Higgins School ‘Symposium on Translation’ boldly goes into science fiction themes

November 12, 2015

Audiences will soon be pouring into movie theaters to experience the seventh installment of the “Star Wars” saga. But science fiction, even the variety filled with tales of aliens and distant galaxies, is marked by themes that are acutely human, drawing as they do from contemporary culture, deep history and embedded belief systems.

This humanity emerged in “The Cultural Work of Science Fiction: A Symposium on Translation, Negotiation, Appropriation,” held Nov. 6 in Dana Commons. The event was sponsored by the Clark University Higgins School of Humanities and the Science Fiction Research Collaborative.

Presenter Ken Liu, an author and translator, said the science fiction by European writers like Jules Verne was introduced into China as a way to make the “rationality of science” more palatable. The challenge for Chinese authors and translators, like the renowned Lu Xun, was bringing to life concepts that were unfamiliar to Chinese readers.

Translating from English into Chinese also was seen as infusing a superior culture into an inferior one, a remnant of post-colonialism, Liu noted. It was “like injecting medicine into an ill and declining body,” he said, something that never left the Chinese imagination.

A century later, this cross-cultural inferiority continues to manifest itself, even in the way Chinese authors’ names are printed on book jackets (given name then surname, in the European tradition, rather than surname then given name as is custom in China).

Liu, who translated the Hugo Award-winning novel “The Three-Body Problem,” described translation as a “cultural negotiation” in which the translator constantly makes value judgments about what material to use and not use, keeping in mind both the author’s intent and the intended audience.

Also speaking at the symposium was Jeffrey A. Tucker, professor of English at University of Rochester. Tucker recounted the controversies surrounding Mike Resnick’s novel “Kirinyaga: A Fable of Utopia,” which has been subject to competing interpretations since its publication in 1998. The novel has sparked debates about the “ethical quagmire of cultural relativism” and the appropriateness of white authors writing Africa-based speculative fiction, he said.