Question of the Week: Foreign Settings

One of the most important classes I ever took was Comparative Literature. It turned me on to one of the greatest human activities: translating literature. When asked what super power I’d choose, I say the ability to speak and understand any language. After decades of disuse, I can barely make myself understood in French, so I’m basically monolingual. Even so, I delight in the few dozen words I understand in various other languages.

What I dig about works in translation, whether it’s prose or film or theater or something else, is the brief immersion in another culture. Despite the different fashions, music, food, and social constructs, what I always take away from foreign fiction is that human beings are essentially the same everywhere. We enjoy love stories, heroic stories, horror stories, and comedic stories.

Unfortunately, many readers or viewers don’t feel comfortable outside their native cultures. A great Japanese SF film isn’t likely to do well in North America. Part of that is because of the unwillingness of North American viewers to read subtitles or endure anything less than impossibly flawless dubbing, but I think more of it has to do with culture shock.

There’s also the danger of misrepresenting a culture outside your own. That’s where some fantasy and SF get a pass, since many such stories invent new societies, often by combining two or more real-world cultures. Others plunge right in to foreign cultures and do them justice. I adore Barry Hughart’s Master Li and Number Ten Ox stories, for example. For those that try and fail, we have perpetual convention panels and flame wars on the issue of depicting the “other,” a loaded term that can blow up just by being on the subject line.

Do you feel a resistance to books or movies based on another culture? That is, are you more likely to read a fantasy that feels influence by European culture than Asian or African? Or do you find yourself more drawn to fiction set outside your familiar culture?

One thought on “Question of the Week: Foreign Settings

  1. Movies I have come to prefer to be immersed into the culture as much as possible. Can’t stand dubbed anymore because it helps to break the illusion that I’m experiencing something different.

    Books on the other hand, translation is an art form. For a scholarly works, I much prefer direct translations, because my goal is to get at the heart of the original work, but for fiction, and therefore, fun, I prefer a translation that has been reworked to flow in English better than a direction translation will.

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