Translation is Betrayal

My work in China this month is incredibly exciting and rewarding, and often challenging as heck! I’ve given a couple of talks on feminist science fiction and been to a couple of other feminist events, in addition to my various adventures on the streets and at cultural sites. 🙂

Tonight, my challenge is that I’m hosting a workshop discussion on translation of Chinese SFF into English. I’m very grateful to the Future Affairs Administration for hosting us. 

Am I a translator? Heck, no. I am learning a little Chinese, as I think is only polite when visiting someone else’s country, but I wouldn’t presume to be able to translate something by myself. There’s a huge minefield there, of appropriation and erasure, which I want to avoid.

What I can do is help people with their translation work, and talk about resources and choices open to them. For many Chinese SFF authors, translating their own work is the most likely route for them to be able to be published in English-reading markets (rather than counting on their publisher or agent to hire a translator). Even if someone is high profile enough to have a translator hired by their publisher, like Liu Cixin, it’s still a good idea to think about the inherent betrayals in translation, as Ken Liu so aptly puts it.

For example, most authors use cultural touchstones in their work — popular mythologies or important historical events within the culture of origin. When translating a passage that describes someone as having the audacity to borrow akin to Liu Bei “borrowing” the Jing Province, a Chinese person would know without having it explained that this means epic “borrowing” sans intention to return the item. How does a translator handle this sort of situation, though? This is one of the topics we’ll discuss tonight.

Because I’m me, I’ll also talk about how interesting it is to translate between English and American Sign Language (something I’m not proficient in, but have a little experience with). This video of “Re: Your Brains” in ASL will be utilized, because I must show this video to everyone possible:

I’m so excited about all the things I’m doing in China, but in particular, working with people on translations is something I do as an editor, and I’m thrilled to host tonight’s discussion at the FAA. I hope this will result in many more Chinese SFF stories being translated into English! 🙂


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