Early in the process of my first translation for Clarkesworld, I wrestled with the issue of the protagonist’s name. Wu Kong（悟空）, ‘Awakened to Nothingness,’ was the religious name given to the Monkey King by his first master, perhaps to imbue the headstrong creature with Buddhist moderation. In Chen Hongyu’s Western Heaven , a robot awakens to the stark fact of a despoiled, forsaken Earth. It names itself Wu Kong after reading Journey to the West thirteen times. I wanted to keep the short, catchy Chinese name, but I didn’t want to lose ‘Awakened to Nothingness’. It was just too fitting. Furthermore, after talking with a large sample of Chinese friends, it was clear that many Chinese know the name’s meaning. Wu Kong isn’t just an empty signifier to them. They don’t merge with the void every time they hear it, but something like ‘Awakened to Nothingness’ is at play in their minds, perhaps subconsciously.
Thanks to Ken Liu’s writings on translation fidelity, I aimed to recreate emotional reactions, not just ferry information from one language to another. I’m still not sure my solution was optimal. After Wu Kong transmits its name to a new robot friend, I added a line:
This transmission came with the name’s meaning embedded: ‘Awakened-to-Nothingness.’
I could have used a footnote—as Ken advocates—but I often skip them when reading fiction. My line didn’t detract from Chen Hongyu’s vision, or so I convinced myself. Her robots communicated by radio, so what difference did it make if one transmission contained some metadata? The recipient was not just an ignorant street-cleaning bot named Pig Face, but Chen’s new Western audience. Her story itself was on a Journey to the West.
Maybe I overstepped. I’ve come to realize that translation, like any art, is a series of hard choices, and publication doesn’t bring closure.
I had been living in China for almost nine years, and had translated contracts and other documents for Chinese companies. I had been writing since I was a kid, but somehow fiction translation hadn’t occurred to me. One afternoon in the MidAmeriCon II showroom, Tod McCoy, Hydra House publisher and author, suggested that I give it a try. This suggestion left me wondering about blind spots, and fate.
That night at one of the bar-cons, I offered my services to Neil Clarke. Three weeks later I was fretting over a free-spirited robot named Wu Kong.
I wanted to find what author and critic John Berger called the “quivering wordless thing” beneath the text. I read Western Heaven four times, trying to glimpse Chen’s pre-verbal story and spark a true Berger-esque translation. All I did—besides learn the story inside and out—was wind myself up. I was too new to the game to be attempting the mystic ecstasy Berger called for. I ended up producing a very hi-fi first draft, a wordy monstrosity. I was appalled.
My draft was a product of fear, obsessive and unreadable. Read Fidelity, Meaning, and Metadata: Observations of a New Translator