Untranslatable – Alma Alexander



A collection of science fiction and fantasy stories by Alma Alexander.


I like the concept of this collection – stories oriented around words that hard to translate into other languages (the best known of the set being perhaps the Portuguese ‘saudade’ – longing or melancholy for a missing thing or person). Each story is followed by a translation and explanation of the word in question, and by a brief note on how the story relates to it. However, despite the strength of the writing, the collection falls short of its stated goals.

First, as Alexander herself admits in the end notes, the stories as often as not don’t have a clear link to the word, and are forced into position somewhat inelegantly. While not a fatal flaw, having to reach quite far to tie the story to the theme undermines the anthology’s basic conceit.

Alexander unfortunately also comes off as somewhat pretentious – not in the stories, but in the accompanying notes. That’s aggravated by an unfortunate proofreading error that has her saying, in the middle of bragging of her vocabulary, “I I know what perichor means”, when in fact the word is ‘petrichor’. While I’m normally a fan of author’s notes, these made me less interested in Alexander, not more. They reminded me that I’ve seen (not met) Alexander in person at some point, with a similar reaction.

Setting framework and personality aside, the stories themselves were much stronger than I anticipated. The collection begins with a piece I found somewhat tired and uninspired, and I settled in for a long, slow read. Much to my pleasure, however, the bulk of the collection was substantially better.  The concepts are good, the characters interesting, the writing skillful. While most of the stories work well, they tended overall to lack a certain polish or finesse. As a whole, they read as the work of a promising journeyman. They reminded me a bit of Connie Willis, though tending more toward wistfulness than humour.

I recommend this collection for the stories as they are, but I think Alexander is a writer who bears watching for what she could develop into.

My favorite stories:

  • Dreamshare – a woman sets out in pursuit of a man hooked on a strange drug. While I’m not usually a fan of drug stories, Alexander engages us with the protagonist so effectively that it all works, emotionally.
  • notableEquinox – one of the Summer and one of the Winter people catch sight of each other in a lakeside village. A really beautiful story that’s a good match for the theme word, ‘mamihlapinatapei’
  • notableLeaving Via Callia – a story about unfulfilled desire. There’s nothing surprising about this story, and yet it works its magic beautifully.
  • Night Train – a woman meets her personal god. This is a story for which I liked the concept more than the execution, but it’s effective nonetheless.
  • Something That Would Shine – a human trader discovers the truth about the artifacts he’s come to buy.
  • The Flying Dutchman – a writer meets the captain of a ship he once worked on. There’s nothing speculative about this story, and it’s a very familiar theme, but Alexander draws deep emotion into it nonetheless

That’s almost half the stories in the book, and is a testament to Alexander’s ability and intentions. While each of the stories left me wishing she’d taken things a step further, spent a little more time polishing, they weren’t frustrating – just a little rough around the edges. They’re good stories.

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