Translating the Alien: Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem

In his “Author’s Postscript” to the English version of The Three-Body Problem, Cixin Liu argues that “[s]cience fiction is a literature that belongs to all humankind. It portrays events of interest to all humanity, and thus science fiction should be the literary genre most accessible to readers of different nations.” Liu is right for so many reasons: science fiction allows us to imagine what’s possible and what might lie beyond our own tiny corner of the galaxy. The genre often includes references to new species, new languages, and new ideas, and challenges us to think about what it means for someone or something to seem “alien.”

“Alien”—that’s a loaded term. It refers to both extraterrestrials and members of our own species. Of course, in its most general sense, “alien” refers to that which is different, strange, and seemingly unknowable. We say “illegal aliens” when we talk about people moving across borders without official permission. We label a concept “alien” when confronted with beliefs and traditions vastly different from our own.

And yet, we are all human beings, and we share the same planet. So how can the term “alien” refer to those who are both like us and radically unlike us? Liu explores this question in depth in TBP, asking us to think more carefully about what it would mean for human civilization to come into contact with an extraterrestrial species. Do we really want it to happen? And how do we know that these aliens would be friendly? Why should they be?

It is this call for a more careful, nuanced discussion of the search for extraterrestrial life that makes The Three-Body Problem stand out from other contemporary first-contact narratives. In fact, TBP is really more about humanity’s internal problems than its unity in the face of the alien. Even in the world of Star Trek, the people of Earth set aside their major differences in order to successfully explore the galaxy, for how could a fractured, fractious planet get anything done?

To Liu, this is the more important effort: we must first figure out how to treat one another with respect and tolerance, and only then should we turn our attention to the stars (“Author’s Postscript”)…And then, “we should be ever vigilant, and be ready to attribute the worst of intentions to any Others that might exist in space.” For there is the “alien” that we know and the “alien” that is truly beyond our comprehension.

Inseparable from this issue of “the alien” is the question of “translation.” What does it mean to translate a text? This question is at the heart of a recent series of interviews in the Los Angeles Review of Books, where translators like Lydia Davis and Edith Grossman discuss their differing approaches and why they believe that translation is, and always has been, important. Ultimately, translations offer us a glimpse into other cultures and ways of thinking. For instance, World War I was a brutal reality for many countries, but its effect was vastly different between, say, France and the U.S. Same war, radically different outcomes. Only by learning more about French history and culture could Americans begin to understand the devastation that the war wrought in France. This inevitably involves translating personal letters, official documents, historical records, and other texts from French into English. Thus translators act as bridges between nations, substituting words for other words in order to convey meaning while striving to retain the spirit of the original.

In the case of TBP, translation is a multi-layered thing. First, translator Ken Liu needed to turn this story originally written in Chinese into a story written in English. Chinese-to-English translation is trickier in some ways than, say, Spanish-to-English, because while English shares an alphabet with the romance languages, it does not in the case of Chinese. While English words are made up of individual letters, each Chinese character represents a monosyllabic word. And then there’s the question of how the U.S. and China’s very different histories have shaped each nation’s worldviews and narratives.

Add to that the secrecy and suspicion inherent in the Cold War and America’s ignorance as to the full extent of events in China during the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward. Only lately have Western scholars gained access to some of China’s archives, and it will take years for us to translate and process such information and then place it in the context of our own history. As Ken Liu writes in his postscript to TBP, “[t]he act of translation involves breaking down one piece of work in one language and ferrying the pieces across a gulf to reconstitute them into a new work in another language. When the gulf separating the two is as wide as the Pacific Ocean that separates China from America, the task can be daunting.” Nonetheless, he has managed to achieve his own translation goal: “The English words are arranged in such a way that the reader sees a glimpse of another culture’s patterns of thinking, hears an echo of another language’s rhythms and cadences, and feels a tremor of another people’s gestures and movements.”

Translating a work of Chinese science fiction, set partly during the Cultural Revolution, into English is, therefore, an impressive feat. Ken Liu had to balance multiple historical, linguistic, and socio-political elements in order to successfully ferry this book across the cultural divide. Plus the story itself is ultimately about translation: that is, turning the threat the Trisolarans face into a comprehensible problem (through the medium of a video game) to garner human support for Trisolaran settlement on Earth.

And yet, the act of translation can take place even within a language. Take, for example, analogies: here one tries to liken one idea/object/event to another to make it more familiar. In TBP, Cixin Liu uses analogy to explain why we humans might be so willing to look to the stars, rather than to ourselves, for our future:

The human race was a naive species, and the attraction posed by a more advanced alien civilization was almost irresistible. To make an imperfect analogy: Human civilization was like a young, unworldly person walking alone across the desert of the universe, who has found out about the existence of a potential lover. Though the person could not see the potential lover’s face or figure, the knowledge that the other person existed somewhere in the distance created lovely fantasies about the potential lover that spread like wildfire. (319)

It is the existence of an ideal, something that can never be fully realized or achieved (a “perfect” one-to-one translation of a novel, for instance) that keeps humanity constantly striving and motivated. Our capacity for imagination allows us to come up with these ideals toward which we strive, and perhaps this is the key to the growth and maturity of the human soul. Perhaps, by the time we do encounter extraterrestrials (if ever), we will be more intellectually and spiritually prepared.

While I myself have never translated a novel, I have studied multiple languages (French, Russian, Italian, Hebrew) and spent a semester trying to translate French Symbolist poetry. Very quickly, I ran into the most basic translation problems: how to capture the spirit of a piece in another language and how to make my translation sound nearly as lyrical as the original. This was one of the most humbling experiences of my academic career, and gave me a better sense of what it means to use language to capture others’ experiences. After all, I could never see the world exactly as, for instance, Baudelaire did because I wasn’t Baudelaire, but I could try to help 21st-century English-language readers see the complex and unsettling beauty of a seedy street in Paris or decaying roadkill (yes, Baudelaire wrote a poem about that).

In a sense, we can think of the act of translation as its own kind of three-body problem: there’s the original language, the language into which the novel will be translated, and the “ideal” translation itself. The ways in which the first two interact will determine the result of the third “body” or text. However, we must also take into account the reader’s knowledge and biases- all of the things that color a person’s approach to a work of fiction in any language. In my own case, I brought what little I knew about China under Mao to my reading of TBP. This reading, though, piqued my interest in this period, and drove me to seek out more knowledge. I can now use what I’ve gleaned from the historical record to more thoroughly appreciate the following two books in Liu’s trilogy.

Ultimately, both translation and science fiction encourage us to at least try to understand the Other and find commonalities in our differences. Our planet and its people provide enough diversity for a lifetime of study and intellectual exchange. The translation into English of TBP helps us move one step closer to Liu’s vision of a united humanity finally ready to face the rest of the universe.

Rachel S. Cordasco earned a Ph.D in Literary Studies from the University of Wisconsin, Madison in 2010, and taught courses in American and British literature, and Composition. She has also worked at the Wisconsin Historical Society Press. A Book Riot and SF Signal contributor, Rachel recently launched a site devoted to speculative fiction in translation. You can follow her @Rcordas and on facebook at Bookishly Witty and Speculative Fiction in Translation.

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