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.
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.