The other day while poking around a used bookstore I found and bought a copy of Best Science Fiction for 1972, Frederik Pohl, ed. I was born in 1972, see, so this sort of thing is interesting to me. Among the stories chosen for this best-of annual was work by Harlan Ellison (two stories!), James Tiptree Jr., and Larry Niven.
And Ryu Mitsuse. “The Sunset, 2217 AD” was translated from the Japanese by Judith Merril (who we are told “had to learn a good deal of the Japanese language”) Tetsu Yano (who “had to acquire a whole new vocabulary of special terms.”) Pohl explained in his introduction that he had a number of stories he hoped to translate for this anthology, but the obstacles were simply too great. Pohl said, “Translating a science-fiction story is almost like translating a poem: you don’t so much put it into another language as you recreate it from scratch.” And here Pohl was speaking of the stories whose translations from Italian, German, and Russian were ultimately unsuccessful. Mitsuse’s story, from “a language so different that even the simple words used in counting from one to five cannot be simply translated by substituting words” was an even greater translation challenge, and one luckily met by two translators working in tandem.
I was impressed at how even today little has changed. Over the course of my life, translated science fiction remained a challenge nearly insurmountable despite the quality of the original work. Luckily I have a great pool of translators to chose from thanks to the rise of manga and video games. However, at the risk of comparing myself to the immortal Judith Merril, I still must do a fair amount of heavy lifting in the editorial stage. Translating Japanese SF certainly seems to me to still take two: an excellent translator of Japanese and someone well-versed in science fictional concepts.
Thirty-eight years later, incidentally, “The Sunset, 2217 AD” still holds up. It’s the story of a cyborg revolt on a Mars colony, but is contemplative and sad rather than good ol’ rock’em sock’em action. Shira-i, a former captain now crippled and obsolete, is reduced to selling photos of an Earthrise over a Martian city to credulous tourists. The photos, we are assured early on, are fake—a montage of the famous photo of the Earthrise over the Moon and a Martian skyline. The emotional reality of life as a cyborg pieced together from flash-frozen body parts and aging equipment limns every translated sentence. I’d be pleased to publish Ryu Mitsuse today. Stay tuned, maybe some classics are in the offing…