Yael Sela-Shapiro did not wake up one morning and say, “I think I’ll translate English science fiction into Hebrew” — but after passing a test given by a small translation agency, it happened just the same. Armed with a slew of dictionaries and reference material, she began her work. One day, while translating Pullman’s His Dark Materials, she came across the words “General Oblation Board,” also known as “gobblers.”

And here’s the problem: Hebrew does not have a word for “oblation.” It has words for “ship” and “armor” but not for “greaves,” “mizzen-mast,” or any obscure or uncommon word created after the year 220 AD. Hebrew was an all-but-dead language for over 1,700 years, revived only in the late 19th century.

Determining the correct meaning of “oblation” is only one of many problems Sela-Shapiro works on daily. And this is only one of many difficulties translators around the world face when translating science fiction.

Translators, who are fluent in two or more languages, convert the words of one language into the words of another. But more importantly, they interpret the meaning of those words and express them within a cultural context. A translator from a land-locked country who has to find the word for “flood” may reach for “tidal wave,” (which literally means “waves caused by tides”) or “tsunami” (itself a Japanese word) — neither of which describes the overflow of water to people who may never have experienced floods.

What with synonyms, slang, and regionalisms, translators have a difficult enough job. And then there’s science fiction, which poses particular challenges in interpretation.

How do you say “uplift” in Japanese?It was translated here as “appu-rifuto,” just a transcription. I agree with the translator’s decision. The neologism is cool, and we have a very long tradition of importing new ideas with the original names. Even our written characters are imported from China. – Yoshio Kobayashi

Michael Kandel, who translates Polish into English, says “Some knowledge of science is needed. I was once a physics major, and there are a few scientists in my family, which helps. A translator needs to know that “Brown movements” is wrong, [and] “Brownian motion” is right. This actually happened in a published translation.”

Yoshio Kobayashi, who translates English into Japanese, says new technology and ideas is part of what makes SF difficult to translate. “I have to intensively study the ‘science’ part [of the story].”

According to Sela-Shapiro, scientific words are just one of many problems. Translators can have a basic knowledge of science and still not be able to understand the writing, thanks to artificial words.

“[SF authors] love taking pieces of words, putting them together, and coming up with a whole new artifact,” she says. “It’s very easy to do that in English because you have the Latin roots, tele, pre, post. And some modern ‘roots,’ like com, comp, cyber — we don’t have that in Hebrew.”

Yves Meynard, who translates both French and English, says that the jargon of the future is a particular thorn in his side. “A favorite example of mine is ‘warp drive engine nacelle’, which makes clear sense in English using only four words. That’s a perfect bitch to translate into French, and it can never be as concise. English makes it easy to coin and use technical terms. French is much harder.”

And Kandel says, “A writer, writing about an alternate reality or a world of the future, makes up words wholesale. The translator must do something analogous in the second language — meaning that the original wordplay and the original concepts both need to be understood.”

He continues. “Another anecdote: when I read Lem’s Invincible, I didn’t know half the science words, even with the dictionary. Someone told me, many years later, that Lem had made them up.”

In other words, translators can struggle for hours, trying to decipher words that do not exist.

How do you say “uplift” in Hebrew?The Hebrew word for lift in the aerodynamic sense is ILUY (pronounced eelooy), derived from the root a.l.y – to rise or ascend. Incidentally, it also means the Hebrew term for a great student or scholar, one that distinguishes him or herself above all others in that field. Hebrew is unique in its root system; we use a relatively small number of roots to express many meanings. – Yael Sela-Shapiro

And if that were not enough, SF translators still have to solve other literary puzzles.

“Symbolic names are hard to translate,” says Sela-Shapiro. She finds completely made-up names easier to translate than words that are “both symbolic and real, such as Bishopsgate in London. Then you find yourself in a real mess.”

And certain writers (insert Dan Simmons here) line their books with poetry, which are minefields for translators to trip. Poetry is often so subjective that many poor translations exist — if it exists at all. Sela-Shapiro says she finds it easier to understand an 18th-century Keats poem than its 1960’s Hebrew translation.

Because SF writers frequently write more than one book within a universe, a translator needs to be aware of this. If they have been assigned the second book of a trilogy, they need to read the translation of the first book, for consistency in terminology.

Although Sela-Shapiro has worked on some excellent sequels, “In general, I don’t like translating sequels when some other translator translated the first book. You then need to stick to their terms and transliterations, and worse: you’re stuck with their mistakes.”

But mistakes are not limited to translation. Kobayashi says, “I occasionally find some odd mistakes the authors themselves made. In some future, jetplanes fly slower than today. The same day happens twice. Things like that.”

How do you say “uplift” in Polish?To translate any coined or specially charged word, one has to read the book, the context, know the author, understand the ideas and associations behind the word, etc. The solution may be to use an altogether different word. There is no formula here. – Michael Kandel

So how does one become a translator? Fluency in two or more languages, plus access to a vast collection of reference material, is only half of the job. Good translators are writers themselves. Certainly the good ones choose each word as carefully as any author. Kobayashi explains:

“The descriptive skill of the translator IS a writer’s skill: not merely using the proper term, but making each sentence evoke a scene and character. The toughest part of the translation is the storytelling itself. Different cultural background and different languages make it very hard to tell the story as it is. And that’s why translation cannot be done with computers. Putting life into sentences/data can only be done by human creativity. So in a way, we translators are artists, too.”

That translation is a labor of love has been echoed by many translators, as none of them receive enough money to compensate them for their time (a translation can take as little as one month or as long as one year). Only the Japanese translator is paid royalties; the rest are paid by the word or by the page.

And what do the authors think of their translations? Short answer: they don’t. Authors may receive copies of their books in foreign languages, but they cannot understand them. Meynard is not aware of authors’ opinions of his translations. Kobayashi says he has received “polite praise” from authors, but none of them have been able to read his work.

Sela-Shapiro says, “A reporter who interviewed [Phillip] Pullman was asked by him what she thinks about the Hebrew translation, and she told him it was excellent.” She is grateful to learn that Israeli fans are generous with their compliments.

Kandel, however, frequently consulted with author Stanislaw Lem and “received considerable praise. I was translating a mathematical poem by Lem (in Cyberiad). I confessed to him that I had pulled terminology (not really understanding most of it) out of various advanced math books — to make things sound genuine. He told me that he had done exactly the same thing in writing the poem.”

How do you say “uplift” in French?I’d look first at how it was translated in the French edition of the work: if I had to translate, say, a short story set in that universe, I’d want to remain consistent with the existing translations if feasible.

Assuming there was no previous translation, for such a word I would probably jot down a dozen or so possibilities. Sometimes the prose that surrounds a specialized term like this will suggest an appropriate translation.

Of course, I couldn’t resist looking up the actual French translation, and it’s “elevation.” – Yves Meynard

If there were a totem pole of the science fiction publishing world, translators should occupy a better position than they currently do. Readers can help the plight of translators considerably by reading translations and requesting them from publishers. A excellent body of work in foreign languages exists, but readers have little access to it. Purchasing translated books can help spread the word that their work is necessary, even cherished.

Kobayashi says, “Translation is a method of communication. Reading the translated works widens your horizon and enriches your imagination.”

Science fiction readers know there’s a whole world “out there.” Thanks to translations, we know there’s a another world here on the same planet.