Emily Hughes - Tor/Forge Blog

Dragons in Translation: An Interview with Bernd Perplies & Lucy Van Cleef

Image Placeholder of - 28German author Bernd Perplies and American translator Lucy Van Cleef swap questions about Black Leviathan, the translation process, and the possibilities within the worlds of fantasy for exploring the bigger picture.

Bernd: Black Leviathan was your debut novel translation. What was the experience like? Were there any specific challenges?

Lucy: I come from a world outside of fantasy fiction. I used to be a professional ballet dancer, and now I work primarily as an arts writer. Believe it or not, the worlds of fantasy and arts writing are surprisingly similar. In both, you have to find the right words to describe the intangible – things that don’t exist in the real world. Your writing had the immediacy and color of a live performance: the Sidhari facing the bad guys; Lian and Canzo at the Taijirin wedding; falling to the Cloudmere floor – those were the fun parts for me!

I live in Berlin and speak German in most of my daily life, but I write in English: my own fiction, arts writing, and translations. This project was a chance to blend all of these factors. It was a challenge because of the sheer size of the project, but it was also huge learning experience. Sometimes you can say something in English with far fewer words than you need to express the same thought in German. It can be a hunt for the right words. This translation took a lot of time, and it was a struggle to stay consistent throughout the process. You get better as you go, and wish you had the tools you gained from the start. But that’s the way it goes. I hope I’ll get to do more in the future.

Lucy: In addition to your own fiction writing, you’ve also translated books from English to German. Have your Star Trek translations influenced your fiction at all? Is there any concrete crossover? Or any general inspiration for your fictional world in Black Leviathan?

Bernd: Ive been a Star Trek fan for many years. The series appeals to me because of its optimistic vision for the future, how the stories inspire the audience to think, and the camaraderie among members of the Enterprises crew and subsequent starships. The Star Trek television series ended in 2005 (not counting recent shows like Star Trek Discovery). Since then, the novels have kept the franchise alive for me; working on the translations for Cross Cult kept me from losing sight of Star Trek. And there are certainly aspects of that work that have affected my own writing.   

For example, I love to tell stories about bands of characters on journeys together. Im most interested in characters interactions with one another. In Black Leviathan, the crew of the drachenjäger ship, Carryola. Just like Star Trek authors, I strive to question the state of things, and to make readers consider similar aspects in the real world. In classic fantasy, dragons tend to be the monsters, and dragon slayers the heroes. Black Leviathan draws a more ambivalent picture. Arent the slayers another form of monster? And arent dragons, in all their destructiveness, also victims? I even have a certain empathy for both Adaron and Gargantuan. Both are extreme characters but one strikes because hes devoured by sorrow, while the other strikes to protect his kind.

Theres no real cross-over. But still, Star Trek and Black Leviathan do have something in common; both criticize, more or less, real-life whale hunting. The movie Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home tells the story of Captain Kirk returning to the year 1986 to find humpback whales, which had gone extinct in the future, year 2286, and are the only salvation for preventing humanitys destruction by an extraterrestrial probe. Black Leviathan, alternately, poses the question of whether hunting majestic creatures of the ocean (the Cloudmere) is justified and if so, to what extent?

Bernd: German has more than one form of the pronoun you: Du (familiar or derogatory), Sie (formal or distanced), Ihr (pseudo old-English). English doesnt have these cases. In Black Leviathan, its common for residents in a particular region of the Cloudmere to address each other with Ihr, (even in the derogatory). Theres only one exception: when speaking to a family member or loved one. In one scene of the novel, a man and woman switch mid-conversation from Ihr to Du, saying something between the lines in the process. How did you navigate that in your translation?

Lucy: Yes, this was a tricky one. In English, theres only one word for you. But there are still ways to adjust the formality of an exchange. You wouldnt address a business associate the same way you would address family. So I tried to find the appropriate solutions for the context. One example: Ialrist always addresses Adaron by his first name, whereas all other crew members call him Captain. Their friendly relationship is established in the first two chapters, and carries over throughout.

I was very lucky to not be alone during this process; Tor supported me from start to finish, and their amazing editor helped me find the right solutions along the way. Since theres no one word to show the shift in tone between the man and woman in the scene you mentioned, we altered that exchange slightly for the American market. I hope the solution honors the original text and makes sense to readers.

Lucy: What about your experience translating from English to German? Have there been any cases where the solution wasnt one to one?

Bernd: That always comes up. Puns are always tricky, naturally. Some authors use them more than others. They come up a lot in Star Trek, because many starship crews include both men and women who use a loose conversational tone to convey multiple meanings in their exchanges. Sometimes the wordplay happens to work on its own, but usually youve got to find a solution that makes some sort of sense in German. You might be stuck with a witty saying that doesnt match the English word for word.   

Texts that rhyme are also especially hard. That kind of thing doesnt come up much in Star Trek, luckily. But a long time ago, at the very beginning of my career, I translated a magic book that gave spells for day-to-day life. It was a fun book for girls nothing too serious. But during those weeks, I had to become really creative in order to come up with spells that rhymed in German and still had the same meaning they did in English.

Lucy: I have some experience with that too. I was so grateful that the visions Lian experienced toward the end of Black Leviathan werent in metered verse with rhymed endings.

Bernd: Both the publisher and you decided to maintain some of the original German wording, such as Drachenjäger. Why? Is that common practice in translations of foreign texts for the American market?

Lucy: We considered using the original title, Drachenjäger, for the English version. Its a cool sounding word; drachen is close enough to dragon to be understood, and many English speakers are familiar with the world jäger. Even though we ultimately went with a different title, we stuck with drachen when referring to the lore of the world, and used drachenjägers as a title for the few souls brave enough to fight dragons. Then we developed an extended glossary to explain these words to readers. Thats how we were able to keep some German flavor in the fictional world of the Cloudmere.

Lucy: Who do you identify with more, Lian or Adaron?

Bernd: Definitely Lian! I sympathize with Adaron. He lost almost all of his friends, and the woman he loved, which led him down a dark road that he never really returned from. A shadow fell across his soul. Only his friendship with Ialrist, his only surviving friend, keeps him halfway sane. I cant imagine ever becoming so vengeful, or so bitter.

Lian, on the other hand, is a dreamer. Hes pretty naiive in the beginning; he sees dragon hunting, and his journey into the Cloudmere, as a great big adventure. I definitely had a similar romantic side during my youth. Lians experiences aboard the Carryola make him grow. He becomes more critical, and questions his actions. Ultimately, he takes a stand for what he believes in, instead of continuing to do what (most) others on board are doing. Were similar in that way, too.

Bernd: Its pretty typical in Germany for publishers to translate foreign fiction, especially works from the American market. Is that true in the US as well? Are translations common there?

Lucy: Im not an expert on the publishing market, but Im a passionate reader. Good translations allow people from one country or culture to be exposed to another without having to learn a new language, or even leave their living rooms. I grew up in America reading books by both English-speaking and international writers. Id say that translations are common, and necessary. I think its really important to learn from people with different frames of reference than our own. For that reason, I hope that the American market never stops publishing works by foreign writers.

Lucy: Whats next for your journey into the Cloudmere? Any fun projects planned?

Bernd: I cant really talk about upcoming projects (in Germany), because theyre all in progress, and not official yet. I can, though, give an overview about whats happened since 2017 the year Der Drachenjäger (Black Leviathan) was published in Germany.

First, I took another journey into the Cloudmere. Der Weltenfinder (the world finder) tells the story of scholar and adventurer Corren von Dask, who aims to fall to the Cloudmere floor in order to explore the mythical city ThaunasRa, supposedly the origin of the Cloudmere. The plot is stand-alone, but is based on events and characters of the previous novel.

I ventured into outer space with Frontiersmen Civil War, a six-part mini series. It tells the story of John Donovan, freighter captain and scoundrel, who along with his motley crew and a run-down cargo ship, is unvoluntarily drawn into a civil war between the bordering planets and the central world of his home galaxy. Frontiersmen is my version of a space-westerner, like the series Firefly or the Tatooine sequences in Star Wars, where the earth-based westerner meets the technology of the future.   

My most recent work, which was released in October, is called Am Abgrund der Unendlichkeit (at the precipice of eternity), and is another science fiction novel. A mysterious darkness engulfs entire solar systems belonging to the galactic league of nations, the Domenaion. When chaos breaks out, the brave crew of a rescue cruiser searches for a solution to prevent billions from meeting their deaths.

Im sorry to say that none of these works have been translated to English, yet. But Id like to invite anyone with solid German skills to explore my fantasy worlds beyond Black Leviathan.

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A Queen Who’s Writing: Catching Up with Sarah Kozloff

Image Placeholder of - 3We know you love a binge-read, so with Sarah Kozloff’s Nine Realms series, we’re trying something a little different: we’re publishing all four books in the series in four months, with book 1, A Queen in Hiding, coming on January 21st – read an excerpt here! While you’re waiting, catch up with author Sarah Kozloff on her unusual inspirations, the Bechdel test, and her career as a film studies professor.

What were your biggest inspirations writing the Nine Realms series?

Since I read The Lord of the Rings in childhood, the books have been buried deep in my heart. When I started to write, however, I found myself drawing equally on classic movies, such as The Seven Samurai and its remake, The Magnificent Seven, for scenes about the building of a small band of raiders, who go up against incalculable odds.

You’ve said the Bechdel test helped spur you into starting A Queen in Hiding. Can you tell us about that?

Sure. I was teaching a class on American Women Directors and we were looking at charts about which films could or could not pass the Bechdel Test. The Bechdel Test, created by Alison Bechdel, sets a very low bar concerning the representation of women in a story: do two named female characters talk to one another about something else besides a man?  Basically the test asks, “do female characters serve as more than adjuncts to men?”

As fully-fleshed as Arwen, Galadriel, and Éowyn may be, they never talk to one another—they exist in separate storylines, and thus the series fails. Staring at that chart, at that moment I resolved to write a series about the return of the queen.

Can you tell us about your favorite (non-spoilery) scene?

I doubt that anyone else will love this scene as much as I do, but it is far and away my favorite. In A Broken Queen, Cerúlia has been injured and fallen in a moat that backs up on a swamp. She is rescued by a series of sea creatures: first an enormous turtle, then elephant seals, then dolphins. I tried to capture each of the rescuers’ personalities and the vast sea under the moonlight, reverberating with the songs of a pod of whales. It is perhaps the most overtly “magical” scene in the 2000 pages of the four books.

You’re a film professor at Vassar. What drew you to epic fantasy?

Many of us live secular lives in a post-sacred era. Epic fantasy often reaches for the numinous, offering hints that Fate can take a hand. As Gandalf tells the reluctant Frodo, he was meant to carry the Ring. I find that this genre enlarges lives that can too often seem meaningless. I’m drawn to the flashes of grandeur, just as I respond to the heart-stopping beauty of great cinematography, lush soundtracks, or Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing cheek to cheek into heaven.

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From the Dragon’s POV: A Conversation with Duncan M. Hamilton

Placeholder of  -92So: you’ve read Dragonslayer, you’ve read Knight of the Silver Circle, and you’ve preordered Servant of the Crown (and read the excerpt several times, of course). We know you’ve got to fill the time between now and March 10th somehow, so we spoke with author Duncan M. Hamilton about his writing process, the experience of publishing on an accelerated schedule, and… pancakes vs. waffles, naturally.


On Writing

Books 1 to 3 are coming out so fast! How many words do you write a day?

Unless I’m on vacation, or have something else on, I write every day. In the past I’ve set myself a target of about 2000 words per day, but it’s a very loose concept that I’ve been gradually moving away from. On a day when the boilers are running at full pressure, 6000 seems easy, and on a bad day, 500 feels like crawling across a field of broken glass. Stopping at 2k on a day when I’m running at full steam seems a waste, and trying to force out 2k on a bad day just means 2000 words that’ll need heavy editing or deletion later on, so it’s a bit of a false economy. These days I’m starting to think about it more as focused time at my desk, and let the numbers fall where they may. I’m finding that’s a more effective approach, and better for maintaining a healthier work/life balance!

Your whole series is coming out in less than a year! What fantasy series have you read from start to finish lately?

I’m embarrassed to say I can’t recall. I tend to mainly read history these days.

What’s your writing routine?

I keep trying to establish a set routine, but haven’t managed it yet. I’m hoping the new ‘time at desk’ approach I mentioned in the first answer above will help develop that. It’s more of a lifestyle really. I’m trying to cut down on the 3am finishes though, which I’ve a bit of a bad habit of.

How do you fight writer’s block?

To be honest, I don’t believe in writers block. You’ll have good days and bad days writing. Making a thing out of the bad days just makes a thing out them – it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. If I’m having a slow day, I’ll sometimes take a break for an hour or two and spend it on one of my many distractions and hobbies. That lets me forget about the story for a little while, and when I get back to my desk it’s usually with a refreshed attitude. The bottom line here is, I love to write. I always have. At times it feels like a compulsion, and it’s usually harder for me to stop than it is to get started.

On the Series

How do things get bigger and better in book 2?

Everything starts to gain momentum – things that were getting pushed up the mountainside in Book 1 have tipped over the peak and are accelerating down the other side, often beyond the control of the characters who pushed them up. That forces the characters to deal with events that become ever more expansive, and have ever graver stakes. There’s also a lot more from the dragon point of view, which from the reader feedback I’ve been getting on Book 1, seems to be something people are really enjoying.

We got into a little trouble a few months ago trying to define what a dragon was on social media. What’s your take? What makes a dragon a dragon?

I’m a bit of a traditionalist. For me it’s four legs and two wings. Something with two legs and two wings is a wyvern! I think the term ‘dragon’ is a bit of a catchall now, though, for all of the great serpent/lizard style creatures from world mythology and fantasy. Personally, I like to learn about the differences, and the unique names that go with them.

[Editor’s note: read more of Duncan’s thoughts on dragons right over here.]

We know playing favorites can be dangerous, but we love the array of dragons coming in book 2. Do you have a favorite?

Yes, and I think that’ll be obvious when you read it!

On Fantasy

Other than the dragon, what are your top fantastical creatures?

Probably werewolves. Their mythology has always intrigued me, and I went through a gothic horror werewolf story writing phase in my late teens. It’s something I’ve been tempted to revisit a few times…

What’s your favorite fantasy ingredient? (For instance, faves around the office include: Chosen Ones, lost royalty, talking animals, magic has a cost, etc)

Oh, so many to choose from. That’s why I love to write fantasy. The lore of lost and forgotten civilizations, with the promise of ancient and powerful objects (particularly swords) to be discovered, is an old favorite. Farm boy saves the kingdom is another. As is reluctant, older, disaffected warrior finds redemption and new purpose in life against the backdrop of fierce dragons and cunning foes. Hmmm… why does that last one sound familiar?

Alright. Fantasy rapid fire time!

Broadswords or dual-wielding?

Damn you! I want both! (not necessarily at the same time)

Wizards or warriors?


Pancakes or waffles?

DAMN YOU! I WANT BOTH! (preferably at the same time)

Ice Dragons or Fire Dragons?


Animal companion or magical object?

Going to have to go with the magic sword on this one.

Lone wolves or teams of misfits?

Lone wolf unwillingly placed in team of misfits.

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