One advantage to knowing another language is having access to literature outside the Anglosphere. You might remember my adventures in Polish fantastyka, which has given me a rather different take on fantasy and science fiction against what’s current in academic criticism of the genre. I wish I were better with languages than I am, since there’s vast, untapped seas of story that I can’t access because stories just don’t often jump across the language divide. Or else, they do, but only in one direction.
In the international book publishing industry (for sf, at least), English books are translated into other languages in far greater volume than the other way around. Our own publishers are mostly uninterested in non-Anglophone works, giving us weird cases where French books from Quebec which have become exceedingly popular in the French-speaking world have yet to be translated into English. This effectively puts cultural blinders on; the rest of the world’s literature is invisible and, seemingly, devalued by the publishing conglomerates who nevertheless spread English works all across the world.
It’s a shame, because even my small slice of experience tells me there’s some great stuff out there that will never gain international recognition.
Because I know Polish, I was able to read Andrzej Sapkowski’s Wiedzmin (Witcher) series long before the computer game made Geralt known to the wider world. I was first introduced to the character by the Polish television series of the same name, which happened to be running at the time I visited Poland when I was 14. As far as fantasy television goes, the show was better than anything we’d have on North American TV until Game of Thrones, though as an adaptation it’s sorely lacking. I discovered that much when I got hold of the books in the University of Alberta library some years later: the serious, angst-y nature of the show was nothing like the witty, wickedly funny stories I encountered in the first anthology, The Last Wish (1993). I now own all seven books, and while I think Sapkowski can be rather juvenile and unclear at times, I still think the first two anthologies are marvellous stabs at sword & sorcery with a decidedly Slavic flare.
Sapkowski is a darling in the Polish sf community and has gained some real mainstream literary respect—perhaps because Polish literary critics were always more receptive to fantastyka than in England or America. His works were translated into German, French, Spanish, Italian, Czech, Russian, Swedish, you name it, and he enjoyed success all across Europe. Everywhere, that is, except in Britain, because for the longest time the Wiedzmin series wasn’t translated into English. That always baffled me. There were comic books, films, a TV show, tabletop role-playing games…but it wasn’t until CD Projekt made the first Witcher game that Gollancz finally took notice.
I haven’t read their translation of The Last Wish (2008); I heard it wasn’t a particularly good one. The marketing also seemed bent on making this short story collection look like a game tie-in rather than the work the game was based on. This automatically limited its appeal when booksellers unceremoniously jammed The Last Wish between the reams of Forgotten Realms and Warhammer 40K hackwork. What strikes me as truly odd, though, is when Gollancz announced the next translation would be The Blood of the Elves, the third book, complete skipping over the second short story collection The Sword of Destiny. Even though The Sword of Destiny contained the best stories in the series, two of which were critical if you wanted to make sense of The Blood of the Elves (released in English in 2009).
And they wondered why Blood wasn’t selling as well as they hoped. The Time of Contempt, the fourth book, and the third translation, is only slated for release this July after a three-year delay.
The tortuous route to English translation for Sapkowski should illustrate just how surprising it is that we even get the translations we do. The publishing industry here is obviously resistant to the idea when dealing with “genre” works, and a poor translation is sometimes worse than no translation at all. Thus, in fantasy, at least, we seemed locked in our own little world, only looking to British and American fantastic works without seeing the much wider world of fantastyka spanning across the globe.
 Yes, that’s how they spell it in Poland, John Clute be damned.