Friday 27 September 2019

Many Princes; One Crown

Which version of The Little Prince won the Hugo Award?
"A new translation of the
beloved classic."
(Image via

Was it Katherine Woods’ classic 1943 translation? Was it the 1995 Irene Testot-Ferry translation? Or perhaps it was Richard Howard’s 2000 translation?

Since the initial publication of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's story in 1943, the book has been translated into English on at least seven different occasions, often with markedly different results.

If you’re an anglophone who is over the age of 30, or bought the book used, there’s every chance that you remember Woods’ relatively poetic and lyrical translation. A few might be most familiar with the direct and less florid Testot-Ferry version. Younger readers are likely to be more familiar with the plainspoken and colloquial Howard version of the text.

We argue here that the classic Woods version should be the one that is recognized as being worthy of the award, rather than one of the modern revisions. In particular, this is a Retro Hugo for 1944, and it is based on the work as it appeared in 1944 that votes should have been cast. The Hugo Awards page does specify the publisher, which would lead us to believe that it is indeed the Woods translation that is honoured.

That said, it is the 2000 version that is most readily available today, so a counter-argument could be made that a significant number of Hugo voters at Worldcon 77 were likely to have based their decision on the later version.

The differences between the translations are not insignificant.
Katherine Woods also
translated works such
as Emile Zola's The
Masterpiece, and was
the head of literature
with UNESCO.
(Image via

As an example, the original Woods translation offers us the following: “It was from words dropped by chance that, little by little, everything was revealed to me.”

The 1995 Testot-Ferry translation flattens that same sentence to “It was thanks to the odd word, here and there, that everything was revealed to me.”

And in 2000, Howard renders this same sentence as “It was things he said quite at random that, bit by bit, explained everything.”

It is clear that the newer translation does not capture the gentleness of the original French phrase: “Ce sont des mots prononcés par hasard qui, peu à peu, m'ont tout révélé.”

The structural changes are mirrored by a narrowing of the vocabulary in the work: ‘a primordial forest’ becomes ‘a jungle.’ A ‘tippler’ becomes a ‘drunkard.’ A ‘spring of fresh water’ becomes a ‘fountain.’

By-and-large, the publishing industry is more sensitive to the work of translators today; today they often they get cover credit that they might not have in the past. For example, in 2014, Ken Liu was recognized on the cover of The Three-Body Problem and was consequently also recognized at the Hugo Awards for his translation work. 

But the case of The Little Prince is more comparable to that of the first translated work to appear on a Hugo Ballot: the 1963 novel Sylva, which was written by French war hero Vercors (A.K.A. Jean Bruller). No translator is mentioned on the dust jacket of the book. And until this summer, when the record was updated at our request, the official Hugo Awards site did not list the name of the translator, Rita Barisse. The Wikipedia entry for the Hugo Awards, and several other publications continue to neglect Barisse’s contribution to the work.

It is important when giving an award to a translated work to recognize the person — or people
The Little Prince has been translated into
more than 250 languages, and is the most
translated non-religious text on Earth.
(Image via Nortsider
— who worked on bridging the linguistic divide, and who interpreted and attempted to capture the tone and rhythm of the original. The translation of foreign works into English is a subtle and often misunderstood art. It is also one that all-too-often has gone unacknowledged.

Both Sylva and The Little Prince were published without translation credit on the cover, so when they were discussed, nominated, and voted on, there was little information provided to voters about whose work went into turning French prose into English.

While Sylva’s translator is easy to identify, and to retroactively credit, The Little Prince is a little less clear. But recognition, and attribution, must be offered.

It is Katherine Woods’ version that helped make the work so successful in North American English markets, it is her work that was available in 1944, and it should be recognized that she is the translator who contributed to the award-winning version of the work.

The WSFS should adopt a consistent practice of acknowledging translators in all instances, both for contemporaneous Hugos and for Retro Hugos. 

Saturday 21 September 2019

The Privilege Of Magic

The most frightening villain ever to stalk the halls of a school for magic isn’t Voldemort, it’s
Designed by Will Staehle,
the cover of Magic For
Liars is memorably great.
(Image via Amazon)
privilege: the subtle, corrosive force at the heart of Magic For Liars.

At its core, Sarah Gailey’s debut novel is about how the powerful impose their will without consent, and without a second thought. These power dynamics might be portrayed within Magic For Liars as the relationship between the magical and non-magical, but they are grounded in well-observed real-world dynamics between those who have privilege and those who don’t. 

Setting the story at the Osthorne Academy for Young Mages, Gailey uses the standard tropes of the magical academy to explore notions of privilege by telling the story from the perspective of someone who lacks magical ability. The protagonist, private investigator Ivy Gamble, is the non-magical twin sister of a teacher at the school. Ivy is lead by circumstance to investigate a murder within the magical community. 

Through this set-up, Gailey interrogates themes of power, consent, toxic relationships, sibling resentment, and identity. Memorable scenes, such as when a magical healer subjects Ivy to an invasive procedure without asking, or a flashback to a practical joke her sister played on her, effectively reinforce these themes. This is a lot of heavy subtext for a novel with a sprightly cadence and breezy prose, but for the most part it works. 

Some of the things we enjoyed the most about Magic For Liars were what Gailey chose to omit. Rather than deluging the reader with endless explanations of magic or magical society, Gailey focuses on characters and motivations. Rather than treating the sexuality of characters as big revelations, the inclusion of LGBTQ characters is refreshingly natural and casual. 

The magic of privilege enables many
people to become their worst selves.
(Image via Twitter.) 
Because of the massive cultural hegemony of Harry Potter, it’s difficult not to compare any novel about a school for magicians to the one in J.K. Rowling’s best-sellers. But we’d argue that the school in Magic For Liars might more aptly be compared to Eton College, the famous privilege factory that has churned out generations of upper class twits such as David Cameron and Boris Johnson. 

Some have suggested that the book is more comparable to Lev Grossman’s The Magicians than to the Harry Potter series. This is in part due to the age of the students and the mature tone of the books. Most notably, the ability — the privilege —of doing magic enables characters to be their own worst possible selves. Interestingly, Ivy Gamble is a far more likeable protagonist than Quentin Coldwater.

When dealing with characters and their relationships, when dealing with magic as a metaphor for social stratification and when dealing with implied politics, Magic For Liars succeeds, but as a mystery novel, it is somewhat unsatisfying. The investigative threads are occasionally obvious, and the lack of observational acuity among the school faculty beggars belief. Most troubling is the convenient trail of notes left for the protagonist — most of our book club found it too simple to be considered a puzzle.

Gailey’s prose oscillated at times between light and engaging fantasy and noir detective pastiche. Some readers found this tone switching distracting, especially in early chapters where the overuse of similes was especially annoying. One reader almost didn’t finish the book because of lines like “The drought-impossible velvety green lawn that surrounded the school looked like frosting that was waiting to have a finger through it.” It was suggested that this tone might have been intentionally over-the-top to evoke hard-boiled detective prose. 

But despite these quibbles and qualms, it is a book that we recommend. We suspect that it will appeal to many Hugo voters, especially given how the protagonist reminded at least a few of us of Elma York, the hero of Mary Robinette Kowal’s Hugo-winning The Calculating Stars. Much like York, Ivy Gamble is a flawed narrator who deals with anxiety and impostor syndrome, and much like York, she challenges systems of privilege and power.

We look forward to reading Gailey’s subsequent works.