How Ken Liu went from engineer to lawyer to SF writer to the foremost translator of Chinese sf into English

Ken Liu went from university to a software engineering job at Microsoft, then to some startups, then to Harvard Law, where he got a JD and went into practice as a litigation consultant on tech cases — all the while, writing and selling sf stories.

Liu didn't think he would make a living from his fiction, but then he got a cold-call from a Chinese sf publisher asking him if he'd translate Cixin Liu's blockbuster novel The Three Body Problem; Liu's translation and the powerful source material turned the book into a monster English-language bestseller, a Hugo winner, and a calling card for more translation work in the years to come.

Since then, Ken Liu has become a Chinese-to-English powerhouse in the large, vibrant, fraught field of Chinese sf. Ken Liu was born in northwest China and left at the age of 11, moving to Palo Alto, and is fluent in Mandarin and was always a voracious reader.

Ken Liu's success is owed in part to his fluency — both linguistic and literary — but also to his own prodigious writing talents, which allow him to be interpreter as much as translator. Ken Liu's translations are often impressionistic, rather than literal, and he sometimes offers editorial advice on the books he translated. His edition of Three Body Problem drastically re-orders the scenes compared to the Chinese edition, which was heavily edited. Ken Liu suggested the re-ordering and was enthusiastically received by Cixin Liu, who revealed that Ken Liu's suggestion would restore the book to its original, pre-edited plot — today, Cixin Liu recommends that his Chinese readers seek out Ken Liu's English translation over the Chinese edition.

Ken Liu has translated and introduced many more Chinese writers since Three Body Problem, and is almost single-handedly responsible for a surge in popularity of Chinese sf in the English-speaking world. Along the way, Liu has helped Chinese authors restore politically sensitive plot elements that were changed or omitted for Chinese publication, and has also translated Chinese stories that never appeared in China due to their political content.

This is a fascinating recapitulation of SF's history: the field has always been a haven for heterodox political views (as well as virulent, reactionary ones) and writers like Rod Serling used the field to smuggle politically unacceptable ideas into the popular discourse.

But things appear to be changing: Liu was recently denied a visa to visit the country and scout new books, a first for him. Chinese writers whose work he's translated have reported that they're not receiving the contributor copies sent by their US publishers.

The New York Times's Alexandra Alter does a very good job of conveying Liu's circumspect but unmistakable concern that the Chinese writers he works with could face retaliation for the political content of their work.

"The political climate inside China has shifted drastically from when I first started doing this," Liu says. "It's gotten much harder for me to talk about the work of Chinese authors without putting them in an awkward position or causing them trouble." Liu usually travels to China at least once a year to network and meet new writers, and has attended the Chinese Nebula and Galaxy Awards, the country's most well known science-fiction prizes. But this year he was denied a long-term visa, without explanation, prompting him to cancel his planned trip.

In another alarming setback, when his American publisher tried to send copies of his recent translations to writers in China, the shipments failed to arrive. It was unclear whether the books were seized or simply disappeared into a bureaucratic black hole. Liu finally managed to get copies distributed through visiting Chinese friends, each of whom carried a few copies back in their suitcases. In April, when I met Liu at the Museum of Chinese in America, he seemed irritated by the cumbersome workaround, which he called "preposterous."

But later, when I asked if he felt he was being blacklisted by the Chinese government because of his translation work, Liu deflected and declined to speculate. "I don't want to magnify the problem," Liu told me, as we sat in a cafe a few blocks from the museum. "If the authors want to say something daring, then I will honor that, but I'm not going to impose my own politics on them. There's a lot of room to say what you want to say if you leave things ambiguous."

How Chinese Sci-Fi Conquered America [Alexandra Alter/New York Times]