Ken Liu ON TRANSLATION

by Ksenia Anske in


PLEASE WELCOME Ken Liuan American science-fiction writer, poet, lawyer and computer programmer. His short stories have appeared in F&SFAsimov'sAnalogLightspeedClarkesworld, and other magazines, as well as several anthologies, including the Year's Best SF. He is also a translator of science fiction and literary stories from Chinese into English. "The Paper Menagerie" is the first work of fiction, of any length, ever to have swept the Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy Awards.

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ON TRANSLATION by Ken Liu

Besides writing fiction, I also translate fiction from Chinese into English. Since one of the things our species is very good at is retroactively discovering patterns in life, I will try to tell the story of how I became a translator.

When I was a small child in China, I enjoyed looking over my grandfather’s English books and dictionaries, even though I couldn't understand any of the strange marks inside.

One day, I decided that I would learn English by translating the Chinese fairytale I was reading into English. I copied out the first sentence of the story neatly, and then proceeded to look up each character in my grandfather's Chinese-English dictionary, writing the first word in the definition under each character. The result was something like this:

from front located very long very long to front...

(That’s a character-by-character rendering of one of the best openings in literature: “A very long time ago…”)

My next attempt at translation came about by accident, some thirty years later, long after I became an American. One day, my friend Chen Qiufan, one of China's best science fiction writers, asked me to take a look at the English translation someone had done of one of his stories. The original Chinese version was lyrical, moving, and sparkling with wit. I was very curious how it came across in English.

"I have bad news," I told him. "This reads like the effort of Google Translate. You can sort of tell what's going on, but ... no." (Actually, bits of it reminded me of my first effort.)

"Any way you can fix it?"

"Fixing" a few sentences here and there turned into rewriting entire paragraphs, and then it was just easier to throw the existing translation away and start from scratch.

My translation of Chen's story, "The Fish of Lijiang," was published in Clarkesworld and went on to win the Science Fiction & Fantasy Translation Award for 2011.

The experience made me realize a few things: 1) There was a lot of wonderful science fiction being published in China; 2) Almost none of it was accessible to Western readers due to lack of quality translations; 3) Since I was fortunate enough to be a member of the American genre literary community who’s fluent in Chinese, perhaps there was an opportunity here...

Even my reading history confirmed that I was fated to get into doing translations. My first exposure to science fiction was through Chinese translations of American works: Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Lester del Rey's "Helen O'Loy," novelizations of the Star Wars films, etc. Since translators had once provided me so much joy by giving me access to the literature of another culture, by opening vistas that otherwise would be closed off to me, it only made sense that I should join their ranks one day.

Right now I'm working on translating The Three Body Problem by Liu Cixin, which is China's most popular science fiction novel and the first major genre novel ever to be translated from Chinese into English. A first contact story, the novel is set against the tumultuous history of China in the second half of the twentieth century and contains interesting speculation on physics, astrophysics, math, and the form intelligent life can take. 

Translating a novel is far more challenging than translating a short story, but also more rewarding. I'm excited by the opportunity, and I hope English readers enjoy it as much as Chinese readers have.

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