Ken Liu: interviewed by Gareth D Jones.

October 25, 2016 | By | Reply More

Official Bio: Ken Liu (http://kenliu.name) is an author and translator of speculative fiction, as well as a lawyer and programmer. A winner of the Nebula, Hugo and World Fantasy awards, he has been published in ‘The Magazine Of Fantasy & Science Fiction’, ‘Asimov’s Magazine’, ‘Analog’, ‘Clarkesworld’, ‘Lightspeed’ and ‘Strange Horizons’, among other places.

Ken’s debut novel, ‘The Grace Of Kings’ (2015), is the first volume in a silkpunk epic fantasy series, ‘The Dandelion Dynasty’. It won the Locus Best First Novel Award and was a Nebula finalist. He subsequently published the second volume in the series, ‘The Wall Of Storms’ (2016) as well as a collection of short stories, ‘The Paper Menagerie And Other Stories’ (2016).

In addition to his original fiction, Ken is also the translator of numerous literary and genre works from Chinese to English. His translation of ‘The Three-Body Problem’ by Liu Cixin, won the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 2015, the first translated novel ever to receive that honour. He also translated the third volume in Liu Cixin’s series, ‘Death’s End’ (2016) and edited the first English-language anthology of contemporary Chinese science fiction, ‘Invisible Planets’ (2016).

He lives with his family near Boston, Massachusetts. 

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Gareth D Jones: How did translating a novel compare to writing your own? Was it more time-consuming or problematic?

Ken Liu: They are not really comparable activities at all. Literary translation is a performance art, but writing is not. They are both creative endeavours, but the kind of creativity involved is very different. As such, it’s very difficult to compare which is more difficult since it will largely depend on the individual artist.

We also lack a method for discussing the contributions of the translator. With other performance arts, we know how to separate out the contributions of the composer from the performer, the playwright from the actress and we know how to evaluate the performer’s art without confusing it with the composer’s. With translations, however, most readers do not have access to the original and do not understand the source culture and literary tradition with enough nuance to be able to separate out the translator’s contributions from the writer’s. This has largely made the translator’s role invisible, which is both a good and bad thing.

GDJ: When you were translating ‘The Three-Body’ books, were you conscious of trying to portray the Chinese culture and style or is it more Cixin Liu’s own individual style that you are concentrating on putting across?

KL: I don’t believe there is such a thing as a Chinese style in literary composition, just as I don’t believe there is an American style in literary composition neither. These categories are simply too large and diverse to admit of easy generalisations. I do care a great deal about trying to re-create the voice of the author in a new language, which I think is the hardest part of a translation performance. Liu Cixin writes like no one else and it was a great pleasure to perform his voice for the Anglophone reader.

I’m also resistant to the notion that translations should read as though they were originally written in the target language. The very point of translations is that they are in fact imports from a different literary tradition and, if they were made so bland and inoffensive that they sound as though they were originally written in English, then I think the translation might as well not be done at all. I can think of no great work of translation, whether it’s the ‘King James Bible’ or the American editions of the ‘Ace Attorney’ video games, where the text actually reads as though it was originally written in English by an English writer for an English audience. Translations, as new artefacts in the target language that embody a different literary tradition, also stretch and transform the target language. That is the ideal.

GDJ: You’ve written novels and short stories as well as working on translations. Can you tell us what you’re working on now and what we can expect soon?

KL: For readers interested in translation, the most exciting project I have right now is ‘Invisible Planets’, the first English-language anthology of contemporary Chinese SF, edited and translated by me. This anthology collects thirteen stories by some of the most exciting voices writing in Chinese SF today, including Hugo winners Liu Cixin and Hao Jingfang, as well as writers like Xia Jia and Chen Qiufan, who have pushed the genre in new directions. I’m really glad to be sharing their work with Anglophone readers.

I also just released ‘The Wall Of Storms’, the second volume of my silkpunk epic fantasy trilogy, ‘The Dandelion Dynasty’. ‘The Wall Of Storms’ picks up a few years after the end of ‘The Grace Of Kings’ and features lots more political intrigue and fun silkpunk technology in a world inspired in equal measures by great Western epics as well as Chinese historical romances. So far, readers seems to enjoy it even more than the first book in the series.

Finally, I’m also putting together a second anthology of contemporary Chinese SF, with an emphasis on writers who have not been translated into English as much before. I hope this project also finds a good publisher and delights readers.

(c) Ken Liu & Gareth D. Jones 2016

all rights reserved.

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