Athanoria 1996

Ellen Pedersen

Ellen Miriam Pedersen's English fiction has appeared in The Drabble Project, her non-fiction in a number of journals including Gentlemen's Quarterly, Foundation, Extrapolation, Studies in the Humanities and the Journal of Mind and Behaviour. Among her book-length publications are 11 Danish translations from English, including Den ny Alice, the Danish version of Colin Greenland's Take Back Plenty, not to mention works by Ursula Le Guin and Joan D. Vinge. She is currently working on a series of short stories in Danish.

The Czech Republic, I am told, has lost a generation of science fiction writers. They are journalists by profession and, since ‘the Change’, have only been able to write as such. Athanoria '96, a four day International Science Fiction Camp at Paraul Rece ski resort in the Southern Carpathians, Romania, seemed like an attempt to head off a similar danger.

ArSFan (the Romanian Science Fiction Association) had planned for Athanoria a mixture of theoretical papers and exercises demonstrating the link between problem-solving and creativity; not Milford style literary games but role games! One morning was spent creating a suitable population for a universe defined by the organisers. A controversialist, understandably perhaps, found this particular item expendable.

Carl-Eddy Skovgaard, currently chairman of the Danish Science Fiction Circle, gave an informal talk on Danish SF from Holberg to Niels E. Nielsen. Baron Ludvig Holberg (1684-1754) translated Niels Klim's Journey to the World Underground (1742) from the original English; it is a typically European proto-SF tale, melding a fantastic voyage with utopia and satire. (Coincidentally, as far as the workshop was concerned, Nielsen (1921-93), Denmark's only true genre writer, was born in the same year as Vladimir Colin, Romania's grand old author.) Among other writers Skovgaard mentioned was, of course, Hans Christian Andersen, three of whose minor tales are in fact science fiction.

My own presentation, teasingly titled Plenty Goes Omni, was subtitled Pitfalls and Privileges in Translating SF, but sensibly rendered in the official programme as Capcane Si Privilegii Traducand SF', was an account of how I translated Colin Greenland’s Take Back Plenty into Danish. It is not simply a case of replacing English words with Danish. A translator must often re-imagine or reconstruct how an item works. In the case of the artificial satellite Plenty, I irreverently enlarged it to become ‘Omni’ for linguistic reasons. On the other hand, the German translation retained ‘Plenty’ as it was but, like my Danish translation, created a different title for the book. Names must sound right when ‘spoken’ by characters in the target language. The question to ask is whether words carry enough allusions in the original language to be inviolable? Then there are translation-induced double meanings. For instance Greenland's extraterrestrial Capellans, if retained as such in the Danish, would become ‘substitute vicars’! Instead, I made them 'kapellians'.

The audience, given the choice between being given a reading and having to stomach another abstract message, preferred to hear what Danish sounds like. So, to an enthralled group I read a passage by Le Guin and then Pedersen's version of the same.

What else were those at Athanoria interested in? Money! (I should have known). Unfortunately science fiction in Denmark, whether original or translated, sells like poetry, which means less than 500 copies per title. With one exception: Nielsen again, who throughout his long career sold as well as any non-genre writer.

Athanoria would not have been a success without the interpreters. So there was I, a translator, being translated. Which was quite fortunate really, I doubt my audience would have remained so attentive otherwise. Having a Professor of English as your personal, and completely unprepared, interpreter feels a lot like reading your own poetry to music improvised by a skilled musician you have just met minutes before. It is decidedly odd.

Visiting Romania as I was, combining business and pleasure, meant that not only did I acquire a superficial impression of the place, I also managed to get close to people fast. Both my Professor and I were in our forties, but found ourselves spending most of our spare hours with three 16-18 years olds, who were among the producers of the convention newsletter, Panarama ATHANO.

There were problems as well as welcome breaks: the conference room was unheated -- in late February(!) -- but conversely all bona fide participants were sponsored to attend, even us invitatii straini.

Other impressions were of: a brew of both poverty and generosity; a rickety infrastructure combined with an ardent desire to repair local relations; an urgent need for improved technology; and a (historical?) tendency to value ethics and the arts above science.

Our new friends at Athanoria were, of course, not typical of Romania but, nonetheless are significant to it. Romania, through those of its young people who are active in fiction writing and criticism, is gaining a generation of, if not builders then, shapers and organisers.

Why should this generation care for SF? Well, by virtue of the genre’s naked space-time parameters. You can do more with SF’s forms and SF is essentially political and forward-looking. But what seemed to matter most to the Romanians at Athanoria was the assembly itself of people from different regions -- and the regions of Romania are very different, both geographically, historically, and in terms of development. In fact the magnitude of difference within Romania is as great as that between various parts of Eastern and Western Europe. We may not have met the cream of a new generation of SF writers, but we have befriended some of the people who will be actively shaping Romanian culture after their ‘Change’.

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