Ken Liu talks about SciFi’s world traditions

Having recently finished Death’s End (see my review here), the epic finale of the THREE-BODY TRILOGY by  Cixin Liu, which rose to prominence when the the first book The Three-Body Problem won the Hugo Award for Best SF Novel of 2015 (translated by Ken Liu), I was intrigued by the process of translating foreign SF works into English, and was excited that Ken Liu, also the acclaimed author of The Grace of Kings (first book of the DANDELION DYNASTY series), agreed to answer some questions about the process. Also, on Nov 1 Tor Books will be publishing Invisible Planets, an anthology of contemporary Chinese SF writers including two stories by Cixin Liu, which have been assembled, translated, and edited by Ken Liu.

Last but not least, Macmillan Audio, which arranged the interview and provided an ARC of Death’s End, has also agreed to give away an audio CD set of the entire THREE-BODY TRILOGY to one lucky commenter below! (US addresses only).

Stuart: Ken, thanks so much for taking time to answer a few questions about Cixin Liu’s Death’s End. It’s been very exciting to see the THREE-BODY TRILOGY gain so much attention in English translation and for Cixin Liu to win the Hugo Award for Best SF Novel of 2015, which you received on his behalf at last year’s WorldCon in Spokane, Washington. As Western readers’ first exposure to Chinese SF, it’s a great opportunity to give his work the best possible treatment in English, but it must have also been a big challenge considering the mind-bending concepts of the story, particularly the theoretical physics including multi-dimensional warfare, etc. Can you tell us about that aspect of the translation? Did you have to do a lot of research to understand the concepts?

 

Ken LiuKen Liu: Thank you for much for inviting me to chat! It was really exciting to be in Spokane in 2015 to receive my own Hugo Award for the translation of The Three-Body Problem (one of only a handful of Hugos for translation in existence in all of fandom, though I hope to see more of them in the future) as well as to witness the first Hugo rocket being awarded to a Chinese author. I’ve been a fan and friend of Liu Cixin for a long time, and it was absolutely wonderful to see his work being recognized by a wider audience. Along with the win by Thomas Olde Heuvelt and Lia Belt (translator) in the novelette category, it felt like the Hugo was finally celebrating worldwide fantastic fiction.

On translation: it’s a common misconception that translating the technical language or concepts in SF poses particular challenges. Technical language and jargon are extremely easy to translate because the worldwide modern language of science and technology is English. Therefore, most technical terms and even made-up jargon in Chinese are direct translations from English or are patterned on English terms rather than culture-specific. Thus, the Chinese term for something specific like “ruby-based traveling-wave maser” is trivial to translate. But a culturally-embedded term like laoshi, which literally means “teacher” or “master” but is used as a term of respect in contemporary Chinese, is extremely difficult to render in English.

Now, having said all that, I do think it’s pretty important for the translator to be technically well-versed in the scientific concepts involved – after all, the science is a specific domain of knowledge, like cultural knowledge, and you can’t do an effective translation if you just parrot what is said in the original. Just like with The Three-Body Problem, during the translation of Death’s End, I looked up new scientific papers in the relevant areas, discussed with Da Liu how to update the story to reflect the latest research where necessary, consulted with my friends who were practicing physicists, and worked out better ways to explain the concepts to Anglophone readers when I felt that a direct translation would be more confusing than illuminating.

In other words, the difficulty in translating technical SF isn’t in translating specific terms but in grasping the overall science as well as the specific speculative elements such that the translation can “retell” the story in an effective manner for an audience that is used to a different set of expository conventions in SF—and to do so without completely stripping the text of its character as an artifact of another literary tradition or the voice of the author.

There is an extended sequence in Death’s End that involves the telling of three long children’s fairy tales that actually contain hidden clues for humanity’s survival. I understand these tales have some background in classic Chinese folktales, but for a Western audience unfamiliar with them, do you think it will be difficult for such readers to understand the significance of these stories? What was your approach to translating them — did you try to “localize” them to make them more accessible, or translate them “as is” in keeping with the original? I think the same applies to the Wallfacer concept, which may be alien to Western readers but is familiar to Chinese readers.

Cover from Death's EndThe stories form a code, and since part of the plot involves decoding the stories to understand their significance, I don’t want to say too much to spoil the experience for readers. Suffice it to say that I think these stories are wonderful examples of Da Liu’s range, as they really do read like interesting fairy tales with lots of nods to worldwide folktale traditions, despite the important “message” they conceal. Moreover, since the character who does finally decode the stories relied on no knowledge of anything specific to Chinese culture, I’d say knowledge of Edgar Allen Poe’s work or the history of the steam engine is far more important than awareness of Chinese folktales in appreciating the significance of these stories.

In translation, it is actually not possible to translate “as-is.” Translation is a performance art, and all performances require adaptation. Just as a musician cannot play a note as it is notated in the score and an actress cannot say a line as it is written on the page, a translator must take the words in the source and add her own interpretation when rendering the result into the target language, taking into account the specific audience, the interpretive framework they’ll be relying on, as well as the larger cultural conversation that is taking place in the performance venue.

All performances are guided by the goal of the performance, and so performers must make decisions that serve the goal: Do you use “period instruments”? Do you try costuming the actors in contemporary dress? Do you speed up or slow down? Do you cut or add? Thus, for example, I had to make certain decisions about “translating” the characters’ names—when I generally do not translate Chinese names—and deviating from pinyin spelling when phonetic based on English is more important to the enjoyment of the tales.

One final word on the Wallfacer concept: I don’t think the idea is particularly alien to Western readers. The idea of setting oneself apart from the noise and bustle of everyday life to contemplate great truths is fundamental to the monastic history of many religious traditions across the world, and the Buddhist and Daoist monks who meditated for years against a blank wall have their Western counterparts in the anchorites who sealed themselves away from society in tiny cells. Liu Cixin took the concept as a metaphor for the enclosed mental space of the Wallfacer, the sole domain secure from ubiquitous sophon surveillance from which humanity may practice strategic deception against a far more powerful alien foe. That idea is as provocative and resonant to the Chinese reader as it is to the Western reader.

When I initially posted reviews of The Three Body Problem and The Dark Forest on Goodreads, I got a huge number of responses from Chinese readers who were fans of Liu’s work in Chinese, and who were very interested in the response of Western readers to the English translations. They told me that many English comments about Liu’s books are translated into Chinese on Internet forums, either using translation software or volunteer translators. Some said that the series was a metaphor for China’s early encounters with more advanced Western countries, or a proxy for the cut-throat world of Chinese Internet companies, or describing Cold War politics, etc. Do you see his series as pure SF speculation in the Arthur C. Clarke tradition, or is there a political/social subtext Western readers should be aware of?

Cover of The Three-Body ProblemAs Louis Menand said, “Texts are always packed, by the reader’s prior knowledge and expectations, before they are unpacked.” All readers bring their own interpretive frameworks to a text, and what is read out of the text often has more to do with the cultural conversation that is happening in the background rather than the specific intent of the author. I know that Liu Cixin was as surprised as you when some readers claimed that the books presented a metaphorical reading of the intense competition among China’s Internet companies—I suppose if you spend every hour of every day competing in such an industry, it’s natural to read everything in that framework.

At the same time, no author can be free from the larger cultural milieu in which they write or the overarching historical narrative in their society, even if they are trying to describe events that will occur a long time in the future in a galaxy far far away. This is why the works of Verne and Wells are replete with justifications for as well as objections to the colonial project, to the imperial will to, power of, Western industrial capitalism. Clarke himself wasn’t interested in (and couldn’t have even if he tried) speculating about the future without reference to the past or the present, as his work is also filled with the anxieties and dominating concerns of his time—see, for example, the long exchange on the legacy of colonialism in Australia and the rather simplistic solution proposed in A Fall of Moondust.

Nonetheless, it is possible to read these works without confining them to the particular time and place of their origin, to seek enjoyment and meaning from them from our vantage point. History and context perhaps add to the meaning of a work, but do not constrain it.

In other words, all literary works are supported by and articulate their meaning against a political and social subtext, but it is not required to read all works only against the particular political and social subtext of their origin. It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that works produced by writers from our own society and tradition are free from politics simply because the politics is so much a part of our own thinking that we no longer notice it. But it is also easy to fall into the trap of thinking that works produced by writers from a different society and tradition are only reacting to their politics or can be made sense of only against their history. Both approaches, I think, do a disservice to the works involved and unnecessarily limit the reader’s creative endeavor in constructing meaning and deriving pleasure from imaginative books.

This is especially so when Liu Cixin has said repeatedly that he does not want his work interpreted as Chinese science fiction, but as part of the grand tradition of world science fiction. While readers always can choose to ignore the author, I think in this case the author’s own thoughts for how his works can be interpreted is illuminating.

It’s very exciting to see SF becoming more global in scope and reach, and The Three Body Problem is the first translated work to win the Hugo Award, which is quite an honor. This means that translators are important collaborators in introducing foreign authors’ work to Western readers. It was interesting to hear about the challenges this presented to Tor, and a testament to their determination to make the project succeed. Do you see a substantial market for more overseas SF getting translated into English, whether from Chinese or other markets? Or is this likely to remain a niche part of the genre?

Agree with you on the achievement of Liu Cixin’s magnum opus! I do want to note that while The Three-Body Problem is the first translated novel to win a Hugo Award, the award for “The Day the World Turned Upside Down,” written by Thomas Olde Heuvelt and translated by Lia Belt, won the novelette category earlier that night. Also, this year, “Folding Beijing,” written by Hao Jingfang and translated by me, won the novelette category Hugo, which hopefully shows that interest in translations isn’t just a one-year phenomenon.

While translation is important in the reception of a work, it is but one small component in a vast network of contributors who all play a role in the final production’s success. Tor Books’ contributions (especially from my editor, Liz Gorinsky, and Tom Doherty, who backed the series as publisher, and the many, many amazing people in art and cover design, copyediting, publicity, and so on) are well known, but it’s also important to recognize the work done by China Education Publications Import & Export Co., Ltd (“CEPIEC”), who first acquired the foreign rights in the series and commissioned the translations, and the network of fans, authors, and agents who by word of mouth and encounters planned and accidentally helped to connect Liu Cixin and his grand hard SF series with Tor Books.

Cover of Invisible PlanetsThere is a great deal of fantastic SF being written all over the world in languages other than English. I’m personally aware of fascinating works coming out of Japan, China, Russia, France, Germany, and Spain, and I’m sure that what I know is but a tiny corner of the vast universe of world SF. There are many efforts underway to bring more translations to Anglophone readers. For example, Clarkesworld and Storycom are collaborating to publish Chinese SF in Clarkesworld, and there is also an effort at Strange Horizons to fund Samovar, an imprint specializing in translations.

I am, however, pessimistic that much of world SF will ever be translated into English—the dominance of American culture worldwide will mean that we’re never going to be as interested in what other cultures and countries do than other cultures and countries are interested in what we do. However, that doesn’t mean I’ll stop promoting translations from across the world into English.

On November 1, Tor Books will release Invisible Planets, the first English-language anthology of contemporary Chinese SF, edited and translated by me. It includes stories from Liu Cixin, Hao Jingfang, as well as many other writers active in the Chinese SF community who are doing interesting and innovative work. I hope it’s well received by the market so that more publishers will be encouraged to delve into translations.

Can you describe the current state of Chinese SF? How big is it compared to the US SF market, for example, and how active is SF fandom there?

I’m not an expert on Chinese SF—though I know more about the field than most Americans do. My sense is that the number of active SF writers who self-identify as such in China is under a hundred, so it is a much “smaller” market than American SF in a way. However, the most active and financially rewarding segment of the Chinese fiction publishing scene is in web serials (think Dickens, but done on the web), with sales measured in the tens of millions of readers for some of the most popular works. Many successful web serials do in fact feature fantasy, horror, or even SF concepts and tropes, though such works are not often classified as “core SF.” (This is not all that different from the situation here in the US, where many popular authors that use SF tropes are not marketed as such.)

The fandom in China is active but young, as most SF readers are college students or even younger. I think one of the great joys for American authors who attend Chinese cons is the number of enthusiastic young fans who are interested in discussing everything related to SF, science, technology, space exploration, artificial intelligence, and so on. It really is energizing to be with so many enthusiastic fans who obviously think that SF matters and SF is transformative.

Comment below for your chance to win an audio CD set of the entire THREE-BODY TRILOGY! U.S. addresses only.


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STUART STAROSTA, on our staff from March 2015 to November 2018, is a lifelong SFF reader who makes his living reviewing English translations of Japanese equity research. Despite growing up in beautiful Hawaii, he spent most of his time reading as many SFF books as possible. After getting an MA in Japanese-English translation in Monterey, CA, he lived in Tokyo, Japan for about 15 years before moving to London in 2017 with his wife, daughter, and dog named Lani. Stuart's reading goal is to read as many classic SF novels and Hugo/Nebula winners as possible, David Pringle's 100 Best SF and 100 Best Fantasy Novels, along with newer books & series that are too highly-praised to be ignored. His favorite authors include Philip K Dick, China Mieville, Iain M. Banks, N.K. Jemisin, J.G. Ballard, Lucius Shepard, Neal Stephenson, Kurt Vonnegut, George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, Robert Silverberg, Roger Zelazny, Ursula K. LeGuin, Guy Gavriel Kay, Arthur C. Clarke, H.G. Wells, Olaf Stapledon, J.R.R. Tolkien, Mervyn Peake, etc.

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17 comments

  1. Von Berry /

    I have been hearing a lot about this series and I am starting to be interested in reading them. Thanks.

  2. Chris Lantz /

    Would love to read Chinese scifi, listening to literature from a different literary background!

  3. Ren Bedell /

    Loved the Three-Body Problem and would love to read the rest of the series. Some of my favorite books are Chinese fiction, including Ken Liu’s The Grace of Kings.

  4. Really fantastic interview, Stuart — very informative and thought-provoking!

    • Thanks, Jana! Ken Liu’s answers show how thoughtful he is regarding translation of SF. I liked his point that the technical aspects are not hard, but rather making the translation meaningful in the target language/culture.

  5. Thank you for this great interview.
    I still haven’t been able to read one of Liu’s books, but The Three-Body Problem has been on my list for a while. Audio would be a great alternative.

  6. I wd like to be entered in drawing. Admire Liu very much

  7. Sharon /

    Interesting interview. I haven’t had a chance to read any of Liu’s work yet so an audio book would be great.

  8. I read and loved these books (trilogy), great interview!

  9. Great interview! I loved The Grace of Kings, and hope to read the Three Body Trilogy soon!

  10. Great interview. So much more than a bio of a sci-fi writer.

  11. Truly excellent interview, Stuart. Thanks to both you and Ken Liu. And now I’m off to officially add The Three-Body Problem to my TBR list…

  12. Glad to see there’s lots of interest in this excellent series – I think you won’t be disappointed!

  13. Red Bedell, if you live in the USA, you win a copy of the CD set!
    Please contact me (Marion) with your US address and I’ll have the book sent right away. Happy reading!

  14. Incredible interview. I had the fortunate chance to hear a lecture on translation from Ken and meet him. He is good people.

  15. Anita Greenberg /

    I enjoy reading this genre but as of this date, have not read this series. After reading the Ken Liu interview, and possibly getting the audio, it would be a wonderful introduction and i will be excited to start.

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