Q&A: Ken Liu Talks Translating, Chinese Science Fiction, and His Own Writing

Photo by Lisa Tang Liu

Photo by Lisa Tang Liu

Ken Liu reached an enormous worldwide audience earlier this year with his English translation of The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin, China’s most acclaimed science fiction writer. This month, his translation of Death’s End, another book in the Three Body Book Series, was released — and it will no doubt find a large and appreciative audience. When Ken Liu — who was born in China, and moved to the U.S. as a child — is not translating, he is writing his own science fiction and fantasy (or putting his Harvard Law School degree to work taking on legal projects).  Liu answered questions from The National’s Noah Benjamin-Pollak.

Q: Chinese is quite different from English.  Is translating from a language like Chinese more challenging than translating from a linguistically closer language like German?

A: The challenges of translation are rarely linguistic; in fact, I’ve found the most difficult aspects of translation to be cultural. I wouldn’t presume to rank the “difficulty” of translating from various languages into English except to note that there is more shared cultural context between works written in European languages and English than there is between works written in Chinese and English. Not only is there a shared linguistic history between, for example, German and English, but the two cultures share much affinity with each other. The gulf between Anglophone cultures and Sinophone cultures, however, can be far wider.

For example, in Chinese, it is rare to address someone directly by their name. Typically, a rich system of diminutives, nicknames, honorifics, titles, and the like is used to encode the relationship between the speaker and the addressee, the relative social status of each, and other contextual information. When translating into English, much of this richness is impossible to render, as the United States and the United Kingdom—the primary Anglophone markets for English translations—do not have cultural equivalents for these social codes.

One way to understand this is to make note of the system of Japanese honorifics, e.g., -san, -kun, -sama, -chan, and so on. These honorifics also have no equivalent in English, and the modern practice of translators from Japanese into English is to retain them literally. But this can be done only because there is a large body of existing translations (and decades of cultural exchange) to teach the Anglophone reader how to decode these honorifics, but there is no such existing corpus for Chinese-to-English translations.

Every translator from Chinese to English will handle this difficulty differently. I ended up using a variety of strategies, and sometimes I simply had to abandon the attempt altogether in some places in favor of pacing.

Q: Translating science fiction, especially hard science fiction filled with technical terms and jargon like Liu Cixin’s, presents a challenge.  How have you gone about approaching that challenge and what are some “inside baseball” techniques that you utilize?

This is a common misconception. 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. 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 almost impossible to render.

Q: You use copious footnotes to aid in reader understanding of esoteric Chinese expressions and comments without breaking up the flow of the actual writing (especially when reading on a eReader that allows easier footnote reading).  How did this come about?  Was this the author’s idea, the editor’s, or yours?

A: None of the terms I footnote are esoteric, actually. They’re typically extremely important cultural concepts or well-known historical figures that form the interpretive background of every average Chinese reader. However, due to the relative imbalance of power between Chinese culture and the West, I can’t expect the average Anglophone reader to have access to the same interpretive background, and footnotes are thus necessary to help the Anglophone reader understand plots points such as why aiming a powerful radio antenna at the sun during the Cultural Revolution would be a politically provocative act.

(Incidentally, the imbalance is typically one-way only. When translating American works into Chinese, translators can generally expect the average Chinese reader to be able to decode most of the American cultural references without too much trouble. Due to the dominance of American culture worldwide, the average Chinese reader is quite familiar with American politics, pop culture, recent American history, and similar topics.)

There seems to be a general dislike for footnotes by American editors in translations. I disagree with the reasoning and always push back against it. I view footnotes, used judiciously, as critical for reader enjoyment and one of the great pleasures of reading translations in the first place.

Q: How has translating The Three Body Problem and other books informed your writing of The Grace of Kings and The Wall of Storms? Conversely, has writing made you a better translator for Death’s End?

A: The glib answer would be not at all.

For most of my decade-plus career as a writer, I had no interest in translations. I got into doing translations purely by accident, as my friend Chen Qiufan, one of the most dynamic voices of contemporary Chinese science fiction, asked me to take a look at a commissioned translation of one of his stories to see how it read in English. I started making some notes on how to improve the translation to better capture his unique, sardonic voice, and then decided that it would be easier if I just did a translation of his story from scratch. That translation, the first one I ever did, ended up winning a Science Fiction Translation Award, and I realized that perhaps I was in a good position to help introduce my fellow Anglophone readers to the exciting fiction coming out of China.

Since my primary interest is writing original fiction, I’ve always treated my translation work as an entirely separate category of creative endeavor. My own fiction is completely different from the kind of work I like to translate in theme and style, and it would be a poor translator who infects everything he translates with his own voice. I begin every translation with a study of the author’s voice, which is probably the most distinctive aspect of any writer’s work. Trying to figure out how to recreate a voice in a different language is the most challenging task in any translation effort, but also the most fun.

But a more serious and nuanced answer would be: it’s impossible to tell. Everything a writer writes is inevitably influenced by everything they read, and it would be strange to think that the novels I translated, which I must have read ten, twenty times during the process of translation, dissecting every phrase and tracing out every allusion, don’t influence my own writing in some undefinable way. Similarly, since a translation is a performance and no performance can be isolated from the performer’s life, it would be strange to think that my translations aren’t influenced in some manner by my own explorations in fiction-making. But to tease out the exactly influence in either direction would be like trying to trace out how a butterfly’s fluttering wings in Texas ultimately contributed to the typhoons on the shore of Taiwan.

Q: Where would you recommend readers interested in your own fiction start?

A: I began as a short fiction writer, and I’ve published over 130 pieces of short fiction in various print and online venues by this point. My debut collection, The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, collects 14 of these stories as a retrospective and also adds a brand new story that had not been published before elsewhere. Some of these stories won various literary awards in the U.S. and overseas, while others are just personal favorites. On the whole, I think they give readers new to my fiction a representative view of what kind of stories I like to tell.

Now, I haven’t been a novelist for long, and so far I’ve published only a single series of “silkpunk” epic fantasy called The Dandelion Dynasty. The first book in the series (and also my debut), is The Grace of Kings, and the first sequel, The Wall of Storms, is coming out on October 4, 2016. (I’m working on the third book as we speak.)

“Silkpunk” is a shorthand to describe the technology aesthetic I wanted for the Dandelion Dynasty series as well as the literary approach I used in composing the books. Here’s the tweet-sized sound bite: “War & Peace with silk-and-bamboo airships; Iliad with living books and sentient narwhals; Romance of the Three Kingdoms with u-boats.”

If you want to hear more, let me start with what The Grace of Kings is about: It’s the story of two unlikely friends, a bandit and a duke, who grow to be as close as brothers during the fight to overthrow an evil empire, only to find themselves on opposing sides of a struggle for the definition of a just society once the rebellion succeeds.

When I describe the novel as a “silkpunk epic fantasy,” I mean that I’m writing with and against the tradition of epic fantasy—as begun by Tolkien—by infusing it with an East-Asia-inspired aesthetic that embraces, extends, and challenges fantasy/historical tropes that are assumed to have medieval European or classical East Asian origins. Epics are foundational narratives for cultures, and I wanted to write a modern foundational narrative that draws as much on Chinese epic traditions like Romance of the Three Kingdoms as on Western traditions like Beowulf and the Aeneid.

The tale I tell is a loose re-imagining of the historical legends surrounding the rise of the Han Dynasty in a secondary world archipelago setting. This is a world of politics and intrigue, of love purified and corrupted, of rebelling against tyranny and seeing one’s ideals compromised, of friendships forged and sundered by the demands of war and statecraft. There are vain and jealous gods, bamboo airships and biomechanics-inspired submarines, battle kites that evoke the honor and glory of another age, fantastical creatures of the deep, and magical tomes that tell the future written in our hearts.

In creating the silkpunk aesthetic, I’m also influenced by the ideas of W. Brian Arthur, who articulates a vision of technology as a language. The task of the engineer is much like that of a poet in that the engineer must creatively combine existing elements of technology to solve novel problems, thereby devising artifacts that are new expressions in the technical language.

In the silkpunk world of my novels, this view of technology is dominant. The vocabulary of the technology language relies on materials of historical importance to the people of East Asia and the Pacific islands: bamboo, shells, coral, paper, silk, feathers, sinew, etc. And the grammar of the language puts more emphasis on biomimetics–the airships regulate their lift by analogy with the swim bladders of fish, and the submarines move like whales through the water. The engineers are celebrated as great artists who transform the existing language and evolve it toward ever more beautiful forms. Indeed, even the fictional system of writing used in the novels embodies this view, for writing is one of our most treasured and important technologies.

In writing the Dandelion Dynasty, I devoted as much care to technology as to magic, as much attention to art and writing as to war. The text is consumed with the exercise of power while also imbued with the hope that society is capable of progress. I had such a blast writing it, and I think at least that authorial joy comes through.

Q: What do you like to read?

A: I have a particular soft spot for psychological thrillers, Regency romances, and chuanyue stories (these belong to a specialized genre of time-travel stories particularly popular in China; the closest Western analogue would be something like Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court). I also enjoy literary fiction like Emma Donoghue’s Room and nonfiction like Bee Wilson’s Consider the Fork and Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Gene: An Intimate History.

In terms of science fiction and fantasy, this is a particularly exciting time for readers. We have many, many works now that push genre boundaries and present exciting new voices. I’ve been particularly delighted by Zen Cho’s Sorcerer to the Crown, Kate Elliott’s Black Wolves, and Aliette de Bodard’s House of Shattered Wings.

Thanks for chatting with me!