Disconnected Tales: Contrasting Ken Liu’s Original and Translated Works

While I was growing up, the Chinese realm of my life was wholly separate from the English one. The two only overlapped when I struggled to find the Chinese word for an object I knew in English. In one memorable instance in fifth grade, I pointed to a plug and struggled for ten minutes, failing to conjure up the proper Chinese noun.

Ken Liu’s original fiction shares some of that same disconnection.

As a Chinese person, I am used to reading about the Chinese experience in Chinese. When read in English, the natural experience turns into a cultural performance put on for the Western audience. Reading Liu’s “The Paper Menagerie” feels as if the entire story was tinged with the sort of mysticism associated with the ‘Far East’. The fantasy elements seemed like unnatural, deliberate uses of ethnicity, intended to provoke a specific reaction from an audience that looks upon Chinese culture as if it were something to be gawked at in a zoo.

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Image from npr.org

The addition of Chinese words and sentences in the piece may make it seem more authentic, but to me, it was simply awkward. I would constantly try to switch to the convention and flow of the Chinese language, attempting to read the few parts written in Chinese the way I would read a typical Chinese sentence. The English context simply doesn’t afford the leisure of doing so, however, and the smattering of Romanized Chinese plopped starkly into the middle of a completely English piece is ineffective and jarring.

A much smoother and more entertaining read is Liu’s translation of “Balin” by Chen Qiufan. Since Chen had been writing in Chinese for a Chinese audience, the reading experience seems much more natural and lacks the discomfort of cultural performance. Despite this, the translation did bring me out of the story at times. Certain words and phrases stand out (“joss sticks”; “it was like discussing music theory with a cud-chewing cow”), as these nouns and expressions are idiosyncratic to the Chinese written language. At these points, I couldn’t help but re-translate the English text and imagine what the original Chinese would have sounded like.

Personal feelings regarding the mechanics of language and translation aside, Liu’s writing in his original fiction is plain and straightforward. Even at the most emotional moments in the story, his descriptions are precise statements of fact intended to provoke feeling as an afterthought. Emotions aren’t described by Liu; they manifest in the actions of the characters. While he is the director that sets everything in motion, the quality of experience depends entirely on the interpretation of the reader. We are given the reins to characterize each of his figures throughout his story.

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Image from twitter.com/ShimmerProgram

In contrast to Liu’s own directness, Chen’s fiction is descriptive to the point of scientific precision. In a sense, Chen’s words read as Chinese. I cannot say that I have read as many Chinese works as I have English, but in my limited scope I have found vivid descriptions of colour and other sensory details to be more common in Chinese writing. Liu’s translation therefore seems clinically faithful to Chen’s original writing, and he seems to have preserved a lot of Chen’s authorial voice.

Yet Liu’s presence as translator is acutely felt. The traces of his sentence style and spacing act like a gloss of varnish over the short story. He favours short sentences and statement-like descriptions, again leaving the reader to make independent judgments that are guided only by snapshots of the scene. Not having read Chen’s original text, I cannot tell if these choices are Liu’s own preferences coming out in his translation, or aspects already existent in the original.

Reading Ken Liu’s original and translated works has been a puzzling experience, as I reconcile my culture with my education. It has made me realize that many beloved genres, such as fantasy, can take on a completely other dimension when presented in a different language. While I do not anticipate reading more Ken Liu anytime soon, I will most definitely be looking into Chen Qiufan’s original works in Chinese.

-Contributed by Stephanie Gao

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Bounty Hunters and Space Cowboys: Comparing Killjoys and Firefly

Killjoys and Firefly entered my repository of favourite TV shows in much the same manner. In both cases, I saw a few posters and heard snippets of plot. Judging from this incontrovertible evidence, I dismissed both shows—who had ever heard of a space cowboy anyway?

In both cases, however, I ended up grudgingly watching a mid-season episode at the behest of family members. I immediately realized the error of my ways, and feverishly watched the entirety of the first season.

Though I greatly enjoyed Killjoys, I couldn’t help noticing that my introduction to the series was not the only thing tying it to Firefly. Airing just over a decade after the unfortunate demise of the Joss Whedon classic, Killjoys shares many of Firefly’s characteristics. The premises are generally convergent—both follow a small cast of mercenary characters who take on any and all jobs (provided they’re paid well), up to and including smuggling bobble head geisha dolls.

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Mal arguing with Inara, Firefly

Both also make use of a space western vibe, featuring settings such as arid locales, small run-down bars that have hints of futuristic technology, and rural communities on backwater worlds. They have a similar political dynamic—a large interplanetary government oppresses and mistreats its rebellious citizens and colonists  (The Company and The Alliance).

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The Company, Killjoys The Alliance, Firefly

There is also a marked economic dichotomy between the citizens of rich, central worlds and the pioneer-like border worlds where the crew spends most of their time. With a few exceptions, both shows feature a very similar cast of characters. Because Killjoys has a smaller central cast, some its characters encapsulate more than one of the roles taken up by characters from Firefly.

There’s the unorthodox gunslinger captain with a traumatic past (Dutch and Mal).

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Dutch, Killjoys

Mal, Firefly

The loveable mechanic who can fix most anything (Johnny and Kaylee).

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Johnny, Killjoys

Kaylee, Firefly

The less intellectually-endowed soldier type (D’avin and Jayne).

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D’avin, Killjoys

Jayne, Firefly

There’s a character who has been neurologically altered by a shadowy government agency to be a nearly invincible killing machine when cued (D’avin and River).

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D’avin, Killjoys

River, Firefly

The humanized sex worker (N’oa and Inara).

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N’oa, Killjoys

Inara, Firefly

The devout priest who’s more than he seems (Alvis and Book).

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Alvis, Killjoys

Shepherd Book, Firefly

There’s the doctor who gave up a cushy life on a rich world (Pawter and Simon).

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Pawter, Killjoys

Simon, Firefly

The female action hero (Dutch and Zoe).

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Dutch, Killjoys

Zoe, Firefly

And lastly there’s the covert assassin who likes stabbing people and is a little bit weird (Khylen and Early).

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Khylen, Killjoys

Early, Firefly

Even some of the episode plots are congruent. This is especially remarkable because there were only fourteen Firefly episodes and Killjoys’s first season contained only ten episodes. Both feature episodes where the heroes are hired to protect a pregnant woman and her companions, who are looked upon unfavourably by their respective societies (a safe house of surrogates in Killjoys and a group of sex workers in Firefly). These companions turn out to be more capable of handling their own defense than either crew anticipated.

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Episode: “Vessel,” Killjoys

Episode: “Heart of Gold,” Firefly

There’s also the episode wherein the crew attempts a salvage mission on what appears to be an empty transport, only to encounter a gruesome surprise (“A Glitch in the System” and “Bushwhacked”).

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Episode: “A Glitch in the System,” Killjoys

Episode: “Bushwhacked,” Firefly

However, Killjoys and Firefly differ in one rather important aspect. Firefly was cancelled after less than a season, spawning a legion of disaffected fans. Killjoys, on the other hand, has been renewed for a second season. Both shows did not garner very impressive viewership numbers in their first seasons—Firefly, in fact, had a larger average audience by a significant margin. Given the shows’ multitude of similarities, the obvious question is, why has Killjoys been more successful?

The channels on which the series aired may have something to do with it. Firefly aired on the more mainstream Fox, while Killjoys plays on sci-fi specialist Space, which would (you’d assume) be mainly the domain of viewers who enjoy series such as Killjoys. Further, since Space does not depend on ads for revenue, lower viewership numbers are less of a problem. However, I think there are deeper reasons for the difference in success. Despite their similarities, Firefly and Killjoys differ in tone and in the relative importance of their characters to the world they inhabit.

Though the main cast of Killjoys is often shown as being at the mercy of the higher ups of both their own bounty hunter organization, the Reclamation Agency Coalition (RAC), and the ominous anonymity of the Company, they also often wield a surprising amount of power. Dutch is easily able to negotiate a cancellation of the Company’s kill warrant for D’avin; she is also cleared of a number of charges on multiple occasions by both superiors at the RAC and a member of the Nine (the conglomerate of families which rule the central world, Q’resh) with whom she is in frequent contact. Dutch (and later D’avin) are also later marked out for a special RAC program involving human enhancement techniques.

The crew of Firefly’s Serenity, by comparison, were called “a bunch of nobodies” who are “squashed by policy” by managers at Fox. This was intentional—using the US’s civil war as a model, Joss Whedon constructed the crew to be a relic of a vast galactic civil war, wherein the Browncoats (synonymous with the grey uniformed Southerners of the American Civil War) were routed by the Alliance. This arrangement allowed the show to examine the psychological effects of the end of such a war upon the members of the losing side, and their subsequent search for new lives in their changed world. Given their defeated status, the cast has very little political pull (the latter events of the movie Serenity aside); the plot frequently revolves around the crew slipping through Alliance patrols, with the understanding that capture would lead to inescapable imprisonment.

The economic and legal status of the crews in both series are also at odds—every main character in Firefly (with the possible exception of Inara) is either dead-broke or wanted (as well as broke). The crew of the Serenity are also acknowledged criminals. Though they take on some legal employment, the vast majority of their jobs involve illegal activity. The threat of bankruptcy grounding the Serenity is constant (the fact that one episode is entitled “Out of Gas” is rather telling).

The Killjoys, in contrast, though complicit in some illegal activity, are legal employees of the RAC. According to Johnny and Dutch, Killjoys are paid quite well, and have relatively comfortable lifestyles when compared to the average citizen of the Quad.

These differences also manifest in the shows’ tones and central problems. Killjoys is generally a light, sci-fi action show. Though most episodes are loosely centered around a particular warrant, Dutch’s relationship to powerful and shadowy forces that are seeking to control the Quad underlies many of the events of the series. Dutch and her crew are involved in important events that alter the future of the entire system (e.g. the assassination of one of the Nine families and the bombing of Oldtown) and are presumed to play an important role in the political future of the Quad.

Firefly, though frequently comedic, has a darker tone (this was, if you’re wondering, also something Fox had a problem with—the network pressured Joss Whedon to make Mal “more jolly”). The crew’s main problems are related to money and/or personal, small-scale problems. Though Mal and company can be said to have altered the future of their galaxy in the Serenity movie, their potential for causing radical change is non-existent—the Alliance’s control is absolute—and they are generally uninvolved with larger political issues.

Overall, these differences are responsible for the success of Killjoys and the cancellation of Firefly. At least in the boardroom, Killjoys is a less risky, more mainstream type of show. Though it occasionally deals with contemporary issues (e.g. environmental damage and drug use), it is generally filled with mindless action, predictable plot sequences, and idealized characters who have secretly been groomed for a leadership role. Firefly deviated from this traditional structure to focus on unusual content (rebels who lost their cause and have no ability to nor intention of renewing the fight). Everything that made it one the best television shows of all time—everyday problems and ordinary characters who lack the predestination common in many speculative shows—made it unpalatable to the Fox brass.

-Contributed by Christopher Boccia