Reading Fantasy in a Tiny Country

discussionHi, I’m Kaja and I live in Slovenia. Usually, that’s not really important for this blog, but today I want to talk about how living in a very small country affects my (genre) reading habits.

Slovenia is one of the smallest countries in the European Union both by surface and by the number of inhabitants. It is this last number – a bit more than 2 million citizens – that is important here. To put this into perspective, London has more than 8 million people. Queens, just one of the boroughs in New York, for example, has 2.3 million. Ljubljana, our capital and my home town, has approximately 300,000 inhabitants.

Where am I going with this?

I always considered myself to be a big fan of the genre. I read fantasy (not so much sci-fi but still), I buy books, I blog about them, I try to make other people read them. My husband probably reads even more fantasy than I do. All in all, by Slovenian standards, we’re that weirdo couple who can always be counted on making incomprehensible LOTR-related jokes and then sniggering while others watch with bemused expressions on family meetings. My grandma still talks about the time I dragged her to the cinema to see The Two Towers with a pained expression.

But I’ve been participating in this weekly feature, Tough Travels, for several months now. It’s great fun and I love doing it but what it brings to light every single week is just how little I really know of the SFF genre.

In Slovenia, we have one major chain of bookstores owned by our largest publishing house, Mladinska knjiga. They have a pretty well-stocked English section in their largest store in Ljubljana but if you go to the fantasy aisle, you’ll only find the usual suspects: George R. R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, Robert Jordan, Robin Hobb, a shelf or two with vampire-related paranormals, and a couple of other titles. It’s no wonder – these are the bestsellers, of course, but what I’m trying to say here is that there is no place I (or any other fantasy enthusiast) can go to browse the titles and discover something a bit less popular.

Sure, I can order books online (which is what I do most of the time, anyway) and have them delivered from the US, for example, but I have to know which ones I want, first. Ok, so I got into blogging – only last year – and I use Goodreads, but I’m computer literate – and most importantly I SPEAK ENGLISH VERY WELL (at least I’d like to think so…).

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Patrick Rothfuss: The Name of the Wind (translated by Sergej Hvala)

The real problem arises when you’re a Slovenian reader and your English is passable (it mostly is with people under 50 in Slovenia, pretty much everyone can make themselves understood in English, one of the side-effects of your language only having 2 millon speakers is the absolute need to learn a foreign language – or two) but not great. You might be able to order pizza and coffee, but you prefer your movies with subtitles and you’re certainly not up to reading a 900-page monster of a book with very elaborate language. Or maybe you just like to read in Slovenian. If that’s the case, your choices are severly limited in terms of fantasy literature. Again, the number of authors that have been translated is abysmally low: Tolkien, of course, Martin, Hobb (just one trilogy), Gaiman, Le Guin, and now Rothfuss.

I think there are two main reasons for this lack of translations:

  1. Fantasy is still a very underrated genre here. It is perceived to be childish (we do have plenty of translated books for kids – and young adults – that’s true, both the classics and the new(ish) titles). This is slowly changing, probably due to the popularity of the HBO’s Game of Thrones which has bewitched our audiences with violence and nudity. :)
  2. There are very few people who actually buy and read (fantasy) books. The average print run for a popular book (like a translation of a historical romance) is 2000 copies. For something like Harry Potter, it might be up to 5000 when all is said and done. Ime Vetra says 1300 copies for the hardback. Books get very expensive because of this!

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I wish there were more people who read fantasy in my country. While the situation is definitely improving, we still have a long way to go. It’s probably important to note that there is very, very little original Slovenian fantasy out there, especially for adults (we do alright with fairy tales and some children’s books).

I wish there were more author events, debates, and other fantasy-related occasions. I only ever saw George R. R. Martin and Patrick Ness and I’ve been to a couple of small-scale fan debates in the last year but there’s still much to desire. I’m seriously thinking of starting my own association or something with several like-minded people…

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What is your experience with reading fantasy? How did you get into it? 

Do you go to lots of author events, conventions, talks and such? 

Where do you live?

I’d love to hear from you! :)

  • I’ve never even thought of that, I normally remember how lucky I am to be english simply for the fact that I am automatically granted easy access to a range of books. Sure, sometimes I have to wait for a book to be delivered from the US if it hasn’t been released over here, but otherwise no great difficulty for me. Knowing you’re limited in access to a range of books simply due to there being a small demand for it being translated and released must suck. That would either really motivate you to learn a language or really put you off reading. I don’t know if I would cope, I am all about things being convenient and cheap, especially my books.

    • Convenient & cheap – this is one of the reasons I read in English. I mean, I don’t have to wait for the translation, I know the language really well, I can get books (either paperbacks or e-books) quite cheaply and if I buy them for my Kindle, I get them instantly.
      We have a very strong translation practice for general fiction – all the big bestsellers get translated and we have all the classics (the “Western canon”) in Slovenian, too, of course. It’s just genre fiction that I miss :)

  • This is such an interesting post. I live in the U.S and I have easy availability to any book I want. I don’t even really know another language (I have taken French classes, but it was a long time ago and I’ve forgotten juts about everything).

    I am from a small place, though, in the U.S. Syracuse, NY is just a small city, and we have very few author events, and even fewer events with fantasy writers.

    • Thanks, Quinn!
      I think that most non-US people look at author tour schedules and think: OMG you guys have so many events, everyone can always go to them, you’re SO LUCKY! But we’re forgetting, of course, that those are just the major cities and that the US are HUGE :D The same goes for concert tours and such.

  • Maraia

    I’m so glad you wrote about this, because while it’s not something I think about daily, I definitely am aware of my privileged status (in terms of reading options) as a native-English speaker living in the United States. Not only can I buy (almost) any book I want to read, even better, I can get them from the library for free! It’s amazing but also something I try not to take for granted. I may not be able to get every book published in Australia (*cough*Isobelle Carmody*cough*) or the U.K., but on the other hand, I’ve found Harry Potter in both Spanish and French here.

    My dad is a huge fantasy reader, so I come by my love the genre honestly. All of my favorite books as a child and teen were fantasies. I can’t even imagine having only a handful of options. I understand the problem, because translating isn’t easy or cheap, but on the other hand, maybe the market would grow if the options also grew? Obviously fantasy isn’t as stigmatized in the U.S. as it seems to be in Slovenia, but it’s still not quite mainstream. Personally, I’m okay with that here, because there are plenty of amazing authors writing it, but I find it strange that no one’s really writing it in Slovenia! I’m sure you’re not the only country to suffer from that problem. I mentioned that we do get books by Australian or U.K. authors, but I’m not actually aware of authors from non-English speaking countries.

    Sadly, I have never been to an author or book event, but I would love to! I lived in Philly for a year, but I wasn’t connected to the book blogging world yet, so I didn’t know of any events. In retrospect it would have been the perfect place for bookish events! Now I’m back in a city that’s too small to host any author tours.

    Wow, I always end up writing such long comments in response to your posts. Oops.

    • I LOVE LONG COMMENTS! :)

      I’ve been thinking about this post a lot these couple of days and I realize that what I wrote about is SUCH a first world problem. I mean, our public libraries are well-stocked, I have access to them, I’m educated and everything – it’s not like I’m suffering from lack of reading material or censure or something equally horrible. I’m one lucky woman to live in my peaceful country.

      It’s just that I often suffer from the terrible sin of envy (I’m just being dramatic, I don’t actually believe in mortal sins or anything) when I read about all the gorgeous books and book events and BEA and I go all green. Eh :)

      I don’t know why Slovenians have this aversion to fantasy; a couple of comments lower a book blogger from Serbia confirmed a similar problem – I wonder what Russians would say on the matter? I know of a Polish fantasy writer, Sapkowsky (or something similar), but not many others…

      • Maraia

        Oh good, because I apparently can’t help it! :P

        You’re absolutely right. We both have the luxury of access to books and the safety and time needed to read them. Still, I think it’s okay to want more. It’s only natural, and anyway, if no one complains, nothing will change. Your fellow Slovenians don’t even know what they’re missing, apparently.

        That’s funny, because at least in the U.S., I think people associate Russia/Eastern Europe in general with fairy tales, but obviously those are “for kids.” I hope I’m not stepping on any toes here, but I wonder if it has anything to do with the history of Russia and Eastern Europe. Life hasn’t been easy there, and maybe that’s given people the attitude that kids are allowed the luxury of escaping to the fantasy world but adults need to grow up and face reality. Fairy tales are steeped in tradition, so it makes more sense that they would be tolerated. I don’t know, I’m just thinking aloud. :)

        • Hmm, interesting point, this part about Russians and fairy tales. But I think that Americans tend to see most European cultures as “folklore” all too often – each nation has their own wealth of fairy tales, sure, but perhaps Russia has been romanticized more? I don’t know. I know Russians have a huuuuge fandom for fantasy (mainly because there are so many of them!). They also happen to have really good black metal bands :D

          • Maraia

            I didn’t know that! So you’re probably right. I’m only getting a very narrow and skewed idea of Russian literature and culture in general. I guess it makes sense, since there are waaaay more people who speak and read Russian than Slovenian. Can you read Russian? (I ask not because you’re from Slovenia but because you’re obviously a language person.)

          • Nope, I don’t, sadly. I can decipher some of the Cyrillic alphabet and understand some if I hear it spoken but that’s just similarity between languages (we don’t write in Cyrillic but still).
            It was common for people to learn Russian here in the past – like 50 years ago – when we were still a part of Yugoslavia, but nowadays only people who study it at the university understand it, much like anywhere else in the world.

  • This is such an interesting post. I love it when I see a book in another language (I live in the UK), but to be honest it hasn’t really occurred to me how limited the range of languages might be, particularly for a genre like fantasy. Thank you for sharing this post.

    • Thanks for stopping by, Rhoda! :)
      I always smile wistfully when I see a marketing campaign for an English bestseller and it says something like: “Translated into 16 languages” and you can bet Slovenian’s not one of them if it’s fantasy!
      We have lots (and LOTS) of translated lit; half of all the books that are published here are translations, but some genres lag behind.

  • I’m fluent in English and Chinese (Mandarin and Cantonese) but I can only read in English (and a very tiny teeny bit of French), which is good because though China is such a huge place with such a huge population, fantasy novels translated from English to Chinese are so rare (or Chinese stories translated to English for that matter – thank goodness for the translating work of authors like Ken Liu). I think that’s an issue that has to do with politics and censorship more than anything though.

    ~Mogsy @ BiblioSanctum

    • I didn’t know you spoke Chinese!! Do you read other books – I mean apart from SFF – in Chinese? Or is it mainly a language you speak with your friends/family?
      It’s a sign of the rarity of such translators if you can actually name them :) I mean, in Slovenia, for example, there are very many translators who work with English, but I know there are only a couple who translate from Swedish. It shows how well a certain culture/language is known in your country…

      • No, I read at like a 3rd grade level in Chinese, lol. I was taught when I was younger but learning all those symbols and characters never stuck. These days I hardly even speak it at all unless it is with my grandmother. Without being immersed in the language, I get really rusty.

        ~Mogsy

        • Ugh, I know what you mean. I studied French both in high school and at university (double major in English & French), but I’ve lost SO MUCH of the language (mostly grammar) already because I mostly work with English! I wish there was more translation work to be had with French, but there simply isn’t.
          Is your grandmother Chinese? I mean, first generation? (Sorry if this is a weird question, I never know if it’s unsensitive to ask about a person’s background… Our society is painfully white and Slovenian so these issues rarely pop up…).

          • Haha, of course you can ask. Yes, my background is Chinese and so are all my ancestors (as far as I know!) I immigrated when I was young though, so even though it’s my mother tongue, not having the opportunity to speak the language on a regular basis is making me rusty, and I never retained the ability to read Chinese because it’s so different from languages like English where you can work everything out phonetically. My mom used to sit us down for writing/reading lessons every weekend but it was all a waste because I can’t read anything these days more complicated than a restaurant menu XD

            ~Mogsy

          • Oh, cool! So you were born in China? How old were you when you moved? (This post has proven to be the best ever in terms of getting to know people who read my blog! Who knew?!)
            I can imagine that with a language as different from English as Chinese – in terms of writing and all – it’s extremely difficult to keep in touch.
            My grandpa’s Serbian/Croatian, for example, and I always intended to learn more of both languages but I never find the time (I understand them well enough because they’re very similar to Slovenian but my grammar is terrible).

          • No, I was born in Singapore because my dad was working there at the time, but, ah, long story! Basically we lived the expat life growing up, living all around Asia. Never stayed in one city for more than four years, so I’m glad I’m finally settled :)

            ~Mogsy

  • Well now this is a very interesting post^^ I live in Canada BUT I live in a small community way out east, so finding real life friends who read the same books I do can be challenging. And even though I speak, read and blog in English, I speak French with my family and most of my friends. Fortunately, there is a significant French minority here so there is a selection of French books for those who prefer to read in French, but the Fantasy titles available in French in our ONE bookstore isn’t that great. I have another close blogger friend from Slovenia but luckily she reads in English as well, I never realized that the Fantasy genre was so underrepresented over there. It’s a shame that people have such poor opinions on such a rich and fulfilling genre. I can’t imagine having to force myself to read other genres because of lack of availability, in my language or otherwise. It’s really lucky that we live in an age where we can order books online and get what we really WANT to read so easily. Imagine just having whatever’s available at local libraries and bookstores…especially when you live in a small community and have different tastes from the norm.

    As for bookish events, we have none around here either. When authors visit Canada, they usually hit up Toronto or BC, which are like a full-day’s drive from me AT LEAST. Hopefully someday it’ll improve! Thanks for sharing your thoughts here^^ ♥

    • “A small community way out east” –> now I’m imagining Anne of Green Gables ;)

      Do you prefer reading in English, then, or is it a matter of convenience? I started blogging in English because I knew the audience for what I want to write about in Slovenia would consist of 5 people (one of whom is married to me).

      Oh, don’t get me started on French books… I want to start reading French picture books to my kid soon (I studied French language & literature at the university) and I’m having trouble finding any at our public libraries. We have a French Institute, though, so that’s where I’m going next. I’ve heard they have a good selection.

      Yeah, Canada and US are HUGEHUGEHUGE places so it’s easy to forget how far most people are from such events :)

      • LOL! You’re not that far off, PEI is only an hour drive from me. I’m in the Maritimes too, New Brunswick to be exact.

        I do prefer reading in English to be honest, growing up in a small place where French is the minority, I was pretty much surrounded by English, so it actually became more natural for me to read in English. And, like you, I always knew I’d blog in English because I’d reach more people that way than in French.

        That’s so cool that you read in French too! Too bad that the books are so hard to find that way :(

        • Oh and I almost forgot: when you visited my blog, you asked about upcoming topics for my Fandom Mashup feature. Well, I added a tab with ALL my upcoming topics :) Thanks again for stopping by ♥

          • Oh, great, thanks for letting me know. I’ll check it out :)

            I’ve been to Canada twice but never that far East; one of my things-to-do-when-kiddo-is-older is definitely taking a road trip across Canada and the US (probably multiple trips). It’ll be a while before we can do that but I keep planning ahead ;)

            Do you know any good book blogs in French? I’d love to get into reading French books again because I’m really getting rusty – and I can probably find the titles for Kindle?

  • I completely understand you Kaja. I’m from Serbia, so my country is not much bigger than yours. Foreign authors do not come to visit and it’s to expensive buying airplane tickets to go to blogger convection (like BEA).
    Fantasy is a neglected genre here too. Translations are late by years, sometimes decades. And often they translate only book #1 and when sales are not good enough they do not translate the rest of the series.
    Honestly, one of the best moments in my life is when my husband gave me Kindle as a present. Now I can read ebooks as soon as they are published. Still, I know I am in minority. A lot of my friends are uncomfortable reading in English, or think ereaders are too pricey.

    • I think our cultures share much of the same prejudices when it comes to SFF! O_o Oh, BEA. How I’d love to go! But I don’t think it’ll be possible anytime soon.
      I can’t tell you how many times I was talking to my friends or family and said: You have to read this book – only to remember it wasn’t translated so people couldn’t read it :( So sad. Yeah, my Kindle is definitely worth its weight in gold (and then some). I love the easy access to ebooks! Great husband you’ve got there ;)

      • Yeah BEA… Even if I could convince myself to buy that expensive airplane ticket, what would I do with all of the books I get? I think paying for extra airplane luggage weight be the same as buying them in the end…
        Yeah that’s so sad. My friends sometimes ask me for recommendations, and usually that book is not translated. Or if it is translated, translation turns out to be so bad…
        SFF has the worst translations ever. I remember when I was reading The Chronicles of Amber in Serbian, the character names were translated differently in different book parts. Obviously they divided the work between a couple of people, but they could have made an agreement how to translate names and terms…
        :(

        • Oh, yeah, it often happens that parts of a series are translated by different people. But with better publishing houses, editors make sure the things match, at least.

          • This one one book, just a think one (more than 1000 pages). And it was one of the bigger publishing houses… :(
            I know for sure they do not have editors, since my friend translates Portuguese for them. They just accept the translation and print it without any check!

  • I’m glad you shared this with me! This is a really interesting post, particularly around how your culture percieves the fantasy genre. I think it is finally accepted in the mainstream now in America, though even 10 years ago fantasy/scifi wasn’t as popular. You certainly ran the risk of being called a nerd or assumed to be weird if you read fantasy/scifi or played D&D. Now it is almost a badge of honor to be a nerd, and I feel that has everything to do with the explosion of Game of Thrones and other fantasy-esque shows. Maybe it will take a little longer in Slovenia, but I hope not too long!

    Also, this just makes me realize how good I have it as a reader in the US with easy access to countless books.