Have I mentioned how much I love being in a bookclub? At first I thought it was just because there’s nothing I love more than having a conversation about a book, but now I’m realizing that I also like when someone else tells me what to read. I would never have thought to pick up most of the books we’ve read so far and even when they’re not really my style, I’m happy to have read them and discussed them with fellow book lovers. Needless to say, The Three-body Problem by Cixin Liu, translated by Ken Liu, is a book club book.
The Three-body Problem is the first in a series about alien contact. It is important to remember while reading this book and thinking about the premise that it is the first in the series. While there are alien-y and spacey elements in it, it is very much elaborately setting up the rest of the series. Sections of the book read more as a crime/thriller style book in which it’s one man against the rest of the world. The books starts us with some intense scenes from the cultural revolution, which kicks off a lot of the decisions and paths we follow throughout the plot. The action itself is fascinating, well written and intense, but it does follow a whole bunch of scientists and sometimes gets bogged down in the science of it all. To be entirely fair, I am not particularly inclined towards science. I can see how some of my scientist friends may be more into the long sections and chapters detailing the physics of it, but those did make my stomach tie up in knots and give me some flashbacks to pop quizzes in high school science.
The only other Mandarin to English translation I’ve ever read before is Kafka On The Shore by Haruki Murakami, which was a book I didn’t even know was a translation when I was reading it. Since I haven’t read the originals comparing the two translations isn’t exactly fair, but I do think it’s interesting to consider how a translation can change the readers experience with the story. A lot of the dialogue in The Three-body Problem was stilted and kind of awkward to the point where it put me off the characters a bit. Some of the issues I had with connecting with the characters and the plot can be traced back to some of the more awkward moments of translation and some of them, I think, can be traced back a cultural difference in story telling. Pretty much all of the stories I’ve consumed, in any form, have followed the western format and cultural norms of storytelling. According to a few of the people in my book club, what I’m used to reading is different enough from Chinese storytelling and norms that it would change the reading experience. To be fair, someone else noted that they’d read the second book in this series and found it much easier to get through…what I’m saying is until I learn Mandarin and read the original I’m going to have a hard time telling you whether it was the actual storytelling or the translation that made this a tough read for me.