Nature Future Conditional

Chinese SF and the art of translation — a Q&A with Ken Liu

The award-winning author and translator Ken Liu released his debut novel, The Grace of Kings, last year. He also translated two of the books in the Three-Body trilogy by Liu Cixin (the first of which, The Three-Body Problem, won the 2015 Hugo for best novel). Ken’s interest in contemporary Chinese science fiction is underscored by the forthcoming Invisible Planets, an anthology of Chinese SF in translation that will come out later this year. The sequel to The Grace of KingsThe Wall of Storms — is due out in October. Ken has also written some short stories for Futures, including Second chance, The Plague and Celestial bodiesPreston Grassmann caught up with Ken to get his thoughts on Chinese SF and the challenges of translation.

There was an article by Joshua Rothman in the New Yorker last year profiling the science fiction of Liu Cixin. He claims that American science fiction is largely reflective of its pioneering history. In particular, he refers to a thematic focus on frontiers, the war for independence and democratic ideals. However, scholars like Mingwei Song and Nathaniel Isaacson make it clear that Chinese science fiction is very diverse and this kind of thematic parsing must be carefully approached. Given that it’s inevitable for one’s historical context to play a role in narrative, do you think it’s possible to distinguish certain characteristics in Chinese science fiction?

While I do find Rothman’s analysis interesting and provocative, I generally resist the urge to make sweeping generalizations about a large body of work like ‘Chinese science fiction’ that encompasses many diverse approaches and influences and written by numerous authors each with their own unique approach to the genre.

Some Chinese authors have given their own answers to your question. Xia Jia, a prominent Chinese SFF author and scholar, wrote an essay for called “What Makes Chinese Science Fiction Chinese?”. Liu Cixin, probably the leading figure of contemporary Chinese SF, has stated in various interviews, (e.g, this one) that he thinks Chinese SF is at a stage of development similar to American SF of the “golden age” because the rapid pace of social change and techno-economic development pushes the future into the forefront of people’s minds and provides fertile soil for science fiction.

While I think literature must be understood in relation to the social context in which it’s produced, contemporary Chinese society is so complex and involves so many conflicting voices and trends that I think no simple answers can be given to characterize ‘Chinese science fiction’. The field is as complicated and layered as the society generating the works.

For many readers of science fiction, part of the pleasure of reading comes from experiencing ‘the other’, of being taken out of a familiar context and shown something entirely new. It would seem almost inevitable that readers of science fiction would be interested in translated fiction, given that it is informed, to some degree, by a different history and cultural context. Why do you think it has taken so long for foreign writers like Liu Cixin, to receive the notice they deserve?

I’ve read somewhere that less than 3% of the books published in the US each year are translations. This is very different from markets in other countries, where translations tend to make up a much bigger portion of published books.

The general lack of interest from US readers for translated works has many possible causes, and I think one contributing factor is probably the dominance of the US in global culture. America is the pre-eminent cultural exporter in the world, and its music, movies and popular culture tend to be valued by most societies and shape trends everywhere.

American readers, as members of such a hegemonic culture, may consciously or subconsciously assume that what is American is also ‘best’ and whatever ideas are worth expressing have already been expressed in English (and better, too). Since English is the dominant language of modern science, politics and commerce, maybe many (most?) Anglophone readers share such natural arrogance to some degree. It takes an extra effort for American readers to pay attention to cultural products that aren’t American and aren’t originally produced in English. Foreign writers thus face an uphill battle for attention.

This is, of course, only a theory, and hard to prove or disprove.

Some Chinese-to-English translators have noted that it’s difficult to capture distinguishing characteristics of the Chinese text while making it seem natural to English readers. One example you mentioned before is the omniscient point of view, which is not as common in modern English literature. What are some of the other challenges you had to face when translating from the Chinese?

The omniscient POV is not really a feature of the language — it’s just that contemporary English genre literature has generally eschewed its use while many Chinese SFF works employ it to great effect.

In terms of translating from Chinese to English, the biggest difficulties for me have always involved literary allusions and historical references. Skilled Chinese writing is often replete with these — and if translated literally, most would be completely opaque to readers not steeped in Chinese culture (cf. the Star Trek: TNG episode “Darmok”). While translating, I have to make many decisions as to which of these references to keep and which to drop, which to explain and which to let stand (so that the reader can figure them out by context).

This is not to say that English writing isn’t filled with such allusions and references as well, but since Chinese readers are generally familiar with Western references, the English-to-Chinese translator doesn’t have the same difficulties as the Chinese-to-English translator. Once again, this is the result of the cultural hegemony of the West, and of the US in particular. People in the rest of the world know a lot more about Americanisms and European/American history than the other way around.

There are other challenges related to linguistic features such as rhythm, puns, moods, voices, tenses, etc., but they’re relatively minor compared to the cultural issues.

There are some great translations, largely by you, of stories by Chen Qiufan, Xia Jia and Tang Fei. Who are some of the other writers that you think we should be aware of in Chinese science fiction?

Bao Shu, whose wonderful novella “What Has Passed Shall In Kinder Light Appear” I translated for F&SF, is someone to watch for. His debut novel The Ruins of Time is fast-paced and philosophically interesting. Hao Jingfang, an economist as well as a scifi writer, should also definitely be at the top of the reading list of anyone interested in Chinese SF or SFF in general. Her story, “Folding Beijing”, is a good intro to her work.

What new translations do we have to look forward to?

I have a collection of translated short fiction called Invisble Planets coming out from Tor Books, which I’m really excited about. Meanwhile, I also translated Chen Qiufan’s debut novel, The Waste Tide, and it should be released in the American market soon.



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