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Fidelity, Meaning, and Metadata: Observations of a New Translator

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 [1], 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

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Heart of the Labyrinth: Myth as the Starting Point for Storytelling

I love myths. I make no bones about it. Be it Greek, Hindu or Nordic, it offers us gods; superheroes that can fly, shape-shift, wield immense weapons and control the elements. Except they’re not super. They’re fallible, flawed beings, as subject to love, jealousy, lust and wrath as mortal man. Prometheus, the Titan god, stole the secret of fire from Olympus to give to man, whom he made from clay. King of the gods, Zeus, punished him with the daily torture of having his liver torn out.

Mythology offers us the birth of the world. A cypher for the cycles of nature. A framework for death. The Egyptian sun god, Ra, was born from the sky goddess and at nightfall entered the underworld, only to be reborn the next morning. In Hindu myths we have Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, who are creator, maintainer and destroyer of the universe respectively, keeping birth and death in balance.

On an academic level they are an important charter of the culture and psyche of the period in which they were written. For example, the Vikings gave meaning to their death by promise of a seat in Valhalla, where they could spend eternity feasting and fighting. A fitting afterlife for a nation of warriors. Read Heart of the Labyrinth: Myth as the Starting Point for Storytelling

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Invisible Planets: Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in Translation

Invisible Planets: Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in Translation (2016) opens with editor Ken Liu’s discussion of the limiting nature of comparative categories such as ‘Chinese science fiction’ or ‘science fiction written in English.’ I believe it is important, in any review of this anthology, to reiterate his assertion that the collection offers readers only a ‘thin slice’ of the Chinese science fiction landscape. As such, while the collection is an introduction for Anglophone readers, it is by no means emblematic of Chinese science fiction altogether, and it would be ill-advised to read it as such. Indeed, Liu is very transparent in explaining that the stories he chose were prioritised also by their accessibility to an Anglophone audience.


What Invisible Planets offers us is thirteen fictional visions of our world(s)[1], imagined by seven contemporary Chinese authors, differing in genre, style and tone, and ranging from deeply moving to structurally playful, from existentially inquisitive to unsettling versions of possible near futures.
Read Invisible Planets: Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in Translation

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The East is a Setting: Issues of Place, Theme, and Tone in Ian McDonald’s River of Gods and Beyond

In recent years, India has become a somewhat unlikely site of a particular kind of speculative fiction novel. Mid-2014 saw the publication of Monica Byrne’s The Girl in the Road, featuring an Indian protagonist and a journey across a bridge that spanned the Indian Ocean all the way to Africa. One year later, we had Anthony Trevelyan’s The Weightless World, and a quest for an anti-gravity machine in the wilderness of Western India. 2016 saw Anil Menon’s Half of What I Say, a near-future dystopic novel centered upon the invention of “Super Wi-Fi” for connecting Indian villages to the high-speed web. What unites these novels – apart from their choice of India as a location – is a near-future setting, and a story of overconfident techno-utopianism, episodic violence and personal tragedy, against the backdrop of a certain kind of alien strangeness, the strangeness of India. While the choice of location might be a natural one for Menon, who is Indian, it was certainly a conscious decision on the part of Byrne and Trevelyan, neither of whose novels needed to be set in India (by “needed”, I mean that the core plot would work as well in a different location). Which, of course, raises the question: why India?

Interestingly, however, this sudden profusion of near-futuristic techno-dystopian speculative fiction was anticipated – and presaged – more than twelve years ago, in Ian McDonald’s River of Gods. Although separated by a decade, elements of River of Gods resonate strongly in the three novels published over the last three years. Consequently, thinking of River of Gods alongside what came after it might illuminate the existence of a small – but steadily growing – corpus of 21st-century speculative fiction that locates itself – geographically, socially and even culturally – in India.


River of Gods is a sprawling novel, set across the length and breadth of an India that has been balkanized into multiple feuding independent republics. Much of the action takes place across the nations of “Bharat,” “Awadh” and “Bengal,” which roughly correspond to the northern belt of present-day India, running from west to east. The novel combines two frighteningly plausible tropes of the near future: water wars between nations, and artificial intelligence reaching the point of singularity. McDonald’s “India,” which is a mélange of super-technology and superstition, great-game politics and street riots, spirituality and extreme violence, becomes – because of its lack of regulations upon A.I. development – the site of a showdown between A.I. that is desperate to attain autonomy, and humanity that is desperate to stop it. Read The East is a Setting: Issues of Place, Theme, and Tone in Ian McDonald’s River of Gods and Beyond

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