Tobias Buckell: Cordwainer Smith’s Otherwordly Stories

Tobias S. Buckell
photo: Marlon James

I’ve known Tobias Buckell for several years now, ever since a mutual friend alerted me to his first two novels, Crystal Rain and Ragamuffin. His new collection, Xenowealth, gathers together a number of stories set in the same world as those novels, a future where humanity has settled on other planets, but the cultures that have shaped those settlements aren’t the usual American/Western European templates seen in so much science fiction. When Tobias sent me this essay, I was delighted to see that he was writing about Cordwainer Smith; like him, I was entranced by my very first reading of Smith growing up in the ’80s, but for many years it was next to impossible to find any of his work without diligently hunting through the sci-fi sections of used bookstores… or in the way that he fell into Tobias’s hands.

I have an odd education in that I didn’t have really good access to solid libraries and bookstores growing up. That’s because I grew up on a boat in the Caribbean. So what books I got my hands on were often loaned to me by sailors coming through on boats from places far afield. I met people from the South Pacific, Europe, Africa, the Americas all passing through the harbor I grew up in.

They had these little mini-libraries in marinas or off in the corners here and there. Libraries that were just denoted by a sign that said “take a book, leave a book.” And once I had enough books, I prowled these limited shelves, poring over them for any science fiction or fantasy.

It was rare to find anthologies, but these were always treasured because they had a wide range of instant text nuggets. Stories could vary wildly, from prosaic to mind-blowing, in a single page turn. So when I came across a collection of stories by one Cordwainer Smith I wasn’t sure what I was going to get. The book looked old, which was always worrying. I was reading in the late 1980s. The golden age stuff could be fun, but usually read unintentionally funny to me, which its square-jawed, omnicompetent men and 1950s sf-nal vocabulary.

So here’s this story, “The Game of Rat and Dragon,” that starts off: “Pinlighting is a hell of a way to earn a living.” Humans throw themselves into space, “planoforming” ships skipping through the dark, and begin descended upon by what they perceive as dragons. But to their companion cats, thrown out as attack fighters, they’re rats.

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18 January 2016 | selling shorts |

How Sandra Smith Became a Translator

Sandra Smith
photo courtesy Sandra Smith

I confess that I have huge gaps in my reading of the world literary canon, including just about all the French classics. But I’ve begun to remedy that situation, at least with respect to Guy de Maupassant, thanks to The Necklace and Other Stories, a collection of stories described by its publisher, Liveright, as a “Maupassant for Modern Times.” The translator, Sandra Smith, turned out to have an interesting path to this project, a path that involves one of the biggest successes for a posthumously published novel in translation in recent memory.

As an academic teaching French language and literature at Cambridge, I was always involved with translation in a practical sense. The historians, to whom I taught grammar and translation, were required to pass a language examination at the end of the first year. My real goal, however, was to prepare them to be competent enough to use their language skills to research original sources and documents written in French.

One of my favorite texts to use was Camus’ Lettres à un ami allemand. A little-known work written during the Occupation, it is a brilliant combination of literature, philosophy, history, rhetoric and propaganda. I decided I wanted to translate the work into English and approached a publisher. After a few months, they said they thought the work “too academic” for their list, so I set the project aside.

Nearly two years later, I was listening to BBC Radio 4 and heard Rebecca Carter of Chatto & Windus talking about Suite française. I was immediately fascinated by the similarities between Irène Némirovsky’s family history and my own. More importantly, however, I was certain that a translation of Lettres would make an excellent “accompaniment” to the English publication of Suite française. It was a sign: I looked up Chatto & Windus on the internet and phoned Rebecca Carter.

During our conversation, I stressed how well the two translations would work together and Rebecca told me to send her my sample translation. We then began discussing the similarities between my own background and Némirovsky’s. I was Jewish, my grandparents had left Europe due to the pogroms and I was an immigrant myself. By the end of the conversation, Rebecca asked me if I would be interested in submitting a sample translation for Suite française, with the understanding that it was highly unlikely I would be offered the contract. She was gathering samples from established translators but the majority were men; she wanted some samples from women as well.

I had no experience whatsoever in translating fiction; my published translations at the time consisted of four chapters of a Cambridge University Press book on medieval French history, an art catalogue and some reports for the European Union. Rebecca explained that all the translators would be submitting the same chapter. (I subsequently learned that this process is known in the trade by the unfortunate label of a “beauty contest.”) One month later, I was short-listed as one of the final three candidates and asked to translate an additional few pages. I realized that the publishers would be taking an enormous risk offering this work to me when so many other experienced translators were in the running. To my great surprise, Rebecca told me I had been awarded the contract: they were prepared to take the risk.

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20 December 2015 | in translation |

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