The Active Voice: A Few Notes on Translation
By Ken Liu
I got my start in translation entirely by accident. For most of my writing career—some hundred-plus pieces of published short fiction and two novels—I had no interest in doing translation work whatsoever. Mainly, it was because I viewed the translator’s job as both boring (there seemed little room for creative choices) and too difficult (everything had a ‘proper translation’ and it was impossible to learn all the ‘proper translations’).
Then one day, Chen Qiufan (a.k.a. Stanley Chan), one of the finest SF writers in China today and my friend, asked me to take a look at a commissioned translation of one of his stories and tell him how well it read.
As I read the translation, I found myself comparing what I was reading against the English voice of Stan as I heard it in my head. There were clearly multiple ways to say the same thing, some closer to Stan’s voice than others.
I paused. I had to marvel at the fact that I was taking for granted the existence of something like ‘Stan’s English voice’—since Stan didn’t usually write fiction in English, this was something I had unconsciously created as a means to think about the act of translation.
Recreating that fictional author’s voice in a new language is a puzzle-solving exercise. I had to figure out the right combination of words, phrases, rhetorical devices, tropes, punctuation marks, pauses, rhymes and near-rhymes that would create in English a music similar to the music of Stan’s resonant, sonorous Chinese prose. When the translation I was evaluating seemed to be deaf to the music in places, jarring disharmoniously against the imaginary music in my head, I winced. I picked up the pen and marked places where I thought the translation deviated particularly far from the desired score.
After doing this for a few paragraphs, I realised that rather than fighting against the existing translation, it would be easier to start a fresh translation from scratch. Doing a translation this way—laying down word after word, mortising grammatical structure to grammatical structure, filling out allusions with judicious supporting footnotes, breaking dead source metaphors into revitalised pieces and packing them into new vehicles and configurations … all of it guided by the imagined, constructed voice of the author—feels a lot like original composition. It was far more enjoyable than I had anticipated.
And that was how I ended up as the translator of ‘The Fish of Lijiang,’ my very first translation, and a winner of the 2012 SFF Translation Award.
Because I got into translation in this accidental manner, much of my translation philosophy has been developed on my own, and only later became informed by academic translation theories. And since I’m a writer first and foremost, my translation approach will always be somewhat different from translators who view themselves primarily in that role. While it is hard to reduce such differences into words, one helpful way to think about it is the way I invoke the author’s imaginary voice in the target language as a muse. When I translate, I am, in some sense, trying to let the author’s voice inspire me and speak through me, re-telling the story in a new language.
I literally view the act of translation as a re-creation, one that is not necessarily bound by the decisions made in the first telling.
My particular approach to translation made translating The Three-Body Problem and Death’s End a particularly interesting experience. Because Liu Cixin himself employed such different styles for each book in the series, it feels as though he had a different voice for each book in the series. A good chunk of the time I spent working on each book in the series was trying to figure out the right voice to use for that book.
With The Three-Body Problem, much of the book’s narrative concern was in driving the tension of the thriller–mystery plot. But with Death’s End, the scope of the book is much grander and takes on the air of legend and historical romance. Because of this self-conscious romanticisation of the events of the book even as they’re occurring, the voice becomes far more philosophical and fable-like, even deliberately draining the tension of narrative in places so as to allow the reader to linger in the moment. Trying to recreate that voice in the English text was one of the grandest challenges of my brief career as a translator. Death’s End fulfills the promise laid out in the first book in the series of telling a grand story about humankind’s timeless romance with the stars, and it does so not only through the actions of its characters, but also through the qualities inherent in the narrative voice. As a translator, I hope I managed to re-create some sense of that voice for Anglophone readers.