Translating The Three-Body Problem.

The WIRED Book Club asks Is Three-Body Problem’s Translation Better Than the Original? (a somewhat misleading title for an interview with the translator, Ken Liu):

Were there any big changes you made to the translation of The Three-Body Problem?
The first book, as originally published in Chinese, actually comes in a different order. It starts out with the police and army officers asking Professor Wang to join them at the Battle Command Center. All the Cultural Revolution episodes happen as flashbacks. That gave the original Three-Body Problem a very Japanese thriller/detective story kind of feel. But Liu Cixin had always intended for the story to actually start with the Cultural Revolution chapters. He had switched the order only because of concern about whether or not that content would be sensitive. We decided to restore the chapter order, and I like the new structure a lot more. The Cultural Revolution parts are no longer just kind of throwaway flashback exclamations. They are actually the foundation of the story.

It certainly gives American readers footing for the rest of the story …
That’s not how Chinese fans saw it! When I restored the chapter order, a lot of Chinese fans thought that was a mistake. They all thought that starting with the Cultural Revolution would bore American readers.

Was that an issue you struggled with generally?
There’s inherent cultural imbalance whenever you’re translating from Chinese to English. Educated Chinese readers are expected not only to know about all the Chinese references—history, language, culture, all this stuff—but to be well-versed in Western references as well. A Chinese reader can decode an American work with far greater facility than an American reader can decode a Chinese work, on average.

Seems like a problem for the sections about the Cultural Revolution.
Most Americans have very little understanding of what happened—and if they do have some understanding, what they have is very fragmented and biased and incomplete. To really understand Ye’s motivation, you have to know quite a bit about what the Cultural Revolution is and what it meant to people who went through it.

How did you deal with that?
There is a general dislike among American publishing for footnotes in translation. I think the theory is that somehow footnotes interrupt the flow and we don’t want to make the reader feel like they don’t know something. So rather than try to explain, we just prefer not to, or try to cut out the stuff that’s confusing. I refused to do that. I wanted to give readers enough information so that they could then go to Wikipedia or Google it.

I enjoyed the trilogy a great deal (especially the first volume), and I think restoring the original order works well — although I’m an unusual American in that I already knew a great deal about the Cultural Revolution, and an unusual fiction reader in that I like footnotes.


  1. footnotes interrupt the flow
    They do a bit but good footnotes are worth gold and I certainly prefer footnotes on the same page to listed notes by chapter at the back.

    and we don’t want to make the reader feel like they don’t know something
    Jesus H. Christ.

  2. Yeah, I hate that attitude.

  3. Stu Clayton says

    I certainly prefer footnotes on the same page to listed notes by chapter at the back.

    With me that depends on the book and the quantity of notes.

    In the paperback editions of the “Palliser” novels I’m reading, each one has a different system. The notes are always at the back, but in Phineas Finn they were numbered straight through as they appeared in the main text. I found these more convenient to locate than in The Eustace Diamonds, where the notes are grouped by chapter and numbered within each chapter. This means that to consult a note, I first have to figure out what chapter I’m in (chapter headings I usually ignore in a novel). Thank goodness the chapter headings are repeated at the top of the page, which is not always done in books of any kind.

    When footnotes come fast and furious, as in Luhmann, I prefer them on the page.

  4. The ‘location’ of footnotes is not an issue in the modern world of today— just tap the footnote number on your iPad.

  5. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is full of footnotes yelling in the reader’s face that they don’t know something! Here’s the first footnote in the book:

    For those of you who missed your mandatory two seconds of Dominican history: Trujillo, one of the twentieth century’s most infamous dictators, ruled the Dominican Republic between 1930 and 1961 with an implacable ruthless brutality. A portly, sadistic, pig-eyed mulato who bleached his skin, wore platform shoes, and had a fondness for Napoleon-era haberdashery … [footnote continues for half the page] … He was our Sauron, our Arawn, our Darkseid, our Once and Future Dictator, a personaje so outlandish, so perverse, so dreadful that not even a sci-fi writer could have made his ass up. Famous for changing ALL THE NAMES of ALL THE LANDMARKS in the Dominican Republic to honor himself … [footnote continues onto the next page]

    And a few pages later in another footnote:

    … The word came into common usage during the First American Occupation of the DR, which ran from 1916 to 1924. (You didn’t know we were occupied twice in the twentieth century? Don’t worry, when you have kids they won’t know the U.S. occupied Iraq either.) …

    A strong competitor in the category of biggest footnotes in fiction of the 2000s, though beaten by Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. So at least some publishers believe there are readers like you and me. Interrupting the flow is the right thing to do when the reader doesn’t know that they don’t know something.

  6. And don’t forget DFW, master of the endless, self-indulgent footnote.

  7. Stu Clayton says

    The ‘location’ of footnotes is not an issue in the modern world of today—just tap the footnote number on your iPad

    99% of the books I read are not available in e-ditions, and probably never will be. I suppose they would be called “academic” by the non-academic. The forwards and backwards referentiality of the content makes them much easier to work through physically, since I can do whatever I want as I go along, including writing in the margins. The windows/views-plus-markup stuff is standardized for the homme moyen sensuel, and so not good enough for my purposes.

    I much prefer IDEs over CLIs for general-purpose programming and reading code, but not for reading novels.

  8. @ktschwarz: I normally dislike lengthy footnotes, especially in fiction. However, I must admit to being charmed by the inclusion of Tolkien’s, Alexander’s, and Kirby’s dark lords in the commentary.

  9. [footnote continues for half the page]

    My favourite footnotes are long digressions that don’t leave anything out. AJP Taylor’s famous one about George V having the creases at the side seams of his trousers rather than front & back tells you much about the man, but more info would have helped (reasons, all his trousers including uniforms? how was it resolved at the waistband and were there turnups? etc.)
    Interesting about Trujillo’s platform shoes, I thought they’d been invented around about 1970 slightly before Ziggy Stardust & Roxy Music.

  10. John Cowan says

    we don’t want to make the reader feel like they don’t know something

    “Never underestimate the reader’s intelligence, but never overestimate his information.” —attr. Charles Luce and contra H. L. Mencken

  11. Tristram Shandy seems to be almost all footnotes and “long digressions”. Luckily footnotes in novels hadn’t been invented at the time.

  12. David Eddyshaw says

    Very much enjoyed the trilogy myself.

    The technology quite often crosses from the physically impossible (perfectly fine for the genre) to the logically impossible (not so much) but it’s done so well I didn’t mind at all in the end.


    Proust is also pretty much all (wonderful) long digressions. In that respect (but no other) he reminds me of my Scots grandmother, who when telling even the simplest story would embark on digressions and then digressions within digressions whenever she happened to mention anything she thought interesting, and then (in her prime, at any rate) unerringly picking up at the right place again after each turning off, with the precision of a well-written computer program returning from subroutine calls.

  13. Thirty years after reading Sir Richard Francis Burton’s fabulous translation of the Arabian Nights, I still remember the footnotes more than the translation itself. Of course, very few translators have the talent to pull that off.

  14. David Marjanović says

    the notes are grouped by chapter and numbered within each chapter. This means that to consult a note, I first have to figure out what chapter I’m in

    I hate that.

  15. John Cowan says

    The worst case: see footnote reference 22, look at the Table of Contents to see that this page is in Chapter 27, go to the end notes, convert European numerals to Roman (or vice versa), find footnote 22 in chapter XXVII. Thereafter, if you want to check every note, which you do if they are (or some of them are) more than just references, you need three fingers or bookmarks: one for your current position, one for the ToC, one for your place in the endnotes. That’s … awkward.

  16. ‘I first have to figure out what chapter I’m in’ This has been solved by having “footnotes to pages 51 to 67” at the top of the footnotes page. When was that convention invented and why didn’t all publishers instantly adopt it?

    “op. cit.” where the original cit is 27 pages earlier.

  17. “I want this song to be played at my funeral.”

  18. To really understand Ye’s motivation, you have to know quite a bit about what the Cultural Revolution is

    I know quite a bit about what happened during the Cultural Revolution, but I still don’t know what it was.

    Perhaps no footnotes are really needed.

    Uninformed young American reader will get an impression from the chapter that it was just an episode of mass hysteria.

    And maybe that’s all it was.

  19. John Cowan says

    why didn’t all publishers instantly adopt it?

    Because, like copy editing, it benefits the reader at the publisher’s expense.

    A remote “loc. cit.” is even worse than “op. cit”, but I think it is much less used nowadays.

    Inline references like “[Tollemache-Tollemache 2004]” are THE GOOT.

  20. “I want this song to be played at my funeral.”

    Apparently I am missing a cultural reference.

  21. Stu Clayton says

    That was my initial reaction as well. I had seen the expression once on FB, with reference to some particular song. An internet search showed me, however, that it appears to be a trite detail that many people want to “share”. It essentially means “I like this song a lot” in a maudlin kind of way. Death standing in for Desert Island Discs.

    I think Crown may have wanted to demonstrate how useful footnotes are, in that you can dump such boring information in them and so free up the main text.

  22. Charles Shere says

    “ Proust is also pretty much …”
    My French not being up to Proust, I read the Scott Moncrieff translation, in the clothbound two-volume edition; starting with the Guermantes I’ve been checking it every few pages against the original, in a paperback Folio Ed. edition, partly to remind myself how close the translation is, partly to profit from the footnotes in the French edition, which explain and expand on a number of allusions — the politics of the time, the likely models for Proust’s remarkable cast of characters, etc.
    This makes the act of reading resemble (I like to think) the discursive, expansive nature of the author’s act of composition.

  23. I think Crown may have wanted to demonstrate…

    No, no, no. You have to listen to David’s hate link, a song about hating everything & everybody. Someone on Youtube commented, “I want this played at my funeral,” which in my mind’s eye was sort of amusing. I debated whether to add some explanation and came to the wrong conclusion.

  24. John Cowan says

    “I want this song to be played at my funeral.”

    I take it quite literally: Gale has asked me to sing “I sit beside the fire/Á Elbereth Gilthoniel” from The Road Goes Ever On at her memorial service (assuming I am able to attend). I thought I might break down trying, but a friend who is a professional singer was there at the time and volunteered to stand in for me if necessary.

  25. The ‘location’ of footnotes is not an issue in the modern world of today— just tap the footnote number on your iPad.

    Not on my Android with my squint poking finger. Most footnote links are one character wide and my finger is much wider. Inevitably I spend far too long trying to get the link to work, and then spend twice as long getting back to the original page. That’s when I see the link.

    I’d not bother, but if its someone like Terry Pratchett, then I’d miss the jokes.

  26. Perhaps you’d say a few words from Winnie the Pooh at my funeral, John.

  27. John Cowan says

    How about “So they went off together. But wherever they go, and whatever happens to them on the way, in that enchanted place on the top of the Forest a little boy and his Bear will always be playing”?

  28. David Marjanović says

    Someone on Youtube commented

    Ah, but few are the brave souls who read YouTube comments.

  29. That bit always makes me cry but since I’ll be dead it’s a perfect opportunity.

  30. Oops, I missed this post.

    The way it got here is a little circuitous. I discovered on 8 October that a Mongolian translation of The Three-Body Problem had been published in August and I posted about it on Fecebook. Leanne Martin noticed it and immediately decided to read it in English. As background I suggested she might like Ken Liu’s interview. Several weeks later she posted the interview on Fecebook, which Hat seems have picked up and posted here. Such is the power of Fecebook.

    I really liked the interview, especially the part that Leanne quoted:

    My metaphor for translation has always been that translation is really a performance art. You take the original and try to perform it, really, in a different medium. Part of that is about interpretation and what you think the author’s voice really is. I spend a huge amount of energy thinking about how to re-create the voice of the author in a different language and for a different culture.

    I think that is a crucial point: translation isn’t just ‘translation’; it’s a matter of finding the right voice.

    I read the first volume in Chinese (which isn’t actually too difficult, apart from some of the scientific vocabulary), where the sections about the Cultural Revolution definitely had the feeling of tangential flashbacks, like certain other scenes in the book. The weaving together of various types of history (including ancient China and strange scenes from Western philosophy) gave the book an interesting flavour. I guess I now need to read the English translation to find out how starting from the Cultural Revolution might have changed the tone. In the meantime I also need to read the final two volumes in Chinese. Not sure if I really want to tackle the whole thing again in Mongolian…

  31. jdmartinsen says

    The novel as initially serialized in Science Fiction World (May 2006 onwards) ran in the proper order. It was only with the standalone publication two years later that the Cultural Revolution material got moved to less prominent flashback status.

    The second volume of the trilogy gained a new subplot in English to replace one relying on material first introduced in an untranslated earlier novel. The latest Chinese edition incorporates that new material, but the older editions are still out there. Some people are in for a surprise when the film adaptation finally comes out.

  32. Huh! Boy, what a tangled tale.

  33. So I have to buy them all again?

  34. LIke SFreader, I know quite a bit about the Cultural Revolution and yet I still don’t know what it was. No other historical event has so thoroughly resisted my attempts to understand it. Before I die I hope to figure out why big-character posters were so goddamned important.

    But of course I know enough about it for Ye Wenjie’s character and actions to not read as reckless and/or genocidal. Part of the sheer joy of this series is how rooted it is in the particulars of Chinese history and society, even as the story keeps unveiling fantastic new technology and leaps forward in time by centuries.

  35. Exactly!


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