Book Review: The Three-Body Problem

I normally don’t pay attention to awards in real time. If I’m browsing a bookstore and I see that a particular book has won this or that prize, it might push me towards buying it rather than putting it back. But nominees? Voting? Nah. I’m still prioritizing my Classics Club journey through the TIME Top 100 Novels list, so I’m not really up to date on new releases (except the ones I get from NetGalley and Blogging for Books).

But sometimes I catch wind of things and my interest gets piqued. That was the case with The Three-Body Problem—and that was mostly because of the Puppies Hugo debacle. Chinese science fiction? Sign me up!

The Three-Body Problem cover
Image courtesy Tor Publishing

Author: Cixin Liu

Translator: Ken Liu

My GoodReads rating: 4 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.98 stars

Language scaling: B1/B2+

Plot summary: Nanotechnology expert Wang Miao becomes sucked up in a covert government plot, dating back to the Cultural Revolution, to manage humanity’s first contact with an alien race.

Recommended audience: Fans of hard science fiction; people interested in quantum physics.

In-depth thoughts: The Three-Body Problem is a first contact novel that is very much informed by contemporary breakthroughs (the Large Hadron Collider) and theories (quantum entanglement). It’s an interesting companion piece to The Sparrow, where the scientific expertise isn’t in the tech or the theory but in the culture- and race-building.


A comparison between The Three-Body Problem and The Vegetarian is also warranted. Technically, Chinese and Korean are members of different language families (Sino-Tibetan and Koreanic*), but it’s safe to say they are both equally alien to English. Smith and Liu probably faced similar problems regarding not only language but also culture. The Three-Body Problem is steeped in China’s modern history; The Vegetarian in Korean cuisine. Among many other small things, both languages have particular forms of address (especially within families) we don’t use in English.

Ken Liu’s language struck me right away; it’s clear and simple to the point of being choppy. I wasn’t sure if I liked it at fist, but as the story picked up I enjoyed it. Ken Liu and Cixin Liu both give their comments at the end of the novel and Ken Liu discusses the specific issues of translating literary style between cultures with different literary norms and rules:
But there are more subtle issues involving literary devices and narrative technique. The Chinese literary tradition shaped and was shaped by its readers, giving rise to different emphases and preferences in fiction compared to what American readers expect. In some cases, I tried to adjust the narrative techniques to ones that American readers are more familiar with. In other cases, I’ve left them alone, believing that it’s better to retain the flavor of the original.
. . .
The best translations into English do not, in fact, read as if they were originally written in English. The English words are arranged in such a way that the reader sees a glimpse of another culture’s patterns of thinking, hears an echo of another language’s rhythms and cadences, and feels a tremor of another people’s gestures and movements.
. . .
In moving from one language, culture, and reading community to another language, culture, and reading community, some aspects of the original are inevitably lost. But if the translation is done well, some things are also gained — not least of which is a bridge between the two readerships.

Translation notes aside, I only had a small problem with the book. Science fiction has not always been a genre that lends itself to nuanced, mutli-layered characters—often we have a few given archetypes that are faced with a predicament, and the narrative thrust isn’t about their journey as characters but about how the problem is solved. The same tradition seems to have informed The Three-Body Problem as well, though Liu Cixin doesn’t mention any of his science fiction influences or heroes in his afterword. The characters in the story are largely archetypes or just stand-ins; plot points for a story rather than flesh-and-blood people. The exception is Ye Wenjie, who I thought was interesting and compelling. I wish she was in the story more.

Overall it was a great hook for a trilogy. Once I finish Swedish class, I’ll definitely be picking up the sequels as a treat for myself.

*Korean is sometimes grouped in with Altaic languages and sometimes considered its own isolated family. Either way, it’s not linguistically connected to Chinese the same way that English is connected to, say, German.

Things I Talk About With JV: Odyssey and Adventure

11I moved to Sweden to be with JV, my long-term, long-distance partner. (The agonization I have over that particular word choice [“partner”] is worth another blog post, but not today.) He’s fluent in English and Swedish, and something like conversant in Dutch and Japanese. We mostly use English together, and we talk a lot about words.


The other day the topic of 2001: A Space Odyssey came up. I forget why, or whether we were speaking English or Swedish, but he mentioned the Swedish title: 2001 – Ett rymdäventyr.

“‘Ett rymdäventyr’? That’s kind of a crummy translation. It’s not a space adventure. That’s like some Buck Rogers stuff. You couldn’t just use ‘odyssey’ in Swedish?” I thought it over for a second and hazarded a guess. “Odysseyen?”

“I don’t know. The original Odyssey is an adventure, after all.”

“Yeah, but it’s also serious? Dramatic? Epic? An adventure isn’t necessarily those things. When we call something an odyssey in English, it’s usually something epic, or at least long.”

“I guess so. Huh.”

I looked it up just now, and if Swedish Wikipedia is anything to go by, it seems that the movie is indeed called 2001 – Ett rymdäventyr, but Clarke’s novel is 2001 – En rymdodyssé.


Do you think there’s a difference between “adventure” and “odyssey”? How is 2001: A Space Odyssey translated in your native language? Is it like Swedish, where there’s more than one translation?

Translation, Editing, and Voice

I’ve written before about my secret dreams of becoming a translator. (I guess that makes them not so secret anymore.) Truthfully, there is some amount of translation that I do as an editor; many of the projects I work on are from EFL writers, and oftentimes in these cases, editing becomes the translation of the idea or concept that they’ve described into how a typical native speaker might phrase it. This is not to suggest that the manuscripts I work with are garbled messes. They are not! But there are levels of flow and idea organization that can be difficult to achieve in a foreign language–I’ve experienced this firsthand. When I look anything of at least some complexity that I’ve written in Swedish and think about how it would be translated back into English, the result is never a perfect alignment with what I originally had in mind. In fact, it’s often clunky and childish. The struggle is real.

The question is trickier when the English is not clunky or ambiguous; when it sounds like how a native or fluent speaker would actually phrase something; when not only the meaning but the stylistic intention is clear. Is this repetition of a word deliberate, or is it because the writer couldn’t quite reach for an acceptable synonym? Is this unorthodox usage intentional, or is it the result of a misunderstanding? (My Swedish friends will tell you that I default to menar (“mean” as in “intend”) instead of betyder (“mean” as in a neutral dictionary definition or logical consequence). While one could interpret this idiosyncrasy as a poetic attempt to give words or sentences souls and wills of their own, since that’s not entirely impossible to imagine, the truthful answer is that menar is just closer to “mean” and so that’s the one I hit upon when speaking.)

Generally speaking, I prefer to think of my editing as minimally invasive, especially when it comes to EFL clients. In my opinion, as long as your writing successfully communicates your intention, without ambiguity, unintended double entendre, or distracting word choices, then I will leave it untouched. I’m more than happy to recommend style guides and the like if you want to work on developing your English voice–but I want it to be your voice, not mine.

In my undergrad years, I took a fair amount of writing workshop courses. The final project in one of them was to re-read the entire corpus of work a given classmate had produced over the semester and write a little blurb on them and their style, as well as provide detailed, private feedback on their work overall (as opposed to the feedback provided publicly in workshop sessions). We didn’t get to pick our partners for this assignment; this was a mandate from the professor. To this day I’m not sure if it was a random selection or a deliberate pairing, or something in between.

I remember the classmate I was assigned fairly well, and the general tone of his work (abstract, experimental). I might have used the words “ethereal,” “dream-like,” and “otherworldly.” But what I remember really well is what he said about my writing: that I had a really distinctive voice, and that even without looking at the name on the piece he could tell which submission was mine. He phrased it as a negative, and while at the time I was a bit miffed that he thought that was a bad thing, years later I finally understand that it’s rightfully a mixed blessing, especially when editing.

(That “distinctive voice” all but disappears when blogging; apparently I can only coax it out in the privacy of work that never has to see the light of day. As a result, I rarely feel like myself online. But anyway.)

The urge to go to town on a manuscript and move things around to how I would say them would be overwhelming if I ever let it out. In that respect, I’m like an editing Hulk. Or, more appropriately, when I edit, I’m Bruce Banner: by focusing purely on meaning and (sometimes) flow, I keep the HULK REWRITE urge at bay. I stay the mild-mannered word nerd and let your writing take the spotlight, for better and for worse.

Image courtesy Eneas de Troya

I have been known to let the Hulk out, but only after people have explicitly asked me to do so. I recognize that writing, especially creative writing, is personal. There needs to be a level of trust and openness between writer and editor before those kinds of changes should even be on the table. The best creative writing comes from places of vulnerability and uncertainty; if you can’t be vulnerable and uncertain, the writing will fizzle out.

Literal Translations Versus Fixed Phrases

When is a cup not a cup? When is a glass not a glass? Does it depend on what’s inside? What is the balance between literal translation and the adoption of fixed, familiar phrases in the target language?

For example, if a native English speaker were to offer someone tea, there would be a number of different ways to do it. Outlining all of them here would be tedious and beside the point, but I want to focus on which vessel would be named (if named at all). Pop quiz! Fill in the blank:

“Would you like a _____ of tea?”

And let’s put aside partitives like “bit” or “spot”; let’s look specifically at “cup” and “glass.” Is there one you prefer?

For me, and I think for many native speakers, the appropriate semantic unit for tea is a cup. It’s what flows (ha, ha) naturally. And, indeed, we usually have tea in solid, opaque drinking vessels that can’t rightly be said to be made of glass.

Image courtesy Miya

So the discussion over on DuoLingo’s Russian partitive lesson about glass and tea is fascinating and (as of this blog post) has over 100 comments!

Here is the explanation of the vocabulary word “стакан” (stakan):

Russian differentiates between a number of drinking vessels. Стакан is what you call a “glass” in English: typically, a cylindrical vessel made of glass, with no handle.

But when faced with an expression that would literally be translated as “a glass of tea,” should you translate the words literally, or translate the concept of “a vessel of tea” into the most common and most likely English phrase?


Of course, the point of DuoLingo is to teach you vocabulary and grammar, not to teach you how to translate longer pieces of writing in context. To that end, it sacrifices a natural-sounding English answer to drive home the difference (in Russian) between a “glass” and a “cup.”

But for many users (myself included) it just feels…wrong. This question has a few simultaneous discussions of essentially this issue; this one is the most typical and the most informative.

duolingo-glass-tea-2 duolingo-glass-tea-3


Things also segued into how tea is consumed globally, with users from other parts of the world (north Africa and Turkey, among others) pointing out that having tea in a glass—the “cylindrical vessel made of glass, with no handle” described by DuoLingo—is commonplace where they live.

Black tea in Turkey. // Image courtesy Henri Bergius

So if DuoLingo is insisting on a subtlety that sounds unnatural to many English speakers because of the customs of our particular countries (to have tea in one kind of vessel but not other), how about in translation? If I’m reading a story where the character in the original Russian has a стакан of tea, has something of the nuance or subtlety been lost if the translator chose “cup of tea” instead of “glass of tea”? Is the purpose of a translation to remain as literally faithful as possible to an original (to translate), or to take a story and convey its concepts in the most natural way possible in a target language (to localize)?

I think the same day I stumbled over this thorny issue on DuoLingo, someone shared an article from the New York Review of Books on new attitudes on Russian to English translation and the work of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. This is the same issue writ large; it’s moved from mere teacups and glasses to entire sentences and syntax. It’s turtles all the way down, only instead of turtles it’s semantics.

There is also the question, again, of who an English translation is really for. Considering the prevalence of English worldwide (and the fact that non-native speakers vastly outnumber the native speakers), I don’t think we can rightly claim that an English translation is first and foremost for native speakers. Should native ear qualms over a glass of tea, or larger issues of “awkwardness” or clunkiness, really matter?


My Favorite Books of 2015, According to GoodReads

It took me a long to realize it, but I love organization. Specifically, I love record-keeping: diaries, lists, even some sad attempts at scrapbooking. One of my favorite record-keeping tools is GoodReads. Reading is important to me, and being able to keep track of what I read, when I read it, and what I thought about it is immensely satisfying for reasons I can’t really identify. Since 2007, everything I’ve read has been meticulously rated and catalogued. One unintended result of this records obsession is that I can effortlessly track my reading habits and trends. What were my favorite and least favorite books in a given year? What did I read the most of?

My Favorite Books of 2015

Image courtesy semiphoto on MorgueFiles

I gave only four 5-star reviews last year: Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale For the Time Being (quite recent), NoViolet Buluwayo’s We Need New Names (also quite recent), Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano (not so recent), and Pär Lagerkvist’s Barabbas (also not so recent).

February 2015: Under the Volcano, Malcolm Lowry

It’s been my goal for the last few years to read every novel on the TIME Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century list, which is how I stumbled across Under the Volcano. As a revered English classic, the book needs no selling, no praise, no recommendation.

What struck me was Lowry’s complex and intricate prose and the examination of expatriate life. Having lived for a few years in South Korea, the genre of “expats and tourists behaving badly” holds a special place in my heart: The Sun Also Rises, The Sheltering Sky, Tropic of Cancer, and Giovanni’s Room were some of my favorite reads in my tour of 20th century English literature. Under the Volcano is part of that genre, but also more. It’s a lyrical character study, a sympathetic, heart-wrenching exploration of alcoholism and interpersonal relationships, and a study of Mexican politics in the 1930s.


May 2015: A Tale for the Time Being, Ruth Ozeki

I think the only reason A Tale for the Time Being isn’t on the TIME Top 100 list is because it was published in 2013 and the TIME list was assembled in 2005. I hope so, anyway.

In brief, A Tale for the Time Being is about a woman in Canada, Ruth, who finds and reads a diary that washed up along the coast. It turns out to be written by a Japanese schoolgirl, Nao, some years earlier.

Of course it’s also about much more than that. There’s prehistoric flora, quantum entanglement, philosophy, Zen monks, and insects (among others). But everything falls under that found diary and Ruth’s relationship to it.

Ozeki displays an incredible technical range. She ends up writing from the perspective of five different people (not all of them are equally prominent; I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that the book focuses primarily on two of them, so the book is much more focused than it sounds like it would be with five different protagonists) and gives them all incredibly distinct and personal voices. There are other metatextual indications when the writing shifts perspective, like a different font or a chapter title or so on, but Ozeki gives each of them a strong enough voice that you would be able to tell anyway.

A Tale for the Time Being is not only a technical achievement, though. Ozeki also creates a compelling story. After rationing out portions of the book like literary chocolate, at maybe halfway through I just binged and read the whole thing. I might have cried. (As in: I cried.)

If you’re in the mood for experiments with narrative form, bildungsroman, or a sampling of Japanese history and philosophy, A Tale for the Time Being is for you.


December 4th, 2015: We Need New Names, NoViolet Bulawayo

This book was a mostly-random selection from the “world literature” shelf at the library. “Mostly-random” because I’d heard a little buzz about it beforehand; enough that I checked this book out when I couldn’t find anything from my TIME Top 100 list. (It seems Stockholm biblioteket’s copy of The Buddha of Suburbia is lost forever.) Like A Tale for the Time Being, I think We Need New Names would be a strong contender for an updated and more diverse TIME Top 100 list.

We Need New Names is about the Zimbabwean Darling, first as a child in Zimbabwe and later as a teenager in the United States. Bulawayo’s short story “Hitting Budapest” won the Caine prize, and she later expanded it into a novel. The book lends itself to comparisons with Adichie’s Americanah; I think readers who like one will like the other. The difference (aside from setting) is in focus: Bulawayo focuses on details and short episodes, leaving much implied or suggested, while Adichie went for a grand epic of everything. Bulawayo’s voice is also unique and clear. For a sample, you can read “Hitting Budapest” online.


December 27th, 2015: Barabbas, Pär Lagerkvist

This one was a reread for me. You might recall my earlier lament that Lagerkvist English translations are few and far betweenBarabbas is one of his works that has an English translation, and a good one at that. That’s how I originally read it in university. Last year I picked up a copy from the library to give it another go, this time in the original Swedish. Lagerkvist’s style is sparse and straightforward, and the novel itself is quite short, so it was good Swedish practice for me. Likewise the English translation would be good English practice.

Barabbas is the story of Barabbas, the criminal who walked free while Christ was crucified. Lagerkvist tells us the story of this marginal figure, exploring the issues of faith, doubt, and belief through Barabbas’s struggle to understand his fate and the nascent Christian faith.

What were your favorite books that you read in 2015? Are you on GoodReads? If you like, you can follow me there.

“The Invoice”: Thoughts on Translation and Localization

In my private life, I follow a lot of book bloggers. Sometime last year, at least one of them brought The Room to my attention. No, not Tommy Wiseau’s “masterpiece.” This The Room is a novel by the Swedish Jonas Karlsson. The premise sounded interesting and I looked high and low for the original Swedish edition, only to turn up empty-handed. I shrugged and moved on to other things.

One of those other things was NetGalley. I finally bit the bullet and signed up a few months ago. I could rationalize that decision with “it’s important to stay abreast of literary trends when you’re an editor” but really I just wanted free ebooks. (When you live outside the US and Canada, you don’t get the free physical copies.)

Last week I noticed a new title in the Literary Fiction section: The Invoice, by Jonas Karlsson. I recognized his name immediately and requested the book as a way to give him a test run. I was also curious about how the translation was handled, as my luck with English translation of contemporary Swedish books (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) has been much worse than with English translations of Swedish classics (Doctor Glass). Where would The Invoice fall in this spectrum?

Image courtesy Crown Publishing
Image courtesy Crown Publishing

The answer: somewhere in the middle.

In the case of The Invoice, there was something clunky and choppy about the writing. I noticed it, frowned, and continued reading, because at least it didn’t use any archaic or awkward turns of phrases I had seen elsewhere, and by elsewhere I mean in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. (No one uses “anon” anymore; at least, not to mean “soon.”) I eventually stopped noticing the choppiness, but only because something bothered me even more: an uncomfortable mix of American and British English.

I’m all in favor of standardizing English; it would make my job (both as a tutor and as an editor) that much easier. But we haven’t accomplished that standardization yet, and while usage may dictate rules, I don’t think individual publishers deciding on their own “blends” will successfully further the International English cause. When it comes to The Invoice, this blend was:

  • American spelling
  • American punctuation
  • British terms

So we had a character walking into a gray granite building, taking a lift up to the eleventh floor, and talking to a Mr. Something-or-other.

This is a minor quibble on my part, I realize. Once I figured out was going on, I was able to put my discomfort in a box and read the story for the sake of the story. It certainly didn’t hamper my understanding in any way. But I think it’s a point worth discussing: when translating into English, how much should consistency and localization matter?

What we have here is a failure to communicate. // Image courtesy Matthew Hull.
What we have here is a failure to communicate. // Image courtesy Matthew Hull.

After all, I had no trouble understanding the writing. The differences between British and American English have been thoroughly documented, to the point where any adult English-speaking reader (usually) knows there are differences and can (usually) switch between the two without difficulty. And how many people, exactly, really notice those differences? Literature translated into English isn’t done for the exclusive sake of native speakers. There is a huge market for non-native speakers as well; readers who might not be attuned to the differences, or who might prefer “color” and “analyze” but also “lorry” and “dustbin.” Does that make the distinction between conventions nothing more than a shibboleth on par with “rules” about ending sentences in prepositions?

For me, not quite, though I couldn’t give you a satisfactory answer as to why. I just like consistency! (Hobgoblin of a little mind it may be.) If I had been working on this project, I would have favored American terminology and made the appropriate changes, with a comment explaining why.

I asked other editors (informally) and the majority response seemed to be that this was an inconsistency, and one that “should” be rectified, validating my own thought on the issue. A not-insignificant portion replied that they had been instructed to mix conventions in similar ways, or had heard of that happening to other editors. I was surprised to learn that this is something that deliberately happens, but if that’s how a publisher or author wants to roll, that’s what they’re allowed to do.

But something that bothers word nerds might not bother the general public, so I put this question out to you, Internet: how do you feel about mixing different English conventions?

Legal “CYA” moment: in case context didn’t make it clear, I received a free preview copy of The Invoice in exchange for honest feedback and review. The translation issue I described here (in as much as it’s an “issue”) may be addressed by the time the book goes to print.

Han Kang’s “The Vegetarian” Wins the Man Brooker Prize; I Daydream About Korean Translations

Han Kang speaking at an event in 2014.
Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons and user Ccmontgom

Han Kang’s The Vegetarian has been making the rounds on the book blog corners of the Internet for a while now, so I’m not that surprised to see it win the prestigious Man Brooker Prize. What is more surprising is the story of the English translator:

The book was translated by Deborah Smith, who only started teaching herself Korean in 2010.

She said she initially tried to translate the book for a publisher after only learning Korean for two years, but the translation was “awful”.

However, after publisher Portobello Books asked her if she had a Korean book that would be “right for their list”, she had another go at translating a year later.

Translating can be a tricky business. Even in neighboring languages there are discrepancies—when does “jag orkar inte” mean “I don’t want to,” and when does it mean “I don’t feel like it,” and when does it mean “I can’t be bothered”?—with languages from two different language families, the gulf will only widen. An artful translation that maintains all of the nuances of the original is a difficult task, and it seems like Smith succeeded. (“Seems like,” I say: I leave it to the bilingual readers to determine if she actually succeeded.)

I’ll admit, for a few years now it’s been my pipe dream to foster more translations of Korean literature into English. Smith’s success has rekindled the hopes I have for that pipe dream (there are Korean courses at Stockholms universitet! was my first thought on reading the news) and I find myself daydreaming a little. But maybe the daydream is more about attaining enough Korean fluency to enjoy a whole new realm of literature, and less about actually translating anything.

At any rate, there is certainly plenty of work to be done when it comes to Swedish literature in translation. There is far more in the Swedish literary tradition than Astrid Lindgren and gritty crime novels, after all. It’s a sad state of affairs when Pär Lagerkvist, one of the foremost Swedish authors of the last century and a Nobel prize winner, is still incompletely translated into English. I would love to bring his work, or help somebody else bring his work, to a larger international audience.

Pär Lagerkvist
Justice for Pär!

Again, congratulations to Han and Smith. I look forward to devouring (hah, hah) The Vegetarian in the near future, and I wish them much success, literary and otherwise.