How Ken Liu Translates, and Why He Writes

Ken Liu is a celebrated author of American speculative fiction and a pathbreaking translator of Chinese science fiction into English. He has won the ...

Ken Liu is a celebrated author of American speculative fiction and a pathbreaking translator of Chinese science fiction into English. He has won the Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy awards, and he translated the first two Asian winners of the Hugo prize, Liu Cixin and Hao Jingfang. He is the author of the short-story collection The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories (2016), the Dandelion Dynasty trilogy (2015–), and The Legends of Luke Skywalker (2017); he has also worked as a software engineer, corporate lawyer, and litigation consultant. In 2019, he visited Cornell University’s Contemporary China Initiative, where the following interview was recorded. A video of the event is available here.

Nick Admussen (NA): I want to start by asking about time, and specifically about different models of time. Most of Liu Cixin’s Three-Body Problem trilogy, which you translated, seems to be a story of one kind of linear, progressive time: threat, progress, change, adaptation, new threat, and new progress. In your fiction, I see a much more ambivalent attitude toward this sort of timeline. I think about your short story “Good Hunting,” from The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, which seems to indicate that you can’t just “leave” the age of magic or “enter” the age of technology: instead, different times are always overlapping and constantly interpenetrating. I wonder if you feel like you have a model of progress that’s different from some of the Chinese science fiction that you read. How do you think about the forward motion of history in your work?


Ken Liu (KL): Personally, I have always found it interesting to think about the two different models of time—time’s arrow versus time’s cycle—and the very ancient debate in Western philosophy as to which model is more reflective of the reality of the world. I don’t have a firm allegiance to either model specifically.

But I do think that when we dedicate ourselves to an arrow (or progress) model of time, we often neglect the fact that human nature doesn’t really change. So, many times, the problems we solve using technology or new social institutions will resurface in different forms after the change. In many cases, what we think of as progress really just amplifies existing human nature—so progress solves the symptoms of certain problems, but not the root, which means they can resurface again and again. For instance, when we talk about oppression: we tend to focus on the symptoms of oppression rather on the roots. After the revolution in Animal Farm, the pigs become the humans—it’s shocking to everyone but it seems to happen over and over again.


NA: This philosophical question of time brings us back to ancient Western and Chinese philosophy. I’d love to hear you discuss the many different kinds of manifestations of Daoism in your work: for example, “Fluxism,” from the Dandelion Dynasty trilogy, or “the Tide,” in The Legends of Luke Skywalker story “Fishing in the Deluge.”


KL: Daoism has always been an attractive philosophy, especially to those who are not in power. It’s a very old binary in traditional Chinese philosophy: when you’re in power, you become a Confucian; when you’re out of power, you become a Daoist.

But it’s also attractive because it emphasizes letting things go and trying to find the patterns of nature in order to fit into them. It’s a message that feels particularly appropriate to the modern world. A lot of times, I feel our tendency to interfere unnecessarily, to intervene when we can’t really understand or predict the consequences, causes more problems than we solve. The right thing to do, in fact, is often not to add layers of complexity atop what was already a complex system, but, instead, to simplify, to find the essence of matters.

I do put references to Daoism and types of Daoist thinking into my work, and The Legends of Luke Skywalker was a lot of fun for me because Lucas himself conceived of the Force using a lot of Eastern philosophy—Daoism and Buddhism—as inspiration. The whole idea of Luke restoring balance to the Force was actually a very fundamentally Daoist idea: when the world is out of harmony, when the light and the dark sides are misaligned, that’s when terrible things happen, and the restoration of the balance is crucial. That message is either lost or gets misinterpreted by a typical kind of Western binary model in which there is good and there is evil, and we yearn to crush the Dark Side, not to balance it.

One of the key teachings of Daoism is that there is no static state of balance. That’s not human nature; we don’t stay still. You have to embrace change with constant movement.


NA: That reminds me of the lecture you gave last night about the power politics of translation—how the power of the language groups involved affects the way we can and should translate—and the anti-colonial, anti-imperial position that you see translation able to take. At the same time, the first novel of the Dandelion Dynasty trilogy is about an imperial force taking over. Those moments of opposition or resistance are just moments in context, rather than eternal moral positions.


KL: Yes. If you pursue the model where you really are trying to crush evil and establish a static order, you often end up with cycles of revolution, and the pigs endlessly become humans. It’s a result of refusing to accept that things do change and [of] the failure to take a dynamic stance.

NA: Can you talk a little bit about your audiences? People with some Chinese culture who read the Dandelion Dynasty novels really like them because they feel seen and implicated. And I know that English-language readers who don’t have any connection with Chinese culture like the books a lot. How did you write for those two audiences simultaneously?


KL: It wasn’t conscious. I think I wrote the novel for myself. I don’t really think of the novels as being about Chinese culture specifically—the fact that they reflect a lot of it is simply because that’s my culture.

Actually, I wrote the novels as my attempt at creating what I think of as a very uniquely American form of fantasy. Every nation has its own national myth: what is unique about America’s is that we have this idea of taking individuals who come from other cultures and who have other roots and putting them together to create something new in this land. It feels unique that we don’t go back to identify a single origin for the American nation. We are actually very happy to embrace the idea that we are the commingling of many different sources and that, when the sources come together, they evolve in new directions, new routes.

Those new routes become part of the American fabric, and the Dandelion Dynasty trilogy has that same structure. On the one hand, it is a story about how a new people comes to be: How does this nation of Dara come to be? The first book is very much about the warring origins of that nation, and the second book goes on to explore how people invent what it means to be a person of Dara, both in terms of how they understand their own history and how they envision themselves in the future. There are people who have been there for ages, people who have recently arrived, and new people who are still coming: How do you put them all together into a national story?

That’s one side of it. The other part is that I wanted to tell a fantasy story using the legends of the founding of the Han Dynasty as a kind of historical inspiration, a framework around which the fantasy is spun.


NA: It bothers some people that it’s not Chinese enough.


KL: Right! The whole point here is not to satisfy that urge. The point is to find what fascinates from the Chinese national myth and then extrapolate those elements to form them into a new national myth that might reveal something about the way America’s narrative functions in an additive and transformative way.


NA: It reminds me of the Aeneid and the way that it’s grafted onto the Iliad.


KL: Yeah, that’s exactly right—people sometimes don’t give the Aeneid enough credit.


NA: That teaches me something about the elements in the books that I consider to be exclusively yours—the engineer’s eye with which you reconceptualize dragon breath, for example, seems like something that is a Ken Liu trademark to me. But I now realize that it’s also a cultural layering of different levels of mythology and technology.


KL: I love that sort of thing. There are long passages in the books where I get to go into detail about how you construct machines and build things, and they’re not critical to the story. I put them in there because they’re fun. I enjoy working on these novels, because they give me an excuse to explore building things that I wouldn’t have an excuse to build otherwise. For the machines in the second book, which are mostly electrostatic machines and engines, I have a theoretical model and understanding of how they should work. But until I actually built models, I couldn’t prove …


NA: Wait, you built models?


KL: I built models—I wanted to talk about electrostatic force and how it feels to be shocked.


NA: Ah, silkmatic …


KL: Silkmotic force—that’s what it’s called in the books. I built Leyden jars and charged them up to see how they function. My attitude was that, if I can get the effect that I’m describing within a couple orders of magnitude in terms of power, then I’m content to write it. If it could work in principle, then I could leave the refinement to the fantasy engineers. I just made the prototype.


China at World’s End

By Nan Z. Da

NA: You have described your compositional process as “pantsing it”: as in, writing by the seat of your pants. You start writing page one and then you keep going. I’m curious whether it may be different for translation. I’ve “pantsed” translations before, where you move forward blindly through the text and—


KL: —go back and fix it at the end, yes.


NA: But I’m wondering how you move through. Do you prototype pieces of a translation? Do you work in chunks? How many times do you read it before you start actually composing English? Instead of an open space that you can move around freely, the translation is a closed project. At some point, you have to finish; you’ve hit your mark or done your best.


KL: I’ll talk about composition first and then compare it to translation. When I talk about “pantsing it,” there’s a difference between novels and short stories. With novels or longer short fiction, I usually have in mind some landmarks I’m trying to get to. I don’t have an exact plan, but at least I know the big landmarks. The “pantsing” part is where I try to figure out how to navigate through the various islands, the exact course I’m going to take. It leaves enough unpredictability—and a need to figure things out on the fly—to keep it interesting to me.

With translation, you obviously can’t do that in the same way. What I tend to do for translation is read it a couple of times first to get a feel for the voice. Usually these pieces are things I read and liked in the first place, so when I’m ready to actually work on them, I reread them a couple of times to get the voice in my head.

Then I usually try to figure out a set of translations for new terms: neologisms are a big deal in science fiction, so you have to figure out a set of terms in advance for specific words or inventions. That’s kind of tricky, because the words you invent will depend a lot on the piece itself and what sort of voice you’re trying to project. Once that’s done, sometimes I try to do the first paragraph or the last paragraph to see how it feels, how the voice I have in my head feels when it’s written out.


NA: So there is a prototype.


KL: Sort of. I try it out and, if it doesn’t feel right, I make adjustments.


NA: It’s fascinating that you start with technical terminology. But it makes sense, since a science fiction story does seem to have a necessary focus on education. I’m wondering, first of all, about fiction as education and what it’s good or bad for. Secondly, I’m curious about translation as cross-cultural education—do you see these things as having an educational use, whether or not they’re purposeful?


KL: It’s interesting, actually. I don’t think fiction is useful for teaching at all. Teaching about fiction is quite different from writing fiction to teach.

Fiction isn’t in that rhetorical mode. I’m very focused on different modes of rhetoric and what each can accomplish. One of the differences I see between persuasive writing and fiction is that, in persuasive writing, you’re trying to narrow the readers’ interpretative freedom. The goal is to lead the reader down a specific path of argument, so the more you can prevent alternative interpretations of what you say, the more you can make the path so narrow that the reader has no choice but to follow where you go. That is the very antithesis of good fiction writing.

To me, good fiction writing is about constructing a place, a house, if you will, that is large enough for readers to move in and find their own space. I can’t remember the exact wording, but there’s a wonderful quote about interpretation: “Before a piece of text can be unpacked for its meaning, the reader must first actually pack it with her assumptions and interpretive frameworks,” and I think that’s crucial in terms of fiction.1

The metaphor I picture is that, when I write a story or a novel, I’m really constructing a very large house with many different rooms and all sorts of secret passages, nooks, and crannies. Readers come to the house with their own baggage and start to unpack, they look for a room that seems comfortable to them, and then they move in and make it their own.

That’s what fiction is about for me—a house that appeals to a certain kind of reader, but has enough open space that they can adapt it to their own purposes. Fiction is a space where a reader can construct their own lives. It can’t be like nonfiction or education writing, where you are specifically leading the reader to a particular result.


Translation’s Burden

By Matt Reeck

NA: So using fiction to educate is out. What about translation?


KL: I do think that a translator has some duty to educate. If you’re translating from a culture that your target audience is not familiar with, you might decide the best way to handle that is to not explain at all and to let the readers figure it out for themselves. That is a legitimate artistic choice, but I don’t believe it is always the best choice: because the reader becomes responsible for interpreting.

If you’re translating from classical Greek or some other high-prestige classical language, that might be a good choice. You might open up the room for interpretation and give the modern reader a sense of participatory construction in the work. We are sometimes too intimidated by endless footnotes to be able to play with a text. I think a lot more people would enjoy Moby-Dick or Ovid if they weren’t presented as sacred classics to be approached only through pages of footnotes. I think that’s actually harmful to the enjoyment of these works.

On the other hand, if you’re translating from a contemporary culture that has low cultural prestige and is prone to being stereotyped or misinterpreted, then I think you actually do have a duty to explain. At the very least, you want to counteract the reader’s tendency to make problematic or harmful assumptions.

When I’m translating Chinese science fiction, I know that certain things may be misunderstood. There’s a scene in the Three-Body Problem trilogy, in which two characters are talking about the night sky. They’re looking up at the night, and one of them looks at the Milky Way and says, “It really looks like a road of milk.” If I just translate directly like that, then there’s a high probability that monolingual anglophone readers will assume that the Chinese name for the Milky Way means “road of milk.” I wrote a footnote to explain: Chinese calls the Milky Way a totally different name, and the two Chinese characters who are speaking in this scene are making this reference because they have been steeped in English education.

I think a lot of American readers may not be aware of the extent to which this kind of cultural submission to the West has permeated society from top to bottom, such that they can use a reference that’s completely derived from English when they’re speaking Chinese. There’s even a layer behind that: when they’re surprised that it really looks like milk, it’s because they are in some way talking about how exotic that phrase is to them. All these layers will be lost if I don’t say something.


NA: You’ve been a lawyer professionally for a long time. But you’ve been a programmer, and there was also a period where you were translating more than anything else.


KL: No, actually, I translated the novels over many years. It was always something I fit into the other work.


NA: I didn’t know that. Was there a sense of direction or a sense of progress, especially considering your habit of moving toward several projects at once?


KL: Yeah, it’s a strange sense of progress. I don’t actually see all these activities as significantly different from each other. I’m like many other people in modern society: we’re paid to become skilled manipulators of symbols. One of the signs of modernity is the degree to which we cease to make anything concrete. A lot of our jobs are about manipulating symbols and putting them into virtual symbolic structures. We are engineers of symbols, if you will. That’s really what most modern jobs are.


NA: This reminds me of a passage about Ano logograms in The Wall of Storms, in the Dandelion Dynasty trilogy—writing as the engineering of thinking.


KL: Yes, that’s actually what most of us do. Each of my jobs was really about constructing machines out of symbols to follow virtual laws and rules.

For example, a programmer arranges symbols to create programs that are artificial machines, virtual machines that achieve a specific purpose. A lawyer does the same thing—they arrange legal concepts into contracts, or pleadings, or briefs that follow the rules of the legal system to achieve a certain result. Whether that serves your client, or persuades a decision-maker to agree with you, it’s the exact same process. You’re always a virtual engineer constructing symbolic machines—and I’ve certainly found that the kind of skills required for all three of these jobs are very similar. Sometimes you’re trying to please an incorruptible piece of hardware, and sometimes you’re trying to please malleable human beings who have different degrees of interpretive freedom. These are all actually the same job.


This article was commissioned by Ben Platt. icon

  1. The quote comes from Louis Menand: “Texts are always packed, by the reader’s prior knowledge and expectations, before they are unpacked.”
Featured image: Ken Liu. Photograph by Lisa Tang Liu