Issue 79 – April 2013


Gathered in Translation

Since speculative fiction is about imagined worlds, one might theorize that it poses fewer problems for translators than genres of literature more tethered to the specific cultures and languages of the real world.

In a sense, the theory is right. When the global language of science is English, it is indeed easy to translate to “traveling-wave maser” because the Chinese term is simply a word-for-word borrowing from English. When high-fantasy films and games are popular the world over, it is likely that a Japanese reader would be perfectly conversant with the hackneyed stereotypes of Orcs and Goblins and Dwarves and Elves.

But these happen to be the least interesting aspects of speculative fiction in translation. Richly imagined worlds draw upon the real experiences of authors and readers. Based on my own experience as a translator of Chinese stories into English, and having had my own English stories translated into Chinese, I’ve come to appreciate the unique challenges and rewards in translating speculative fiction.

We’ll begin with translation philosophy. Yan Fu, one of the earliest Chinese-English translators, wrote the following in the introduction to his 1898 Classical Chinese translation of Thomas Huxley’s Evolution and Ethics:

There are three difficult goals in translation: fidelity to the source, aptness of expression, and beauty of language. To render the meaning of the original faithfully is difficult enough, but if one focuses only on fidelity and ignores the need to craft the words for the benefit of readers, then such a translation might as well not exist.

Most translators probably work under some version of this mantra of “fidelity, expressiveness, and elegance,” but the simplicity of the phrase belies many complexities.

Let’s start with “fidelity,” the very definition of which is slippery. The following passage appears in Xia Jia’s fantasy/scifi story, :

When I translated this story for Clarkesworld — (“A Hundred Ghosts Parade Tonight”), I rendered it as:

A yellow-skinned old ghost pushes a cart of masks in front of me.

“Ning, why don’t you pick a mask? I have everything: Ox-Head, Horse-Face, Black-Faced and White-Faced Wuchang, Asura, Yaksha, Rakshasa, Pixiu, and even Lei Gong, the Duke of Thunder.”

Note that this list of fantastical beings from folk Chinese mythology contains three——imported from Buddhism (or Hinduism by way of Buddhism). Some Chinese readers will recognize their non-Chinese origins, but for others, they’re as Chinese as anything else on that list because, in the long history of Buddhism in China, they have been sinicized and gradually acquired a set of legends and characteristics divergent from their non-Chinese origins.

When translating into English, is it more faithful to use the common, accepted anglicizations by way of Sanskrit (“Asura, Yaksha, Rakshasa”) or more accurate to use pinyin to represent their phonetic readings in Chinese (“Xiuluo, Yecha, Luosha”)? The former has the advantage of respecting their non-Chinese origins, but the latter has the advantage of subtly suggesting how they’re perceived by Chinese readers. Without a footnote, is it even possible to make the diverse, multi-origin nature of Chinese folk mythology known to the non-Chinese reader?

At the same time, note that the world conjured up by this story is as far from the everyday experiences of the Chinese reader (that is the point of fantastical literature, after all) as it is from the everyday experiences of the English reader. But the precise sense of the exotic and the fantastic evoked by this passage is different for the former (calling up images of dynastic China and traditional myths) and the latter (calling up images of “the mysterious Orient,” perhaps with a dash of manga). “Fidelity” is contextual and elusive.

In terms of expressiveness and elegance, there are even more difficulties. What constitutes the right expression? By what scale should we measure the beauty of the language?1

I often hear the advice that idioms, fixed expressions, and culture-specific terms that are not analyzable ought not be translated literally. Many who advocate a translation that reads as though it were written in English in the first place subscribe to this philosophy. I disagree. For me, much of the joy of reading a translation is in hearing an echo of the original, in seeing English used in a way that suggests the rhythms and worldviews of another language. Judicious translation of such terms, when done in the service of a particular literary effect, can enhance the reader’s enjoyment without sliding into exoticism.

For example, in Xia Jia’s story, I chose to translate the names of specific dates on the Chinese lunar calendar rather than giving their approximate equivalents on the common Western calendar. I could have converted these dates——to “March 5th,” “July 23rd,” “October 8th,” and “December 21st.” For most Chinese readers, the meanings behind the names of the dates are only a faint echo, like how we might remember that “Thursday” is really “Thor’s Day.” But I decided to translate them literally as “Awakening of Insects,” “Major Heat,” “Cold Dew,” and “Winter Solstice.” This choice meant that the English reader must work harder to figure out the time of year by contextual clues, but the names also give the reader a better sense of how the Chinese calendar is tied to the cycles and movements of the natural world, to the demands and rhythms of the agricultural life. I believe the decision enhances the story’s portrayal of a (seemingly) pastoral, idealized life constructed from elements of pre-modern Chinese village traditions.2

As another example, consider the following sentence from Xia’s story:

Which I rendered as:

She says that to hide from the [Thunder] Calamity, a ghost must find a real person with a good heart to stay beside her. That way, just like how one wouldn’t throw a shoe at a mouse sitting beside an expensive vase, the Duke of Thunder will not strike the ghost.

is an idiom meaning something like “refrain from action to avoid harming the innocent” or “those who live in glass houses should not throw stones” but I felt that it was more vivid to translate it literally into a simile. Instead of using a cliché to translate another cliché, the phrase tells the English reader something about the source culture and language. A literal translation, when properly used, can defamiliarize and reinvigorate both the source image and the target language to give the reader a sense of fruitful strangeness that adds to the experience of reading.3

We accept that a translator has to make many creative choices, but is the degree of freedom unlimited? At what point do the translator’s acts become ultra vires and the translation ceases to be a translation? Yan Fu himself chose to give short shift to fidelity in his translation of Huxley, often expanding upon the original with his own observations and ideas and omitting passages that he felt did not suit his purpose of introducing (his understanding of) new Western ideas to a Chinese readership. The resulting translation was influential but was also subject to charges of being unfaithful.

This conflict between the author and the translator is present in every act of translation, but it’s especially acute in contemporary passages between English and Chinese. The political divide between China and the West, exacerbated by the Scylla of Chinese censorship on the one hand and the Charybdis of the Western gaze on China as the Other on the other hand, turns every attempt to navigate across the gulf between the two languages into a dangerous journey with no easy answers.

A few examples will illustrate the range of issues. My story, “The Paper Menagerie,” has a mother who was once a Chinese mail-order bride as a main character. In my original, she was born in China right before the Great Famines of 1958-61 and lost her family to persecutions during the Cultural Revolution. When the story was commissioned for translation by a Chinese speculative fiction magazine, the translator excised these biographical details because the famines and the Cultural Revolution remain sensitive topics in China and subject to censorship. I had to accept the alterations as a condition to publication.

My initial reaction was one of outrage, but further consideration of the matter revealed complexities that were not apparent at first. I understood, of course, that the magazine’s staff would be subject to political repercussions if they defied the censorship rules (and these rules are complex, opaque, and constantly shifting). But the translator was also dealing with deeper, more nuanced issues related to the representation of China in fiction. As an American author, I wrote my story for an American audience and adopted a certain simplified, Western view of recent Chinese history. The Great Famines resulted from a combination of natural disasters and Communist agricultural policy mismanagement, and to this day the relative contribution of the various factors and the precise death figure are subject to debate. The Cultural Revolution, similarly, was far more complex than the relatively straightforward narrative of “planned brutality” most in the West are familiar with. I understood these complexities but chose to simplify them to suit the mother’s character and to serve the narrative about her I wished to construct, but in the eyes of Chinese readers these choices can appear as evidence of an American-centric view about China that overwhelmed the individual, human story that I wished to tell.

Putting aside the odious official practice of censorship, another way to look at the issue is that I chose to frame history a certain way for my American readers; why couldn’t the translator choose to frame history another way for his Chinese readers? Both of us were using historical details to serve the needs of fiction, to tell a story about specific characters designed to achieve a certain emotional effect. If a translator’s job is to preserve that overall emotional arc of the story, then faithfully translating those details in the way I used them may actually get in the way.4 If the translator’s choice hadn’t been (at least in part) motivated by the official policy of censorship, would it have been justified? And, more important, would I have been as outraged?5

Ideally, I would have preferred these details in the story to be translated faithfully, but with an open conversation with Chinese readers about the way I used Chinese history to serve my narrative. But this was the real world, and I concluded that it was best to allow publication of the altered translation while explaining the changes myself through other avenues. Luckily, a fan translation of the story soon appeared that did preserve these details, giving Chinese readers an opportunity to compare the two and decide for themselves which was more “faithful” in the broader sense.

Once you’re sensitized to these issues, they show up in all kinds of unexpected ways in translation. For example, I chose to render the title of a short story by Liu Cixin (China’s most famous scifi novelist), , as “Taking Care of God.” I did so in part because is the standard Chinese term for “God.” In addition, I read Liu’s story, concerning a race of aliens who manifest themselves to humans as old men in white robes with long white beards, as clearly intending to reference the Judeo-Christian concept.6

But the fact that the dictionary defines as “God” does not end the debate.7 There’s much more to fidelity than literal accuracy. A word does not exist alone, but as one term in a web of references embedded in culture and language. Each word brings with it countless semantic ghosts. And the ghosts in Chinese are very different from the ghosts in English.

The word is of ancient origin, not a neologism imported by Christianity. It has existed since the oracle bone script of the Shang Dynasty of the second millennium B.C., and represented the formless Supreme Being of ancient Chinese religious worship. With the advent of Confucianism, it became incorporated into the system of rites and justifications for Chinese imperial rule. It was Matteo Ricci, the great Jesuit missionary to Ming China in the 16th and 17th centuries, who first translated God (Deus) as (causing great controversy in both China and Rome). And in modern times, this Western, imported sense has become dominant. For the Chinese reader, the word will thus forever evoke a complex, layered history involving China’s classical past as well as its more recent experiences of colonialism and foreign domination, of ideological challenges from Christian missionaries and Chinese revolutionaries (Hong Xiuquan, Sun Yat-sen, etc.) who embraced Christianity as a force for positive change.

A Western reader faced with the word “God” will have a completely separate set of emotional reactions and historical references. Indeed, it’s hardly accurate to say that and God are the same word at all. On the one hand, as Liu Cixin’s story is about humanity’s responses to alien beings who claim to have created us and were “God,” translating the title the way I did was “faithful.” But it is also undeniable that an English reader faced with the phrase “Taking Care of God” would have a completely different set of semantic associations from a Chinese reader faced with . Would it have been more accurate for me to translate the title as “Caring for the Creators”? The latter is far less evocative and elegant, but perhaps in a sense more accurate. By making the choice I did, I inevitably rewrote Liu Cixin’s story.8

The other word in the title, , poses even more challenges. It is a specific Chinese concept for the duty of children to care for their parents in old age that has no exact equivalent in English. The word, shaped by thousands of years of cultural emphasis on filial piety, has an emotional resonance for Chinese readers that cannot be translated.9 One alternative, “The Dotage of the Deities,” suggested by my friend Anatoly Belilovsky, probably comes closest, and it would strike the English reader in ways distinct both from my choice and the original.

Finally, I want to note that a good translation can enhance the original in ways both big and small. For example, Tao Ruohua, who translated my “Algorithms for Love,” decided to use Classical Chinese to translate an embedded fictional account supposedly written by Western missionaries to China during the Qing Dynasty. This choice evoked for the Chinese reader the mood and historical context far more effectively than my original. As another example, Xia Jia, who translated “The Man Who Ended History” into Chinese, effectively used numerous colloquialisms and slang to give my Chinese characters a sense of authenticity that is lacking in my English original.

By far the most impressive example in this vein I’ve experienced involves the fan translation of “The Paper Menagerie.” The English original rendered some of the mother’s dialog in Chinese (pinyin) to give the English reader a sense of her foreignness. When translated into Chinese, it was not obvious how this sense could be preserved as the Chinese sentences would obviously be perfectly comprehensible to Chinese readers.

The translator, Zhang Xinyuan, came up with the novel solution of rendering those sections with the “wrong” Chinese characters whose phonetic values approximated the intended phrases. In other words, she employed a technique often used to transliterate foreign words into Chinese: using characters chosen for their phonetic value without regard to their meaning (recall /“Asura, Yaksha, Rakshasa” from earlier).10 This way of “writing Chinese in Chinese as though it were a foreign language” perfectly captured the effect of the original for Chinese readers, and defamiliarized the Chinese writing system by highlighting its phonetic nature, a fact often forgotten by those fluent with it.

Translation can never perfectly capture the original. The translator must make choices that re-create the story in a new language for a new set of readers. But it isn’t a simple matter of “lost in translation”; often, the result offers something new as instructive to the target readers as it is to the original author.


Note: Thanks to Anatoly Belilovsky, Helena Bell, Aliette de Bodard, and Alex Shvartsman for their comments on drafts of this essay.


1 The choice of the right tense to use in translating Chinese fiction into English—a side effect of the differences between the two languages—is another complex topic that I do not delve into here.

2 The key is to use such literal translation techniques only judiciously. The translated names of the dates in this case may also cause an English reader to latch onto the poetic phrasings and exoticize the Chinese calendar. Readers of fantasy and science fiction may be somewhat more sensitized to these issues as the genres are full of attempts to rephrase the quotidian to appear strange and unfamiliar, a potentially problematic dynamic when applied to translations from another culture. Ultimately, I felt that the use of literal translations here was justified, but it isn’t without problems.

3 Again, this technique must be used selectively. When the metaphrase (a word-for-word-translation) is relatively transparent in meaning, this approach can delight and enlighten, but for more obscure idioms, paraphrasing would be appropriate.

4 For comparison, consider whether an American reader’s reaction to a story translated from Chinese that contained a simplified, Chinese-centric view of the Kent State shootings may detract from and overwhelm the rest of the story.

5 American authors who find that their stories have been altered in translation often react with outrage and anger, but I invite them to re-consider the reaction in the context of my own experience.

6 This understanding was confirmed with Liu Cixin.

7 Neither does authorial intent, for that matter.

8 When my translation was re-printed, the new publisher altered the title to “Taking Care of Gods” (note the plural). The new publisher, whose staff are mostly Chinese, explained to me that they thought the change was necessary because they did not wish to offend Western readers by making too explicit a reference to the Christian God. Instead, they wanted to make the aliens seem like generic “gods.” I was reminded of the controversies surrounding Matteo Ricci’s original translation of God to .

9 The tradition of children caring for aged parents at home is increasingly coming into conflict with an urbanizing, mobile society without a developed welfare state. A hot-button issue in China, this social background also forms part of the story’s meaning to Chinese readers.

10 Sometimes the characters used in transliteration are chosen to give a semantic hint of the meaning of the foreign word (e.g., —pronounced lili, literally “Beautiful Jasmine”—for “Lily” to approximate the sound as well as suggesting the name’s floral, feminine origin). The nuances in the practice of transliterating foreign words into Chinese deserve a whole book.

Author profile

Ken Liu is an American author of speculative fiction. A winner of the Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy awards, he wrote the Dandelion Dynasty, a silkpunk epic fantasy series (starting with The Grace of Kings), as well as short story collections The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories and The Hidden Girl and Other Stories. He also penned the Star Wars novel The Legends of Luke Skywalker.

Prior to becoming a full-time writer, Liu worked as a software engineer, corporate lawyer, and litigation consultant. Liu frequently speaks at conferences and universities on a variety of topics, including futurism, cryptocurrency, history of technology, bookmaking, narrative futures, and the mathematics of origami.

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