How do you translate — for the page and the screen — the sci-fi of another language?

Subtitle
17 min readApr 4, 2024

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This is a transcript of a Subtitle podcast episode.

Patrick Cox: Have you started watching it? 3 Body Problem? This Netflix sci-fi series is based on a trilogy of novels by Chinese writer Liu Cixin. There’s already been a Chinese TV adaptation. But now comes the mega-lavish American one that internationalizes the original. In that original, the source material was almost completely set in China. The Netflix series still has a Chinese backstory but much of the action takes place in the UK, with a multiethnic and multinational cast. The show has very much been translated for the screen. In fact, it’s a translation of a translation: The first translation was when the novel appeared in English.

Sound of Hugo Awards announcement

This is the 2015 Hugo sci fi awards.

Patrick Cox: If you couldn’t make that out, it’s because the guy making the announcement is a long way away in the International Space Station. And no surprise — in light of the subject of this podcast — that the award goes to The Three-Body Problem. Receiving it is someone who’s there on behalf of Liu Cixin, the writer. It’s the novel’s English translator, and someone who’s a key player in the rise of Chinese sci-fi: Ken Liu.

Ken Liu: We’re kind of witnessing a historical night tonight. We’ve had to translate works when he goes I don’t know if that’s happened before. But I do know that this is the first translated novel ever to when one

Patrick Cox: Ken Liu goes on to make his thanks to a bunch of people. And then he pivots.

Ken Liu: Okay. So that’s me. And now I’m going to read the author’s remarks. And it’s very emotional and a little bit embarrassing for me, because, as you will hear, he praises me in his remarks. It’s very not Chinese to read phrase about yourself. But as a translator, I sort of have the duty to read what he wrote. So so I’m going to do so. So all right: “Good evening, ladies and gentleman. Winning this award is a great honor to me. And the event itself looks like science fiction. As a faithful science fiction fan, I’ve read many Hugo Award winners, many of which have been translated and published in China, while others I had to read in English, in English original. For me, the Hugo Award is a vision in the distance. I see its light, but has never occurred to me that I might have something to do with it. And then a spaceship appeared which carried my novel across the vast space between two languages and cultures, and flew right in to this bright vision. The spaceship is Ken Liu. With his profound knowledge of Eastern and Western cultures, and through his heart and industrious work, he has made a translation of this novel a work of near- perfection.

Patrick Cox: Wow, that really is high praise. No wonder Liu feels a little cringy reading it out to that audience. And this book, already popular, is really about to take off, with the help of Barack Obama who raves about it. Also, Meta’s Mark Zuckerberg, and many others. So what’s the significance of this moment when a major sci-fi award gives its top prize for the first time to a translated novel? Does a book that wasn’t written in English, a book that presents a vision of the future — is it a future that’s specific to that non-English culture, to that language it’s originally written in? Are the fears and obsessions of the writer and the characters specific to that culture? Or to humanity in general?

From Quiet Juice and the Linguistic Society of America, this is Subtitle: stories about languages and the people who speak them. In this episode, the sci-fi of another language.

Patrick Cox: Lydia Emmanouilidou first put me on to The Three-Body Problem. She had read the entire trilogy, and she had questions about how these books became so popular all over the world. So she went to see someone who knows all about this, Wellesley College professor of Chinese literature, Mingwei Song.

Lydia Emmanouilidou: In 2006 Mingwei Song gets a manuscript from a friend. It’s the story of humanity’s potentially dooming encounter with this technologically and otherwise advanced alien civilization. So Professor Mingwei Song dives into this book, The Three-Body Problem, he starts reading it. And he’s just blown away.

Mingwei Song: I was, as I’m already totally convinced that the Chinese science fiction was as good as science fiction in any country.

Lydia Emmanouilidou: And over the next few years, Liu Cixin’s trilogy becomes huge.

Mingwei Song: When the first volume was published in China, there were fans who loved it. But the sales were not that good. When the second volume was published, it began to get more readers. And when the third volume was published, by that time it was like a national sensation.

Lydia Emmanouilidou: Mingwei Song is really excited — not just by this, but by a whole lot of other Chinese sci-fi he sees coming out of China around the same time. So he starts promoting Chinese sci-fi at academic conferences. He’s inviting Chinese sci-fi authors to events where they’ll get exposure. He even gets involved with translation projects to bring Chinese sci-fi to the US. But he knows that the attention the genre was getting from him and a handful of other academics in the early 2000s was not enough to elevate its profile to an international phenomenon.

Mingwei Song: You need Obama. You need Mark Zuckerberg. And you need Ken Liu.

Patrick Cox: Ken Liu. That’s the translator?

Lydia Emmanouilidou: That’s right. And almost everyone I spoke with, Patrick. agreed that Ken Liu is the key to changing the profile of Chinese sci-fi both in China and internationally. I met Ken-Liu at the sci-fi literature conference, Readercon. He was one of the guests of honor and he agreed to give me a few minutes between his last panel and his dinner. Ken and I sat across from each other at the dining table in his Marriott suite, just a few floors up from all the Readercon action. And I have to say, Patrick, I was a little nervous to meet Ken because he has this reputation for being intimidatingly smart and productive. But people also say he’s very kind and approachable. I mean, just to give you a taste, here’s the booklet that all Readercon attendees got. And here are just some headlines. You know, there are a few articles written about Ken Liu if you want to read.

Patrick Cox: Yeah, his first one says, “Where does Ken Liu find the time?”

Lydia Emmanouilidou: Yep. This is an article focused entirely on where can you find the time to do all of the many things that he does?

Patrick Cox: There’s another one that says, “Phenomenally good at not being nice.” Wow.

Lydia Emmanouilidou: That just gives you a taste of what this community thinks about Ken Liu. So when I sat down with him, I asked him this question that he says he gets asked very frequently. And that question is, “What is Chinese sci-fi? How is it different from American sci-fi?”

Patrick Cox: Yeah, I gotta say, I would ask that question myself.

Lydia Emmanouilidou: And I hate to disappoint you, Patrick. But he says he there isn’t really a straight answer to that question. It’s really complicated.

Ken Liu: The basic conflict, if there’s anything unique about China, is this: China has undergone modernization in the last three decades that took the West something like 300 years to go through.

Lydia Emmanouilidou: There’s a lot of concern come told me about the idea of things spinning out of control. The pace of change in China is just accelerating too fast, and that the economic and social gaps there are just getting wider and wider. And those are all themes that you’ll find in Chinese sci-fi today.

Ken Liu: I think most of my fellow Anglophone readers didn’t really know there was a large body of interesting sci-fi being written in China. And They’re exploring very similar topics as the rest of us, but from a different perspective, from a different approach.

Lydia Emmanouilidou: Ken doesn’t actually have any formal training in translation, though he does have a law degree from Harvard. He has a background in computer programming, and he is also a critically acclaimed novelist.

Patrick Cox: No wonder people ask where he gets the time. Lydia tells me that Ken got into translating almost by accident. He translated a friend’s story from Chinese into to English just as a favor, and the translation won an award. And after that, translation became a regular side gig for Ken. His only condition when he translated something was he had to like it. There’s a story about a future where humans have been able to change their perception of time to increase productivity, a story about a city that’s a machine.

Lydia Emmanouilidou: There are stories about physics, about love about pain, all sorts of stories. And it was because of that body of work that Ken Liu was eventually approached to translate The Three-Body Problem.

Patrick Cox: That really is amazing that they would get a guy who’s not trained as a translator, taking on this book that is starting to make some seriously big waves.

Lydia Emmanouilidou: Yeah, and I think what makes Ken particularly good at translating, is that he’s Chinese and he’s American. He straddles both cultures. And also, he’s a lawyer. So he was able to walk writers through the submissions process to help them get legal rights to their work. It was almost like he was their agent, right? And all of that makes a huge difference for writers. Let me give you an example. There’s this one writer, Tang Fei. She got a Ken Liu translation back in 2013. Her story, Call Girl was then published in Apex Magazine. And it was only after that that she started getting published in China.

Patrick Cox: Wait a minute, she doesn’t get published in her own native language until her story is translated and published in English? I think I understand the power of Ken Liu now.

Lydia Emmanouilidou: I recently called up Tang Fei to talk to her about this. I don’t speak Chinese and she doesn’t really feel comfortable speaking English. So her friend translated for us.

Tang Fei’s interpreter: Based on this publishing experience, she thinks there’s it’s kind of important to have your stories translated and introduced to people from other countries because it represents a kind of international acknowledgement.

Lydia Emmanouilidou: So, Patrick, this is obviously troubling for some people, the fact that it takes having your work published in the US, or winning a big award here to somehow become more relevant in China. I mean, it’s eventually what happened with three body problem. You know, it was big in China, but it didn’t get really, really big until it won the Hugo and I asked Tang, Fei, if she thought this was a problem for Chinese sci-fi. She said no.

Tang Fei’s interpreter: She thinks that this is kind of like giving the story a second life because it means you can rethink what is embedded in the story.

Patrick Cox: What is she talking about that she talking about, like how the story gets translated, or how the audience is reading it?

Lydia Emmanouilidou: I think she’s talking about both because of course, when you get a translation, your story is exposed to a whole new audience. But the translation process itself also changes the story. Let me introduce you to another person here. Because at this point, it’s not just Ken Liu doing translations of Chinese sci-fi. Crystal Huff is an editor for the Beijing-based organization, Future Affairs Administration. And they work on editing translations between Chinese and English. So Crystal told me about a situation they were in recently where they had to go back to the Chinese author and point something out to him. This is what Crystal said to the author.

Crystal Huff: “There are no women in the story. Can we change the genders of — you know, there are only men and only cisgender men and only heterosexual cisgender men, as far as I can tell in this story. Can we talk about this? Like, I know that in some cultures, it’s not necessarily noticeable if a story is entirely all straight, cisgender men, but it is noticeable in my culture, particularly right now. And it is noticeable for me as someone who is not a straight cisgender man.”

Patrick Cox: Wow, that’s quite something to say to a writer to get the writer to make such a fundamental change, like changing the gender of the characters.

Lydia Emmanouilidou: It is a big change. And in this case, the author was okay with crystal making that change in the story.

Crystal Huff: And it’s a difficult one because there are a lot of cultural things there and trying to take those nuances in and respect them, and also make sure that the story that is the result of the translation process is something that people from my culture would be excited about, is something that is that is a hard line to walk.

Lydia Emmanouilidou: Do you ever wonder if there’s some sort of cultural value lost in trying to bring up these things make these changes?

Crystal Huff: Oh, absolutely. I worry that I am americanizing things or that I am Crystallizing things. I worry that I am than I am inserting myself into a situation where I shouldn’t be.

Lydia Emmanouilidou: And that’s something Crystal has heard from writers because they’ve been in the situation several times where they’ve asked the writer to make a change to make the story work for an American audience. And the writer has said, “No.” You know, making changes like that — changing the gender of characters — obviously changes the story a lot. And I think that translation process and the reworking process is part of the reason why Chinese sci-fi has done well here.

Patrick Cox: How long has Chinese sci-fi been around? Did it even exist on the Chairman Mao? That’s coming up in a minute.

Patrick Cox: It’s podcast recommendation time! This week I want to tell you about Plodding Through the Presidents, which tells lesser-known stories about some of the early presidents and founders of the United States and the people around them. And boy, are there stories: Thomas Jefferson’s obsession with wool; the love letters of John Quincy Adams and the surprisingly saucy Warren G. Harding; Winston Churchill’s possibly nude, probably apocryphal, White House encounter with the ghost of Abraham Lincoln. There are fabulous episodes on all these– which you’re going to love however much or little, like me, you know about America’s Presidents. Your hosts are Howard and Jessica Dorre. Howard is a history blogger. Jessica has a nice line in irreverence. They know how to tell a well-researched story, and have great guests too. I am working my way through the entire back catalog of Plodding Through the Presidents and I hope it never ends. Listen and subscribe wherever you’re listening to this.

Patrick Cox: The history of sci-fi in China, it’s markedly different from, say, in America. Mingwei Song — the Wellesley professor — he told Lydia modern sci-fi’s beginnings coincided with the last days of China’s last dynasty, the Qing dynasty, at the start of the 20th century.

Mingwei Song: It was like the darkest to moment in Chinese history. The last decade of Imperial China, before revolution was about to break out.

Lydia Emmanouilidou: That looming revolution in 1911, came down to what many saw as a failure by the Qing Dynasty — a failure to modernize China, and to guard against foreign powers.

Mingwei Song: And the people — writers, reformers — begin to imagine all kinds of futures. You can either have a better political system, or very, very advanced technological progress. That’s what we call the origin of Chinese science fiction.

Lydia Emmanouilidou: In those early days, sci-fi was mostly a utopian vision of what China could become, if it went through the social and technological modernization that writers and reformists felt it so desperately needed. They envisioned a future China that could be a world power, a highly educated country that the world is paying close attention to a leader in everything from new weapons to new medicines, and a nation with a multi-party system.

The fortunes of sci-fi really ebbed and flowed during the 20th century. At times, Chinese governments embraced its idealism and utopianism and packaged it into propaganda. At other times, it was suppressed because its foreign influence was supposedly polluting Chinese culture. Now, of course, Patrick, I’m fast-forwarding through a lot of history here. But by the early 2000s, homegrown science fiction really wasn’t a big part of the culture. There certainly were writers who were writing sci-fi, but they were mostly sharing their work online. There was really only one sci-fi magazine at the time. It still exists today, by the way, but that was about to change.

Patrick Cox: And the change came dramatically as Liu Cixin and other sci-fi writers got book contracts with major publishers, and Chinese readers really took them up. And then the rest of the world did, with that explosion of translations — not just English, but dozens of languages.

Now the Chinese writers have won these awards, and there’s all of this international fame, where are we at? What’s the scene like back in China for sci-fi?

Lydia Emmanouilidou: It’s definitely a much bigger part of the mainstream today there. And there’s a ton of commercial interest in the genre as well. I spoke about this with Regina Kanyu Wang. She’s with a company called Storycom, which is based in Beijing, and works to find and commercialize Chinese sci-fi.

Regina Kanyu Wang: Our life is science fiction now, because more and more of the technology has been achieved, and they come to real life. So it’s easier for people to relate to this kind of change. So we think science fiction will be the future popular genre. And not only literature, but also movies, games, and other media platforms.

Lydia Emmanouilidou: Regina told me there are a lot more publications, magazine publishing houses geared towards sci-fi now. You’re more likely to find big sci-fi events in China: China put in a bid to host a future Worldcon, that’s the largest sci-fi conference. But Regina also told me there’s definitely a bubble here. And that’s for the future of Chinese sci-fi, who knows? And Patrick, there’s one other thing, and that’s sci-fi’s relationship with the Chinese government.

Patrick Cox: Right. I mean, in the past, it seemed like the government couldn’t really make up its mind. Like, did they want to co-opt sci-fi as a way of talking in a utopian way about the future? Or do they want to suppress it because it could be a codified critique?

Lydia Emmanouilidou: To answer this question, I think it’s important to think about where China is today, and where it sees itself in the future. You know, obviously, there are a lot of eyes on China today as this rising global power. Its economy is only second to that of the US — and it’s catching up. Chinese President Xi Jinping has this ambitious plan to make China a global power by 2050. He wants his country to be a leader in next- generation technologies like artificial intelligence. And one thing I heard from Americans who have been exposed to the Chinese sci-fi community is how present Chinese government officials are at all things sci-fi in China, including at events that are hosted there. There really seems to be a belief that the genre can be tapped into to make that vision for a new future China come true. At the same time, there’s an interesting tension here, because a lot of Chinese sci-fi seems to be a warning about where China is heading — what it means for China to be developing so quickly. Like, what is the cost that comes with that sort of progress?

Patrick Cox: How do the Chinese sci fi writers get around that censorship rules in China? There’s got to be writers who test them out because that they are, after all, worried about the idea of where the country might be headed.

Lydia Emmanouilidou: Writers know that there are some things you just can’t say, right? Like the Wellesley Professor Mingwei Song told me that predicting the future of Hong Kong, for example, it won’t pass. You can’t do that. But not everything is so black and white. So some things that are too risky to say explicitly, the writers might suggest implicitly. There are messages that are somewhat obscure because writers are playing this little dance with censors. And just I mean, Patrick, just imagine having to translate that, and the translators’ responsibility to the reader to help them understand what the writer is saying. But also their responsibility is to the writer, you know, in not making obvious the thing that the writer didn’t want to make obvious in the first place. That’s something that Ken Liu deals with a lot.

Ken Liu: When they when they engage in the so-called hidden messages, they’re easily decodable by a Chinese reader, and they’re intended to be easily decodable by a Chinese reader. So for me, the challenge is, in those cases, how do I make the coded message explicit enough or for an Anglophone reader to be able to decode it without being embedded in the context?

Lydia Emmanouilidou: Could you give me a couple examples of what those messages might be?

Ken Liu: I can’t unfortunately. The reason is, you know, in China, what they say is: “You know what I’m talking about, I know what I’m talking about. But actually making it explicit and talking about it is what will get us in trouble.” And that’s basically what some of these are about.

Lydia Emmanouilidou: So Patrick, the literary community is very protective of itself. And that’s why Ken couldn’t give me any specific examples of the types of hidden messages that he struggles to translate. And that self-protection is especially necessary now that Chinese sci-fi is receiving attention internationally. Because, you know, for a long time before Chinese sci-fi was getting the attention that it’s getting today, I think it was easier for writers to get away with the sort of commentary that might get them in trouble today. It is true that a lot of Chinese sci-fi isn’t about China. You know, just like we don’t expect an American sci-fi author to write exclusively about America, the same is true for China. And that’s the point that Ken Liu wanted me to walk away with from our conversation.

Ken Liu: I think the big danger is to say, when we read a Chinese science fiction story about censorship, we say, “Oh, it’s just about China’s censorship. It’s about how China is a very dystopian place.” Or we read a story about authoritarianism, and say, “Oh, this is very much about China’s political system.” But I would say that the warning is that it’s very dangerous to think that it’s only limited to China. The kinds of conflicts and forces and darkness that that Chinese writers are writing about are, in fact, dangers everywhere. And it’s much more interesting and fruitful to not view these as somehow uniquely Chinese but rather as warnings to all of us.

Patrick Cox: Okay, I get that point. There’s no way that any literature that wants to have itself considered seriously should just be reduced to allegorical interpretation. The idea is that they kind of speak to everybody beyond borders. That’s the point of literature. But I gotta say that it would be foolish to simply not consider the context. I mean, how can we walk away from the fact that these writers are Chinese, they have lived at a certain time in a certain place, and that’s got to be reflected in one way or another in what they’ve written?

Lydia Emmanouilidou: I think they would all say that their upbringing and the fact that they’re living in China today, very much influences their writing and their work. But I think, Ken Liu’s point is that particularly science fiction is not just about one culture, one race, but rather humanity at large. I understand your skepticism but I think that’s a point that can be applied not just to Chinese science fiction, but American science fiction and German science fiction and all kinds of science fiction.

Patrick Cox: Lydia Emmanouilidou is a reporter based some of the year in Greece, some of the time here in the United States. Many thanks to Lydia. Thanks also to Allison Shao who manages Subtitle’s social media and writes the newsletter. Thanks as well to everyone at The World public radio program.

Subtitle is a member of the Hub & Spoke audio collective. We’re a bunch of independent podcasters with a variety of interests, mainly about things that your average mainstream podcast isn’t going to be doing. If the subject is history, it’s going to be about somewhere or be about someone who you haven’t previously heard much about. Same with art or science or language. So check out these Hub & Spoke podcasts: Ministry of Ideas, Open Source, Iconography, Mementos.

That’s it for today. Thanks for listening. See you in a couple of weeks.

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Subtitle

A podcast about languages and the people who speak them. Co-hosted by @patricox and @kbpillay. Twitter: @lingopod