The "Heroic Translators" Who Reinvented Classic Science Fiction In China

When early science fiction novels were first translated into Chinese, the translators took a lot of liberties with the material, reinventing Jules Verne for Chinese readers. Author Ken Liu (The Grace of Kings) explains how this helped inspire him, in turn, to reinvent Chinese traditions for Western fantasy readers.

Top image: Le Voyage dans la Lune, art by Georges Melies

The Age of Heroic Translation

Translation is not often thought of as a creative act – indeed, in the Age of Google Translate, many believe that translation is a mechanical process that can be carried out effectively with fast processors and big data.


However, the most difficult and interesting aspects of translation are not linguistic, but cultural. Statistical methods relied on by programs like Google Translate require vast corpora of text in multiple language pairs, all expressing the same thoughts. Such corpora do not spring out of thin air: they’re the result of many translators working over many generations negotiating correspondences between languages. When ideas expressed in the source language have no equivalent expression in the target language, translators must transform and grow the target language to accommodate them (or at least their understanding of such novel ideas), and in this process, the target culture is changed.

Modern translation scholars are increasingly shifting their attention from the mechanical aspects of linguistic manipulation to deeper analysis of translation as cultural performance. When the cultures being mediated by the translator are very distant from each other, the translator must take audacious, bold steps to bridge the gap.


Such was the situation faced by the late 19th and early 20 th century translators who brought Western science fiction—a new literary form with no equivalent in traditional East Asian literatures—into Japan and China. The freeform translation style they used, so distinct from later translation efforts, came to be called “heroic translation” (豪傑譯).

After the Meiji Restoration of 1868, Japanese intellectuals and officials began a massive program of modernization to learn from the technologically superior West. Western ideas and knowledge began to be imported into Japan via an unprecedented translation effort. Works of fiction also got translated because they introduced Japanese readers to Western ways of thinking and familiarized them with the world outside of the Empire’s shores. Science fiction and adventure novels by authors like Jules Verne were especially popular as they introduced scientific thinking to the modernizing population. Le tour du monde en quatre-vingts jours was even turned into kabuki plays. [1]


What were these translations like?

Scholar Jeffrey Angles writes [2]:

Late nineteenth-century translations from Japan are often not transparent at all; the translations themselves foreground the translator’s process of adapting and negotiating the meaning of the original work. Considering the massive linguistic and cultural gaps that existed between Japan and the West at that time, this only makes sense. Words did not yet exist in Japanese to represent all necessary concepts and even when they did the exact structure, content, and cultural background of the Western texts was often difficult to comprehend or to reproduce. … As a result, many early Meiji-period translators chose to engage the original European texts on their own terms by modifying the structure and form to fit Japanese tastes.


Translators felt free to delete, adapt, rewrite, amend, and experiment in myriad other ways as they struggled to convey an entirely new culture for their audience while re-inventing Japanese on the fly. Indeed, for today’s readers, who have grown up with the ideal of the self-effacing translator acting as a transparent lens through which the original may be perceived with as little distortion as possible, many Meiji-period translations were so different from the source text that they could scarcely be called translations.


A generation later, after China’s humiliating defeat in the Sino-Japanese War (1894–1895), leading Chinese intellectuals like Liang Qichao believed that China’s sclerotic culture and general backwardness could only be remedied via a massive infusion of Western ideas and thoughts. And due to Japan’s cultural similarity to China, many believed that the fastest path to learn from the West was to translate Western works from Japanese as an intermediary. Liang argued that translating Western fiction, including science fiction, into Chinese was critical because foreign fiction was a tool to transform the thinking of the people, and the Chinese mind was diseased and in need of revolutionary medicine. Like their Japanese predecessors, they had to bridge a cultural gap that neither Classical nor vernacular Chinese seemed capable of filling.

Liang Qichao argued that it was necessary (and possible) to adapt Western works freely to fit the form of traditional Chinese narratives so that they could be understood by the audience without loss of meaning. He applied this philosophy to his free translation of Jules Verne’s Un Capitaine de quinze ans (《十五小豪杰》, or “Little Hero Fifteen”), and the audacious style of translation-cum-adaptation came to be known as “heroic translation.” [3]


The Age of Heroic Translators had arrived.

An Example: Jules Verne’s De la terre à la lune

Let’s take a look at heroic translation with an example taken from Verne’s De la terre à la lune (1865). Here’s the first sentence of the original French:

Pendant la guerre fédérale des États-Unis, un nouveau club très influent s'établit dans la ville de Baltimore, en plein Maryland.


And here is a fairly literal English translation by Lewis Mercier and Eleanor E. King (1873):

During the War of the Rebellion, a new and influential club was established in the city of Baltimore in the State of Maryland.


The following Japanese translation was published by Inoue Tsutomu (井上勤) in 1886. Inoue worked from an English translation (which I have not been able to locate).


Back-translated into English (credit for the back translation goes to Lisa Tang Liu), the first two sentences read:

In the midst of the United Provinces of America's War of Independence, in a place called "Baltimore" that was the capital city of "Maryland," a province within the United Provinces, a most awe-inspiring new club was established.


This is actually a fairly close rendering (Inoue reserves his heroism for elsewhere). But note that Inoue introduced two mistakes (probably due to imperfect knowledge): 1) confusing the War of Independence with the Civil War, and 2) mistaking Baltimore for Maryland’s capital. The process of cultural negotiation and linguistic adaptation is filled with such pitfalls. (As a side note, while it is true that English translations of Verne’s original during the 19 th century were often quite bad, it does not seem plausible that Inoue inherited these errors from the English translator since English translators were unlikely to confuse the Civil War with the American Revolution).


With the move from Japanese to Chinese, we encounter the writer Lu Xun, generally considered the “father” of modern Chinese literature. Lu Xun was also one of the first Chinese to fall in love with science fiction. In 1903, as a 22-year-old medical student in Japan who had studied Japanese for only a year, he translated Verne’s De la terre à la lune based on Inoue’s Japanese version. Lu Xun thought of the act of translation as a vital piece of the revolutionary work of introducing scientific thinking to the Chinese:

The typical reader is bored by the tediousness of science books and cannot finish them. But when dressed up in the form of fiction, the science can seep into readers’ minds without boring them. … As the reader’s heart is touched, the reader gains insight and wisdom without taxing the mind, knowledge that would break down legacy superstitions, improve their thoughts, and supplement our culture. What a powerful tool is such fiction!

- Lu Xun, Preface to From the Earth to the Moon

Like the Japanese translators before him, he engaged in a second level of adaptation and re-creation as he transformed the Japanese text into Chinese. I’ve back-translated the equivalent to the first sentence of the original Verne into English below:

Anyone who has studied world geography and history knows of a place called America. As for the American War of Independence, even children know that it was an earth-shattering event, a deed that ought to be recalled often and never forgotten. Now, among all those states that participated in the war, one of them was called Maryland, whose capital, Baltimore, was a famous city teeming with crowds and packed with the traffic of horses and carriages. In this city was a club, magnificent in appearance, and as soon as you saw the high-flying American flag flapping in the wind in front, you naturally felt a sense of awe.


This is not anything we’d call a “translation.” In addition to retaining Inoue’s errors, Lu Xun greatly elaborated on the original, paying little heed to fidelity to the source text. But these additions make sense in historical context: the geography and history of the United States might be assumed to be basic background knowledge for the French or British reader, but not for the Chinese reader. Lu Xun not only needed to give his audience a sense of the bustle and importance of Baltimore, he also apparently felt that he needed to editorialize a bit on the impact of the American Revolution. This intrusive narrative voice also imitates Chinese novels, which draw on the tradition of oral storytellers.


Such elaborations are only the beginning. In order to conform the novel to Chinese expectations, Lu Xun recast it as a traditional Chinese novel by introducing each chapter with a couplet that summarizes the action. The couplet for this first chapter, for example, reads:

Lamenting peace, members reminisce about the past;

Breaking silence, the president sends them a letter.

And furthermore, at the end of the scene in which the gun club members lament that peace has made their skills unnecessary, Lu Xun adds the following commentary:

The Jin Dynasty poet Tao Yuanming once wrote:

The Jingwei bird carries twigs, vowing to fill the vast sea;

The hero Xingtian waves his axe, courage everlasting.

The poem seems to describe the spirit of the club members.

Jingwei is a figure from Chinese mythology, the Yellow Emperor’s youngest daughter. It was said that she drowned in the sea and turned into a bird after she died, dedicating herself to the task of filling in the sea to avenge her death, one tiny twig at a time. Xingtian is another mythological figure who, after a failed rebellion against the Yellow Emperor, was beheaded. But even in death, the indomitable hero refused to yield. Using his nipples as eyes and his bellybutton as his mouth, the headless warrior waved his axe blindly against the heavens in an eternal dance of defiance.


By alluding to these mythological figures, Lu Xun added a layer of revolutionary defiance to the restlessness felt by the gun club members in peace. The use of Chinese mythology to describe the emotional state of Western characters may seem incongruous to a modern reader, but for Lu Xun’s audience, it served as a way to bridge the strange ( a club dedicated to the design of artillery!) with the familiar, and harked back to the way such poetic allusions are commonly used in Chinese novels to add layers of meaning. The translator was engaged in heroic deeds.


These changes are still relatively minor compared to the way Lu Xun condensed and eliminated entire sections, plotlines, and skipped over lengthy discussions of scientific principles—ironic, given the stated purpose of introducing science to readers via science fiction. The final “translation” produced by Lu Xun was much shorter than Inoue’s version. But Lu Xun had the writer’s instinct for what his readers could tolerate. As he wrote in his preface: the “tediousness of science books” had to be avoided because the key was to introduce the spirit of rational thinking to his readers while keeping them entertained, and his readers at the time were not ready for lengthy science lectures.

Though such changes by translators would not be acceptable to us, Lu Xun’s translation reads lively and graceful. What it lacks in fidelity to the source is more than makes up in audacious narrative energy. I began reading the translation as a matter of curiosity and for research, but found myself quickly absorbed by its energetic style. Perhaps it is not quite Verne’s vision, but it is an excellent novel, and one can easily see why Liang Qichao, Lu Xun, and other late-Qing Dynasty translators chose this approach when they were still in the process of intercultural negotiation and cultural reconstruction.


But during this process of heroic translation, the very language that Lu Xun was using was also being transformed. In his preface, he explained how he found neither vernacular Chinese nor Classical Chinese quite suitable for the entire book, and there were sections of the translation where he used a mix. Even as the heroic translators strove to bring the Western work closer to the audience, they were also moving the audience closer to the work by changing their expectations and the very language they read.


Once Japanese and Chinese cultures and languages—or at least the cultures and languages of the elites—were transformed and westernized by the impact of heroic translation, further works could be translated with more fidelity to the source. Later translators, building on the work of their predecessors, who had re-invented the language and re-educated the readership for them, could take a less heroic stance and fade into the background, letting the translated works speak for themselves, though the “translatedness” of modernity in China never quite faded away, as scholars like Shouhua Qi argue.

As Western ideas and concepts took root in Japan and China, the Age of Heroic Translators came to an end.


Superheroic Translation and The Grace of Kings

Can we take the art of heroic translation beyond literal practice, and use it as a metaphor for creating original work?


My debut novel, The Grace of Kings , is a silkpunk epic fantasy re-imagining of the history and legends surrounding the rise of the Han Dynasty set in a secondary world archipelago. It can, in fact, be understood as an extreme act of heroic translation, a superheroic translation.

The source material for the novel comes from Records of the Grand Historian by Sima Qian, which recounts the Chu-Han Contention, a rivalry between two great kings who were polar opposites in personality, and who would first become allies in a rebellion against the tyrannical Qin before turning against each other. The deeds of the heroes who participated in this war, retold and elaborated over time, form a foundational narrative for Chinese literature the same way that epics like the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Aeneid, and Beowulf form foundational narratives for Western literature.


To re-imagine a foundational narrative in one literary tradition as a new work in another literary tradition required a great deal of thought. In order to pierce through the haze of Orientalism and colonial gaze that has become inseparable from portrayals of China—even fantasy versions—I decided to use a setting that was as far away from continental China as possible: a set of islands in the sea called Dara. I populated Dara with new peoples, cultures, languages, and endowed the world with a new aesthetic and technology vocabulary, which draws upon materials of historic importance to East Asia (bamboo, paper, silk, ox sinew) as well as materials important to seafaring cultures of the Pacific (feathers, shell, fish scales, coconut, coral). The grammar of this language of design imitates biomechanics and the inventions of legendary Chinese engineers like Lu Ban and Zhuge Liang. And because it is fantasy, I added gods and magic.


The result is a world where soaring battle kites lift duelists into the air; bamboo-and-silk airships glide through the starry sky propelled by giant feathered oars, their buoyancy regulated by pulsating gasbags that function like the swim bladders of fish; boats modeled on whales dive beneath the waves, driven by primitive steam engines; gods bicker and manipulate; magical books tell us what is in our hearts; and giant water beasts bring storms and tempests, as well as guide sailors safely to shores. And as this is a story about rebellion and challenge, not a return to the status quo ante, I decided to call the aesthetic “silkpunk.”

And the story is told with a deliberate and liberal melding of narrative conventions and techniques taken from two very different traditions. There are wuxia-style flashback character introductions as well as Anglo-Saxon-style kennings, poems based on Tang Dynasty models as well as songs imitating Middle English lyrics, rhetorical devices taken from Greek and Latin epics as well as formal descriptions reminiscent of Ming Dynasty novels. The POV shifts quickly and freely, the way a pingshu storyteller or a wandering bard would entertain the audience.


I wanted a reader steeped in the Western literary tradition to be eased into something that they recognize as fundamentally different but also feel right at home. As the gap is bridged, the genre itself, I hope, is also expanded.

Ken Liu is an author and translator of speculative fiction, as well as a lawyer and programmer. A winner of the Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy Awards, he has been published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Asimov’s, Analog, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and Strange Horizons , among other places. He lives with his family near Boston, Massachusetts.


Ken’s debut novel, The Grace of Kings, the first in a silkpunk epic fantasy series, will be published by Saga Press, Simon & Schuster’s new genre fiction imprint, on April 7, 2015. Saga will also publish a collection of his short stories, The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories , in November 2015.

[1] See Angles, Jeffrey. "Translation Within the Polyglossic Linguistic System of Early Meiji-Period Japan." Divided Languages? . Springer International Publishing, 2014. 181-205, 190.


[2] Id. at 182.

[3] I thank Xia Jia for helping me understand the background for the history of late Qing Dynasty translations of Western works.


Share This Story