It was such a great experience to work with Ken Liu to bring “Chimera” to anglophone readers. 😄 Even after reading all 18,000 words about a dozen times, I still love the piece, and I hope you all do too. It’s my first professional translation, and I’m excited to bring more pieces to everyone in the future. 💖 And because many of you asked, here are some tidbits on the process of translation.
I got started translating because of a happy coincidence: I had volunteered to podcast “Seventh Day of the Seventh Moon” by Ken Liu and, in preparing to narrate the story, I emailed him to ask about name pronunciation. I asked a couple questions about translation as well. After a few rounds of conversation, Ken Liu offered to work with me to do a translation together as training, and of course I said yes to the opportunity.
I first helped Ken Liu to beta his translation of “Everybody Loves Charles” by Bao Shu, which provided me the opportunity to see how he worked with the Chinese text. Then, I did the first pass translation on “Chimera” by Gu Shi. We had a few rounds of tightening the prose and proofing before we passed the translation back to Gu Shi for approval, then to editor Neil Clarke for acceptance.
One thing Ken Liu said in our early emails that stuck with me was that the ability to express yourself in English can be more important than your ability in the original language. As I learned through this translation, even if I translated every word of the original “correctly,” the end result would read awkwardly because it’d still be in a clunky, Chinesified English, rather than in a more fluid and natural English.
Additionally, streamlining isn’t only about cutting words—it can also involve combining them. Do I say that she laughed childishly, or that she giggled? The former may reflect the Chinese phrasing, but the latter gets more of the atmosphere and bridges the semantics to what anglophone readers expect. The skill of knowing which word is the most compact, yet also conveys as much of the same semantics as the original, requires strong ability in English.
In my first pass, I retained too much of the Chinese and Ken Liu had to streamline the text a lot, as you can see in the featured image above and in the examples below.
“Evan.” She quickens her footsteps to stand before me. “Darling, long time no see.”
As she comes close, a delicate, warm perfume wafts from her sleeve, the exact same scent from that year. I suddenly recall what she said as she bore her heart out to me, not long after we were married:
“Lately I’ve been thinking—if I were to take a picture of every one of my expressions, then I could write a dissertation. Managing Emotions and Social Responses; what do you think?[”]
“Evan.” She quickens her footsteps. “Darling, long time no see.”
A delicate, warm perfume wafts from her approaching figure, the same as the scent in my memory. I recall what she said as she bared her heart to me, not long after we were married:
“Lately I’ve been thinking—I could write my dissertation based on pictures of my expressions: Managing Emotions and Social Responses. What do you think?[”]
They feel like minor differences, but after tightening, the initial 19,000-word translation went down to 18,000 words and gained a lot of readability. It’s always a delicate balance between being faithful to the original and streamlining text for different readers’ tastes. I believe it was also Ken Liu who said that translators are editors as well: we tailor the text to the sensibilities of different locales as part of the porting process.
Another part of the story that we had to streamline was the presentation at the release ceremony. The initial translation of the presentation clocked in at around 3,000 words, but after summarizing some paragraphs and rearranging part of the text, we streamlined it to around 2,000 words. Chinese science fiction tends to go heavy on the info dumps, which Ken Liu and I both don’t mind, but we’re aware of the fact that they can read as amateur writing to anglophone audiences. We kept most of the info dumps in the story intact, but we both made the editorial call that that section was getting long to the point of interfering with pacing.
One of the features of the translation that Ken Liu and I initially disagreed on was the tense that I chose. Chinese doesn’t have tense, so I couldn’t exactly reference the original text in making my decisions on what tense(s) to use in English—of course, without tense, there’s still a sense of relative time and sequence of events, which I had to convey in English. My decision was between using present vs. past or past vs. past perfect to indicate those differences, plus whether I wanted to use only one set, or potentially both sets.
I ended up using present vs. past for the sections on Earth, and past vs. past perfect for the sections on the spaceship. The reason why I did this was that the portions on Earth have a lot of reminiscing, and I felt it would be smoother to have a present/past shift, versus constant past/past perfect shifts. The sections on the spaceship, however, were pretty consistent in their timeframe, so having it in past tense throughout felt fine to me. Plus, the differences in tense help to differentiate the two settings and voices.1
For as long as I’ve been learning the language, especially as a heritage speaker, I’ve felt a lot of imposter syndrome over my Chinese ability. While translating, I relied on dictionaries to help me parse through a lot of unknown vocabulary—but in the end, I still did a good job for my first translation, according to Ken Liu. 😊 I made a few mistakes, but with Ken’s collaboration, we translated an 18,000-word novella—I have to have some kind of skill in Chinese in order to help do that successfully. 😉
I’ve already started working on another translation, one that isn’t a commission between Clarkesworld and Storycom. I’m doing that one entirely on my own—it’s a little scary, but I have my fingers crossed that between my skill and my betas’ attention, we can get the translation into tip-top shape. I’ll definitely have an announcement here if/when that one sells. 😄
If you have specific passages or questions that I didn’t touch on here, feel free to leave me a comment below. 💕 Thanks for reading!
- SPOILERS: It also makes it that much cooler when the two stories converge. ↩