Ken Liu and Tara Clancy on Translating Fiction and Adapting Bar Stories

I confess that at first I didn’t understand why author and translator Ken Liu was on the same Book Riot Live panel (Truth and Lies and Adaptation) as The Moth storyteller and memoirist Tara Clancy. However, in watching the two—he the author of The Grace of Kings and translator of Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem, she the author of the memoir The Clancys of Queens—in spirited conversation with moderator Andrea Lam, I found myself taking apart and reexamining the definitions of the words translation and adaptation. Rather than apply just to the process of writing, these concepts encompass all manner of professional questions and personal dilemmas: when to code-switch, what to preserve (or not) in translation, and our tendency as readers to project our desires onto authors’ texts.

Perhaps the panel can be best summed up with Liu’s opening statement, cribbed from Italo Calvino translator William Weaver: “Translation is a performance art.” But whereas other forms of performance art make it clear what is gained with the performance—setting Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night on a space station, or choosing an unconventional instrument to play Mozart—with translation “you start with the text and end with the text.” Especially in the case of monolingual America, Liu said, “Most of us do not in fact read another language, and so when we read a translation we have no way of knowing what has been changed or added.” He went on, “The suspicion, I think for most readers, is the translator is subtracting instead of adding. […] I think according to some people, the best translator is one that does not exist.”

The Paper Menagerie Ken LiuIn fact, Liu believes that translators add a huge amount by allowing readers to acquire new contexts and new meanings. Take the Bible, with competing translations that all claim to be authoritative. Yet here Liu pointed to an apocryphal story about T.S. Eliot (included in his collection The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories), in which Eliot had the opportunity to help revise Psalm 23. Rather than come up with a more exact translation for “I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” the committee kept the embellished version because those words had acquired so much meaning in the English language, representing part of a new linguistic context and a particular culture of readership.

Clancy is more than familiar with performance art: “I told stories before I wrote the stories,” she said. As a fifth-generation New Yorker and third-generation bartender, she got her first education in storytelling listening to the yarns at the local bar. “Telling stories—that’s what one does in bars,” she said. “That was the entertainment. We didn’t have jukeboxes, we didn’t have televisions.” Watching the regulars come together and swap stories—”that was high art.” Even more important was observing “that one drunk guy who told the same story every Saturday night,” she said, because she watched him hit the mark every time; as he crafted it and refined it through repetition, it got better.

Tara Clancy The Clancys of QueensWith live storytelling, Clancy said, the assumption is that people want to keep that off-the-cuff feeling, for fear of seeming fake. Her approach, however, challenges that assumption: “There is no shame in doing it over and over and over again,” she said. “It’s like your grandpa—your grandpa told that story a million times.” Many of her stories made it into The Clancys of Queens, but compiling her memoir has been a radically different experience than honing her material in front of a live audience: “When I write a story, nobody claps.”

Compromises with language was a topic over which Clancy and Liu bonded, despite coming to it from very different spheres of experience. “My voice, as you can obviously tell within a few seconds, is its own character,” she said, pointing out that her New York accent is its own signifier of class: “People hear my accent, they know I’m not a neurosurgeon—the end.” Ridiculed in college—the first time she even realized she had an accent—she first tried to drop it, then decided to embrace it after a professor laughed at her while reading Shakespeare. And yet, she still finds herself code-switching in various situations: Telling a story (or yelling at her three-year-old) might put her at an 11; normal is a 5; disputing a charge with her health insurance company is a 2. “I can go a bit bougie,” Clancy said to knowing laughter, but “that comes with a certain dose of inner conflict, because I know you’re not going to perceive me as intelligent with my accent.”

Liu’s issues with compromise are less about his own identity but are no less personal in their scope. There’s an ongoing debate about what translators are supposed to do with regard to preserving original voice in a translation he explained. “Honestly, I’ve completely given up any of that,” he said, “because trying to be faithful to the original is actually a very fraught concept to begin with, because there are many different ways of being faithful, and not everybody agrees on what that means.”

He has wrestled with this expectation when translating works by prominent Chinese sci-fi authors including Cixin Liu and Xia Jia: “Do you try to preserve the feel for the original in that you want the target reader to feel the same thing that the reader in the original source context did? Well, I’m sorry, that’s not possible, because we don’t share that history in the U.S., and as audiences and readers from a culturally ascendant and dominant culture, it is impossible for us to replicate what being a reader in the peripheralized and colonialized environment feels like.” In short: “There is no way for me to replicate for you what a sentence reads like for a Chinese reader.”

The Three-Body Problem Cixin Liu Ken LiuHe has attempted, however, to contextualize his translations through the use of footnotes. Liu shared two examples from the Three-Body Trilogy: (1) A scene from Death’s End where a man wears a Zhongshan suit, better known in the U.S. as a “Mao suit.” Liu opted to keep the pinyin so as not to create the association with Chairman Mao. (He also shared this anecdote in more detail here.) (2) An exchange between two characters during the Cultural Revolution who realized they could not shoot something into the sun because it was considered a representation of Mao at the time, and it would be seen as a political gesture rather than an experimental one.

“We have a tendency of projecting our desires for what the author should be saying onto the text,” Liu explained. He pointed to a 2014 New York Times op-ed, in which the writer made generalizations about the Chinese as collectivists and Americans as individualists, and how that relates to readers’ impressions of the Three-Body Trilogy. He seeks to avoid reading too much into texts in this way, instead asking himself, “Am I furthering a narrative that is a narrative of us versus a narrative of the time?”

Lam concluded the panel by asking both Clancy and Liu how they combat monolingual assumptions about the texts that they translate. Clancy was “motivated to write when I realized the lack of my voice in literature,” pointing out that “the last notable book written by a New York working-class woman” was Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, published in 1943.

Invisible Planets Ken Liu“My process is very easy,” Liu said of compiling the contents for Invisible Planets, his collection of contemporary Chinese sci-fi in translation: “I pick stories I like.” It’s neither a best-of nor a comprehensive compendium, because “I had neither the time nor the skills nor the interest to do that sort of thing.” It helps that the stories chosen encompass a variety of subject matter: hard SF, fairy tale fabulism, aliens, ghosts, cyborgs, alternate history.

An audience member added a fascinating extra layer to the conversation: What about audiobooks? Do they have a say in who is chosen to perform the text?

“I’m OK with not having control over it,” Liu said. “You have to trust the performer to make her own independent, creative judgments. […] You’re not there with the audience, and you can’t make those decisions.”

“I had so many problems with my audiobook narrator,” Clancy deadpanned. “It’s me, guys. It’s me.”

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