I recently finished translating one of Liu Cixin’s short stories, 《微观尽头》, or “End of the Microcosmos.” It’s a very short story, only 2,400 words, about what kind of surprising conclusions we might be able to draw from Large Hadron Collider experiments. Among those witnessing the story’s central experiment are the chief engineer at the research center, the two top theoretical physicists in the world, and an old shepherd.
Why an old shepherd? Because the research center was built on his land in Xinjiang, and the scientists wanted someone who doesn’t understand physics at all to witness the event.
Here’s where I'll pause to give some background and talk about the larger translation issues I run into. People may think that translation is a straightforward task of converting one language to another like converting file types, when really, translation involves a lot more editing and judgment than that. In particular, translators have to account for the sensibilities of their audience in the target language.
So that leads me to streamline and edit the prose of my translation as I go along. Some of the sensibilities are matters of taste, like anglophones finding prose amateur if it uses a lot of adverbs, while heavy adverb use is the norm for Chinese prose. For example, rather than converting 慢慢地走過來 directly into “walked over slowly,” I can choose to say “trudged over,” which would go over better with anglophones even if it's not as “strict” of a translation.
But then there are the bigger questions of tailoring narratives to fit audiences. Ken Liu introduces the problem well in his recent interview with The New York Times. When does a change to suit audiences become perceived as unfaithful to the original? Chinese fandom has had mixed reactions in particular to the edits made to the second volume of the Three Body series, The Dark Forest, in the name of reducing what anglophone audiences would read as sexism.
There’s a delicate balance to be struck there, and I never want to go so far as to censor an author’s work. But I think there are times when such differences in ideology, often reflected in the terminology authors use, can distract readers from the primary intent of a story. Translated work brought into an anglophone world already faces hurdles to acceptance. Why add to that when I can smooth things over in a minimally invasive way?
Which brings me back to “End of the Microcosmos.” I want to bring in additional context here. The old shepherd in the story is Kazakh, one of China’s ethnic minorities, and also a Muslim religious minority. Although I have Manchu heritage, functionally, I’m part of the Han majority ethnic group, as almost all Chinese sci-fi authors are. There are systems of privilege and oppression there, too: The Chinese government is currently using horrific tactics to suppress and forcibly assimilate its Muslim minority populations. So I wanted to be very aware of how I translate the Kazakh character, so that I would, hopefully, not perpetuate further oppression through an insensitive translation.
I couldn’t change the fact that the Kazakh shepherd character adhered to similarly negative tropes as the ones indigenous people face in the United States: the character who is ignorant but in touch with the land, positioned against more “cultured” protagonists to provide the mystic sagacity of the Other. Whether or not people even agree with my reading isn't certain. But ultimately, that was the author’s choice, and that choice reflects his Han privilege and perspectives. I would find changing the nature of the character to be too invasive for the story, in that it would change the entire dynamic between all the characters and would affect how the story plays out.
But there were small details with more leeway that I could focus on and improve. The shepherd’s religious beliefs come through strongly in his perception of the universe, as contrasted with the scientists’ perceptions. But, at the same time, the original Chinese manuscript has the character using “Allah” as an exclamation like others would use “God,” such as in “Oh my God!”
That rang extremely false to me. With some research, I confirmed that feeling and decided to change those instances into more appropriate phrases. Sometimes, it was as simple as saying “What in the world is going on?!” instead of “My God, what’s happening?!” But other times, I felt the exclamation needed to be retained to best show the character’s reaction. I chose to replace those exclamations with the more appropriate terms “mashallah” and “subhanallah.”
The exclamations are an example of where I’d smooth things over because that incongruity would simply be a distraction to the narrative, when in the end, the exclamations are a minor detail that hardly impacts the story. Choosing more appropriate translations is, to me, a way to adapt the manuscript to its target audience, especially so that it can read more comfortably to Muslim anglophones.
I’m not writing all this to pat myself on the back, but rather to show what kind of decisions go into my translations, and to show that translating a story to be sensitive to its audience often takes extra effort and research. For these reasons, I don’t think machine translation can ever replace human translation. This example is only a sliver of the kind of cultural nuance translators have to grapple with, and the kind of cultural literacy I expect translators to have, both in the original context and the target context.
Update (September 3, 2020): Liu Cixin has gone on the record supporting China’s actions in Xinjiang. Although Liu maintains that his work is apolitical, it is my belief that no work can exist in a political vacuum. The representation of the Muslim Kazakh character here is a reflection of the politics that Liu is embedded in.
Photo: Felix Mittermeier / Pixabay