Ken Liu: Find­ing the per­fect words

Trans­lat­ing con­tem­po­rary Chi­nese fan­tasy and science fic­tion into English can work magic — and win awards — when it’s done right, re­ports from New York.

China Daily (Canada) - - ACROSS AMERICAS - By LI JING in New York Li­jing2009@chi­

Trans­la­tor Ken Liu con­sid­ers trans­la­tion a per­for­mance art.

“Each trans­la­tor, in his per­for­mance, fil­ters and in­ter­prets the orig­i­nal au­thor’s work in a unique way,” he said.

Just as there is no ex­pec­ta­tion that dif­fer­ent mu­si­cians will per­form the same com­poser’s work in the same style, Liu ex­plained, there are dif­fer­ences in ways trans­la­tors ap­proach a par­tic­u­lar work.

“By com­par­ing the dif­fer­ences, a reader can get a glimpse of dif­fer­ent as­pects of an au­thor’s orig­i­nal style and per­haps gain in­sight into the dif­fi­cult art of trans­la­tion,” he said.

Liu trans­lated Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Prob­lem, which won a Hugo Award in Au­gust for best science-fic­tion novel, mak­ing the au­thor the first Asian to win the prize.

“We won the award to­gether,” the au­thor said. “Trans­la­tion is to bridge cul­tural and lan­guage gaps. As for this book, Ken Liu is the bridge and a very good trans­la­tor. His trans­la­tion is very close to per­fec­tion,” Liu Cixin said.

The book is selling well. On Ama­zon, the English ver­sion has 459 cus­tomer re­views and has been rated 4.4 out of 5 stars since it was pub­lished last Novem­ber.

“I of­ten get com­ments by email or Twit­ter from read­ers who en­joyed it, and it’s cer­tainly selling well based on what I’ve been able to glean from the pub­lisher,” Ken Liu added.

Now he is work­ing on the third and fi­nal vol­ume of the tril­ogy, ten­ta­tively ti­tled (in English) Death’s End, which is ex­pected to hit stores in Jan­uary.

He said the third vol­ume is much longer than The Three-Body Prob­lem and tells a story with a far grander scope.

“I think the chal­lenges of trans­lat­ing it are dif­fer­ent from the first vol­ume,” Liu said. “Read­ers should be the ones to opine on whether they find any as­pect of the work dif­fi­cult to com­pre­hend. What oth­ers find easy or hard to un­der­stand is at the root of most cul­tural mis­un­der­stand­ings.”

Ken Liu has the sen­si­bil­ity and ca­pac­ity to bridge such cul­tural dif­fer­ences, partly thanks to his up­bring­ing. Born in 1976 in Lanzhou, cap­i­tal of north­west China’s Guansu province, Ken moved to the US with his fam­ily when he was 11 years old.

He was ed­u­cated in Har­vard as an English ma­jor and later at Har­vard Law School. He read up on the history of China and loves the Con­fu­cian clas­sic Book of Songs and the mar­tial arts nov­els of Louis Cha Le­ung-yung.

He said there was a per­sis­tent bias to­wards read­ing Amer­i­can au­thors of Chi­nese de­scent, as though they’re some­how “caught be­tween” be­ing “Amer­i­can” and “Chi­nese”.

“I don’t ex­pe­ri­ence things that way,” he said. “I write as an Amer­i­can, and I’m cul­tur­ally Amer­i­can, as well as Chi­nese. I don’t see a con­flict.”

Ken Liu got into trans­la­tion purely by ac­ci­dent. When writer friend Stan­ley Chan asked him to re­view an English trans­la­tion of his story, he ended up mak­ing so many sug­ges­tions that he fig­ured it was eas­ier to do a fresh trans­la­tion from scratch. The Fish of Li­jiang, his first trans­la­tion, ended up get­ting quite a bit of recog­ni­tion for both Chan and him­self.

“I fig­ured maybe that was a sign,” he said. “There’s a great deal of in­ter­est­ing con­tem­po­rary science fic­tion and fan­tasy writ­ten in Chi­nese, but very lit­tle of this literature is trans­lated into English. Since I had the nec­es­sary skills, I thought it made sense to trans­late sto­ries I par­tic­u­larly en­joyed and share them with fel­low An­glo­phone read­ers.”

His in­ter­est in the par­tic­u­lar genre de­rives from his own tal­ent in writ­ing sci-fi.

His 2011 fan­tasy short story The Pa­per Menagerie is the first work of fic­tion, of any length, to have swept the Ne­bula, Hugo, and World Fan­tasy Awards. His short story, Mono no Aware, won a 2013 Hugo award and the novel­las The Man Who Ended History: A Doc­u­men­tary and The Reg­u­lar were nom­i­nated for awards.

He said trans­la­tion may use some of the sim­i­lar skills as writ­ing orig­i­nal fic­tion, although they’re two en­tirely dif­fer­ent arts.

“My friend Tang Fei once said — I’m para­phras­ing her loosely here — that writ­ing a story shows the au­thor’s misun­der­stand­ing of the world, but trans­lat­ing a story re­quires un­der­stand­ing another per­son’s heart,” he added.

In April, he re­leased his de­but novel The Grace of Kings and his first short fic­tion col­lec­tion, The Pa­per Menagerie and Other Sto­ries, will come out in March.

“I don’t know if I ever con­sciously thought I wanted to be a writer. I en­joyed telling sto­ries from a fairly young age. Over time, maybe it just made sense to write the sto­ries down,” he said.

“A lot of my sto­ries were writ­ten for spe­cific prompts — es­pe­cially when they are so­licited for a themed an­thol­ogy. Other sto­ries have di­verse ori­gins: some­times I’m inspired by a science pa­per I read, and some­times an im­age gets stuck in my head and ir­ri­tates me so much that I have to turn it into a story like an oys­ter grow­ing a pearl. There are even a few times where a story came to me fully formed, like a gift from the gods,” he said.

Luck­ily for him, he hasn’t had the ex­pe­ri­ence of run­ning out of ideas, yet. “A tiny elf comes to me ev­ery morn­ing and dic­tates a story, which I du­ti­fully write down,” he said. “I find that the more I write and read, the more ideas I have.”

In­stead of be­ing a full­time writer, he makes his liv­ing now as a lit­i­ga­tion con­sul­tant in high-tech cases. With his back­ground in both law and tech­nol­ogy — he has worked as both a soft­ware engi­neer and as a cor­po­rate lawyer — his “cur­rent job suits me es­pe­cially well”, he said.

So, his trans­la­tion and cre­ative writ­ing are usu­ally done com­mut­ing on the sub­way, which means dis­ci­pline and hard work for the pro­lific writer and trans­la­tor dur­ing his 40-minute ride ev­ery day.

He said very few peo­ple are able to make a liv­ing and sup­port a fam­ily by writ­ing and trans­lat­ing alone. “I’m cer­tainly nowhere near that.”


Ken Liu, trans­la­tor of which won the Hugo Award in Au­gust, says the writer is the first Asian to be rec­og­nized by the award.

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