) translating from the language you’d like to work in and ask them for networking suggestions. You can also look for SF in other languages online or in libraries and try your hand at those. If the author is still living, contact them and see if you can establish a relationship. It’s wonderful how the Internet can facilitate this kind of connection. Also, everyone should check out the American Literary Translators Association, which has great resources online.
You also review a number of translated works, such as Robin Moger’s translation of Mohamed Kheir’s Slipping (Egyptian Arabic), Austin Woerner’s translation of Su Wei’s The Invisible Valley (Chinese), Jessica Cohen’s translation of Nava Semel’s Isra-Isle (Hebrew), and Jessica Powell’s translation of Pedro Cabiya’s Wicked Weeds (Dominican Republic Spanish). What is your approach, and what are challenges to covering books from various cultures?
This is a question that comes up sometimes in various corners of the translation and reviewing worlds, and after years of thinking about it and hearing other views, I’ve come to the following conclusion.
Since it’s impossible for any of us to learn every language and then read books in those languages plus their translations, we need to find a way to talk about international literature without just throwing up our hands and saying it’s impossible. Therefore, I read books in translation just like any other book originally written in English, looking for things like theme and character development, style, pacing, ideas, tone, etc. The key, I think, in reviewing works in translation is to be aware that some things may seem unfamiliar or jarring, not because the translation isn’t good, but because we have many blind spots when it comes to the histories or traditions of other cultures.
For instance, I’ve been reading a lot of John Ajvide Lindqvist’s horror stories, but I know very little about Swedish history or culture. Marlaine Delargy’s translations are superb and almost make me think that I do know some things about Sweden. Once in a while, though, I have to acknowledge that I don’t understand or recognize something because I, as a reader, need to learn more about the topic. Ultimately, translations are done so that readers from different language traditions can learn more about the wider world and its diverse array of literatures. Translations into English, for instance, should read like well-written English prose. The same goes for any other language.
You recently published Out of This World: Speculative Fiction in Translation from the Cold War to the New Millennium. What were your original goals for this book?
At first, I thought about writing a massive, annotated bibliography of SFT. When I spoke to an editor at the University of Illinois Press about my idea, though, we ultimately decided that a more reader-friendly approach would be best. I decided to split the book into fourteen source-language chapters, focusing on a mix of summary and analysis in order to introduce readers to the wide array of SFT available in English. I wanted to include so many other source languages, but word counts are word counts, so I contented myself with the thought that I can write future volumes highlighting underrepresented SFT from languages like Romanian, Danish, Greek, and others.
What are the advantages of publishing this book, or what does the book do differently, compared to the website?
I get asked this a lot! I see my website as a constantly updated resource for readers interested in SFT that’s been published, that will be published in the future, and that needs a publisher. The site also features essays, links to reviews, original flash SFT, and much more. Out of This World is an exhaustive though static resource that offers a snapshot of SFT from 1960–2019, with analysis and interpretation that I don’t have time to offer on the website. The book is like a companion to the site, and the former allows readers to dive deeper into source language texts that they might have found while searching my site.
With translated genre fiction, are there languages that are more commonly translated into English than others?
Russian and French SFT dominated at the height of the Cold War, but the field has widened considerably since then. Japanese SFT became dominant in the 1990s and early 2000s, while Finnish SFT became popular around then thanks to author-anthologists Jeff and Ann VanderMeer and the surge in Nordic translations (mostly in the horror and mystery genres). Arabic dystopias became available soon after the American invasion of Iraq. Thus geopolitics often influence what gets translated and published when. With the rise of micropublishers and the availability of the Internet, SFT from around the world can flourish in a way that it couldn’t before.
Some people feel that we are seeing a change in the landscape of genre fiction, both in terms of the diversity of authors being published by mainstream publishers, as well as the conversations the works getting published are having. What is your sense of this in terms of a global perspective—do you see similar shifts in genre fiction globally?
I think readers are looking for more variety in the speculative fiction they consume, and with constantly shifting geopolitical realities, anglophone SF is occupying less of an outsized place than it once did. And while, for example, Japanese, Italian, and Israeli SF authors grew up reading the mass-market American science fiction that flowed into markets around the world during the mid-to-late twentieth century, those authors are now publishing homegrown speculative fiction that is finding its way back to the anglophone world. SFT has always circulated in a variety of ways (e.g. the German-Russian-Romanian translation network), but translation circuits do seem to be widening and growing more complex.
What did you learn from putting Out of This World together?
Though I had written a dissertation, I’d never published a book, so I was prepared for the many revisions I needed to do, but I found it difficult sometimes to stay on track and meet my personal deadlines (especially since I was writing mainly on weekends while my husband watched our kids). This experience, though, has made me excited to write more books and continue to bring SFT to more readers.
What were the biggest challenges to putting this book together, and what were the things you enjoyed the most?
Challenges included finding resources on some of the more obscure books and figuring out how to organize some of the chapters. The Italian SFT chapter, for instance, was tricky because a lot of those texts don’t fall neatly into the common subgenre categories of “science fiction,” “fantasy,” et cetera, so I had to think more deeply about how to best represent those subgenres.
I thoroughly enjoyed learning more about speculative fiction from cultures with which I was mostly unfamiliar. Swedish and Czech SFT, for instance, were fascinating chapters to write.
What might surprise readers about the world of translated genre fiction, what would you like folks to know, who don’t know much about it?
Most of all, I want readers to know that speculative fiction, in all of its wonderful variety, is written all over the world in a wide array of languages. When we read SF in translation, we’re able to catch a glimpse of another way of thinking, living, and writing that can enrich our own understanding of the world and human artistic production.
Are there a few translated works that you felt deserved far more attention than they received?
I could write another book just to answer this question! But yes, a lot of SFT published in the US doesn’t get as much attention as it deserves, mostly because translations themselves do not account for a large percentage of books in this country. What I’d like to see is more of an effort at broadening coverage of all kinds of SFT—not just those books from larger and richer countries, but from all over the world. The recent anthologies of Greek SFT (Nova Hellas) and Hebrew SFT (Zion’s Fiction and More Zion’s Fiction), for instance, deserve much more attention than they have received because these are the first books of their kind, introducing anglophone readers to stories they would never have had access to otherwise.
In our Clarkesworld interview, Sinopticon editor Xueting Christine Ni talked about gatekeeping in the world of translation publishing. She called for “institutional change of attitudes in the anglophone publishing world.” Do you have a different perspective?
Publishers are usually focused on finding books that will sell well, so taking a gamble on SFT from an underrepresented source language might seem risky. Nonetheless, I think that if places like Locus and Tor.com continue to build up their SFT coverage (as they’ve been doing for several years now) and the major SF awards make more of an effort to highlight international and translated SF, the “gates” would start to melt away.
Is there anything else you’d like readers to know about Out of This World or the Speculative Fiction in Translation site?
I’m always looking for guest reviews and essays about SFT to feature on the site! Also, I love when people let me know about short- and long-form SFT that’s recently come out or is forthcoming.
What else are you working on, what do you have coming up that readers should know about?
I’m trying to place a new Clelia Farris story I’ve translated (about Anne Frank and time travel—yes, it’s awesome!) and am planning on translating one of Farris’ novels in the near future. After I finished an essay on Hebrew SFT for an upcoming scholarly book on Israeli speculative fiction, I plan to start researching for a follow-up book to Out of This World that focuses on underrepresented SFT.