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Sci-fi translation in China: From ‘bringing in’ to ‘going out’

LI QIN | 2022-11-25 | Hits:
Chinese Social Sciences Today

FILE PHOTO: The cover of the English edition of Chinese science fiction writer Liu Cixin’s Hugo Award-winning work San Ti, translated as The Three-Body Problem

Translations are products of social and cultural contexts. They play an important role in shaping society and culture. Translation of science fiction in China didn’t begin with a consciousness of literary translation, but arose out of a need for cultural enlightenment. In other words, translation of science fiction in China was originally utilitarian. From the later stage of the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911) to the Republic of China Era (1912–1949), on to the period following the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, science fiction translation served successively to enlighten the people, enrich literary culture, and popularize science. 

Following reform and opening up, particularly since the dawn of the 21st century, the rapid development of science and technology has brought science fiction to public consciousness as a literary form, while people’s understanding of science fiction gradually matures. As a result, translations of science fiction, fueled by cultural exchanges, have experienced a new boom. Through translation, Chinese science fiction has been disseminated overseas and connected to the genre’s mainstream in the international arena, showcasing its own charm to the world. 

Cultural enlightenment in late Qing

Science fiction reflects the development of science and technology in the humanities, and encapsulates the progress of science in culture. In the late Qing Dynasty, China’s society, science, and technology were so underdeveloped that it lacked the prerequisite soil for the germination of science fiction. Not until Western powers’ advanced weapons blew open the gate to China did a host of patriotic intellectuals with lofty ideals resolve to illuminate the nation.


Intellectual luminaries, represented by Liang Qichao and Lu Xun, were the first to realize the potential of science fiction to “break longstanding superstition, improve the social ethos, and enrich culture.” Their initiative to translate works of Western science fiction enabled the new genre to take root in China. 

The rise of revolutionary, innovative newspapers and periodicals in the fiction community, and the translation of Western science and technology works also created a rich cultural atmosphere for science fiction translation. Apart from Liang Qichao and Lu Xun, other scholars who actively devoted themselves to translating foreign science fiction included Bao Tianxiao, Xu Nianci, and Zhou Guisheng. 

French novelist Jules Gabriel Verne’s science fiction writings, which are brimming with optimism, rich and interesting scientific knowledge, and wonderful imagination, satisfied ordinary people’s wishes for a better life brought about by scientific and technological advances, and met the need to enlighten the people with scientific knowledge during the late Qing Dynasty. His tales marked the beginning of science fiction translation in China.  

In the translation process, translators added or deleted content from the original text at their will. In terms of translation strategy, they boldly changed the meaning and even incorporated their own narratives. Linguistically, they used both classical and vernacular Chinese, and the style was radically changed to resemble classical Chinese writing. By contemporary translation norms, such arbitrary translations are undoubtedly not up to standard, but these liberties were practical and appropriate given the state of cultural enlightenment at the time. 

Diverse themes in Republican era

In the Republican era, the utopia and optimism in Verne’s works were not striking a chord among the public, so they were gradually replaced by English writer Herbert George Wells’ more realistic science fiction which mirrored people’s sufferings. Also popular in the era were the detective fiction of British writer Arthur Conan Doyle and American writer Edgar Allan Poe. Anglo-Irish author Jonathan Swift’s travel narratives and English writer Lewis Carrol’s adventure stories grew in popularity, as did American author Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan series. 

Although the purpose of cultural enlightenment remained unchanged, science fiction translators began to pay attention to more diverse themes at this stage. At the same time, translation norms were gradually established, creating theoretical discourse for literature and translation. 

While science fiction translation in the late Qing Dynasty was grounded in patriotic intellectuals’ aspiration for edifying the masses and bringing prosperity to the country, by the Republic era, efforts were made to academically regulate translation behaviors from the perspective of developing translation as a discipline. 

During this period, theoretical discourse for Chinese science-related novels was in its infancy, which emphasized the literary nature of these novels and downplayed their instrumentality. Novels with scientific themes thereby entered the realm of literary criticism as a genre for the first time. 

In the meantime, the discourse of Chinese translation theory was in the making. In addition to theories on science-related novels, science fiction translation began to value literary aesthetics and translation norms, but still served practical purposes. 

Golden age after reform, opening up

After the founding of the PRC, China and the Soviet Union were on such good terms that the CPC Central Committee brought forth the slogans of “Learning from the Soviet Union” and “Marching toward Science.” Under such circumstances, science fiction translation adjusted its materials and direction in a timely manner, focusing on science fiction works from the Soviet Union, particularly Soviet realistic science fiction, fiction for science popularization purposes, and literary theories on science fiction. This, to some extent, narrowed the range of translation themes. 

Chinese science fiction’s development course reveals that each boom of creation and translation can be attributed to the nation’s push to develop science and technology at each stage. In 1978, China started to implement its policy of reform and opening up. In March and December of that year, the National Science Conference and the Third Plenary Session of the 11th CPC Central Committee were convened, respectively, as Marx’s assertion that science and technology are part of the productive forces was emphasized, and the modernization of science and technology was considered an important measure for building China into a modern socialist country. 

This brought new development opportunities to science fiction translation in China and broke the pattern which centered on materials from the Soviet Union. Coming from a wider scope of sources, works for translation were available in greater quantity, richer types, and diverse publication forms, all while a new generation of science fiction translators emerged in vast numbers. 

The international sci-fi conference, founded in 1991, connected Chinese science fiction to the world and contributed to increasingly frequent exchanges between the Chinese and international science fiction communities. Moreover, retranslation and reprinting of Verne’s works peaked. By 1998, the Complete Works of Verne’s Adventure Science Fiction was published, which was the first time Verne’s science fiction works were presented to Chinese readers in a panorama. 

In addition, works of classical Western science fiction writers dominated the translation circle. Many internationally renowned science fiction masters became known to Chinese readers, such as the “Big Three” science fiction authors, namely Isaac Asimov and Robert A. Heinlein from the US, and Arthur C. Clarke from the UK. 

Translations of classical Western science fiction works broadened Chinese readers’ horizons, and motivated Chinese science fiction writers to create their own works. With the translation of many science fiction writings of varying styles into Chinese, a colorful science fiction landscape unfolded before Chinese readers. Science fiction translation in China thus embraced a golden age when “a hundred flowers blossomed.”

Going global in early 21st century

The early 21st century saw surging waves of globalization, rapidly developing internet technology, and a flourishing multimedia industry. Across the world, diverse sub-cultures—such as the internet culture, visual culture, and consumer culture—revolutionized the literary translation model, its form of existence, and communication vehicles. In China, science fiction translation likewise took on a brand-new appearance as compared to the past, manifested prominently in the emergence of online science fiction translations. 

Due to mass participation, fresh translation models, and translators’ strong initiative, online science fiction translation considerably supplemented translation via paper media. Meanwhile, the formation of a pan-literature context and a thriving popular culture provided fully favorable cultural conditions for science fiction translation in China. 

In the early 21st century, science fiction translation works came from all over the world, and its volume increased year by year. Science fiction translation reached several climaxes with breakthroughs in Chinese aerospace technology, the translation of emerging Western fantasy novels, and the introduction of Hollywood science fiction blockbusters. American and British classical science fiction works, bestsellers, and award-winning pieces remained predominant sources. Verne’s science fiction series continued to be retranslated. Additionally, Japanese science fiction anime and manga, as literary derivatives, gained favor, enriching the science fiction translation ecosystem in China. 

During this period, science fiction translation attached unprecedented importance to highlighting the artistic and aesthetic value of the works. In the social context constructed out of diverse cultural forms, the aim of science fiction translation evolved from practicality to cultural consumption. 

The boom of science fiction translation in 21st century China was further embodied through the translation of native Chinese science fiction works into foreign languages, which marked a significant pivot in the direction of translation following China’s implementation of the “culture going global” strategy. The landmark event was famed Chinese science fiction writer Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem winning the Hugo Award. It was not only the first time Chinese science fiction won an international award, but was also the most successful translation practice into foreign languages since Lao She’s Mao Cheng Ji was translated into English as Cat Country: A Satirical Novel of China in the 1930’s and marketed internationally in the 1960s. 

The success in the overseas dissemination of The Three-Body Problem has inspired domestic and foreign science fiction writers, translators, and scholars to showcase Chinese science fiction to readers abroad through literary creation, translation, and academic writing. As such, China’s history, culture, and contemporary society have been spread to the Western world through Chinese imagination, thus feeding back to Western science fiction culture. From a cultural import in the late Qing Dynasty to a cultural export with the aim of international exchanges in the early 21st century, the centennial turn has opened a new chapter for science fiction translation in China. 

Li Qin is a professor from the School of Translation Studies at Xi’an International Studies University.