Speak, Fremde, And Enter

My story “The Sill and the Dike”, originally published in Nightmare #36, has been translated into German as “Die Schwelle und der Graben” in Visionarium #9.

The translation was done by Bernhard Reicher, who asked all the right questions and did a great job navigating the subtleties. The title’s use of “sill” and “dike”, for instance, is a figurative usage of geological terms of art that I didn’t necessarily want translated into the equivalent German technical terms (the reason I like “sill” and “dike” here is specifically because they are also ordinary words in English, which effect is lost when using purely technical terms) so we went with the more figurative sense intended.

And of course, we also talked about my use of alien to play on both the sfnal idea of the extraterrestrial and the more mundane meaning of foreigner. The story supports (as many of my stories do, for ease of digestion) a dehistoricized reading: in this case, of an alien invasion set in a so-called “secondary” world—at the same time, in my own reading, the story is set in a particular place and time: Uva Vellassa in south-eastern Sri Lanka, in the early-to-mid 17th century during the Portuguese invasion and occupation. This dual reading is facilitated by the vagueness of the alien, which runs the risk of being lost in translation: “Außerirdische” and “Ausländer” both seemed to lean too much into particular meanings, so we went with “Fremde” as the best way to keep some of the ambiguity intact.

Much could be said about where that ambiguity comes from in the first place. I’ve argued before that the image of war with the alien in science fiction is already imperial, deriving its imagery from the propaganda of empires. So in that sense my story is only making explicit a mechanism that is ordinarily implicit. But there’s something else going on here too, in that parenthetical aside about ease of digestion: there are always these questions of how much to explain, when and how to stop explaining, what goes above and below the waterline. As long as I write largely for a Fremde audience even when not in translation, every story is its own little first contact, with the iconography of speculative fiction in the place of the Fibonacci series or a list of primes or whatever—things that we, in our parochialism, consider universals, but are actually conventions local to the way our minds and senses work, which a truly alien alien must translate—that is used to establish commonality in those stilted initial attempts at communication. Unlike yr basic tv alien, though, we can never fast-forward to the part where everybody is somehow fluent in each other’s idiom and the plot can proceed unhindered by language and culture. This is possibly why I find this place of hindrance so interesting.