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.

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.

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