On the throne of Israeli geeks: Writer Brandon Sanderson honored at ICon

The metaphorical throne of honor was sat upon in the past by Neil Gaiman and Orson Scott Card.

Brandon Sanderson holding a German-language copy of his fantasy novel Elantris on August 18, 2007 at the book pre-release event for Mistborn: The Well of Ascension at the Waldenbooks store in the Provo Towne Centre mall in Provo, Utah. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Brandon Sanderson holding a German-language copy of his fantasy novel Elantris on August 18, 2007 at the book pre-release event for Mistborn: The Well of Ascension at the Waldenbooks store in the Provo Towne Centre mall in Provo, Utah.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
World-renowned fantasy author Brandon Sanderson has arrived in Israel as ICon 2019’s guest of honor.
Sanderson is one of the most prolific modern fantasy writers, with an impressive bibliography of several critically acclaimed series such as the Reckoners, his interconnected Cosmere universe and several more, as well as a writing pace that far outstrips many of his contemporaries.
As a result, the author has accumulated a very dedicated fan base across the world, and Israel is no exception.
“I do get emails from them,” Sanderson told The Jerusalem Post. “It’s one of the reasons I came to the convention here…. I had a disproportionate number of people from Israel emailing me.”
Organized by the Israeli Society for Science Fiction and Fantasy, ICon is held every Sukkot for three days at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque. The convention is one of the largest geek conventions in Israel, and has hosted several notable guests of honor in previous years including authors Orson Scott Card and Neil Gaiman.
Gaiman is hailed as a master of modern comic books and literature thanks to his iconic Sandman series published in the early 1990s, and American Gods, which was made into television series recently. Card is lauded for his iconic 1985 sci-fi classic Ender’s Game, which was also made into a movie in 2013.
“I feel very honored to be sitting in the same proverbial chair” as Neil Gaiman, said Sanderson of the British-Jewish writer, calling him a “shaping force” in fantasy and pop-culture. “We in the genre owe him a great debt.”
Though this is his first time in Israel, it did play an important role in Sanderson’s sci-fi Legion series, with part of the plot being set in Jerusalem.
However, Sanderson admitted that his depiction wasn’t perfect, as his knowledge of Jerusalem locations was gained second-hand from his editor, Moshe Feder, who had lived in the capital.
As is often the case, not everyone was happy when Sanderson announced his intention to come to Israel.
“I did get [some] emails from people… asking me to reconsider coming,” he explained. “My general inclination is I don’t generally boycott no matter what. I don’t think it’s an effective way to cause social change. I think there are other and better ways. So I didn’t agree with these requests.”
Several of Sanderson’s books have been translated into Hebrew for publication. When asked what the biggest issue he runs into when translating fantasy works into other languages, the author explained that it was a matter of gender.
“There are entities that are not gendered in English, you just refer to something as ‘the something,’” he explained. “It’s obvious with something like the Stormfather [from the Cosmere’s Stormlight Archive series], but… in some languages, the word needs to be gendered or ungendered in a way that English doesn’t do. So you get asked ‘So, you mentioned this ancient god. Male or female? Or neither? Because we need to know for our translation process.’”
Other potential issues include the translation of certain names and phrases that make up part of the intricate lore and magic systems of fantasy settings in the fictional universe.
Translations from English to Hebrew in fantasy literature have previously dealt with this problem. A notable case was the early translations of the works of J. R. R. Tolkien, which ran into a problem over the lack of an equivalent Hebrew word for elves.
While some translators simply wrote the English word in Hebrew letters, others opted for a flowery Hebrew term – the sons of Lilith – that some thought connected well with Jewish mythical and fantasy concepts, as she was said to be Adam’s first wife. Some objected to this decision, however, as Lilith is generally held to be evil, and calling elves her children implies an undeservedly demonic nature.
For Sanderson, however, translations are usually done by translators that are well-versed in the fantasy genre, and his terms are often transliterated phonetically.
There is also the potential problem over pronunciations in new translations, as certain names use sounds that are common in one language and nonexistent in others. This is compounded by the tendency of fantasy authors to make names difficult to pronounce.
“I don’t even pronounce my character names correctly sometimes,” Sanderson admitted, giving the example of the character Kaladin in the Stormlight Archive, where there is a debate over pronouncing his name with a short I or long E. “It’s up to the translators,” he said, but noted that in regard to Kaladin and other characters from the Stormlight Archive, most of the names used were rooted in Hebrew and Arabic.
“With my linguistics, I usually pick some real world analogues just to give myself some sounds that are off limits and to make sure some names kind of stay within a theme,” he explained. “It’s nice and handy to have a guide that says ‘does this name sound right?’ And so I’m usually using Hebrew or Arabic [for the Stormlight Archive], and it’s how my editor Moshe became [the character] Moash… But if I’m going for an ancient word, I usually go to Hebrew.”
With such a dedicated fan base and an extensive bibliography, almost every one of Sanderson’s statements on his books have been analyzed by fans, with an online database entitled “Word of Brandon” archiving every Q&A segment, convention appearance and book signing.
In addition to analyzing his words, his fans also meticulously comb through each of his books looking for clues and foreshadowing. While some other fantasy authors can claim a fan base that boast this level of dedication – such as J. K. Rowling who wrote the Harry Potter books, and Jim Butcher who wrote the ongoing Dresden Files series – they are still few in number. And like Rowling and Butcher, Sanderson is regularly swarmed with questions.
“I enjoy that people are so invested,” he said, adding that it would be hypocritical for him to be annoyed by it, as he was part of the very dedicated fandom of the 1990s’ Wheel of Time series, which “thrived on every word that Robert Jordan [the pen name of author James Oliver Rigney Jr.] said.”
This would prove invaluable when Sanderson was selected to conclude the series after Jordan died before finishing it.
It is this example that makes fans of George R. R. Martin fear that his series A Song of Ice and Fire, which became the global hit show Game of Thrones, might suffer a worse fate, as Martin said nobody will be allowed to finish his series should he pass away with his work unfinished.
While he is spending most of the week at ICon, Sanderson also plans to travel to Jerusalem to visit the Brigham Young campus – he teaches at BYU in the US – and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher as well as other tourist sites, before continuing on his tour in Europe. And if all goes to plan, he will be able to finish his next book before his upcoming deadline.