Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The Hunger Tower, by Pan Haitian (translated by Nick Stember)

Clarkesworld Magazine, July 2015; 8,374 words
Rating: 1, Needs improvement  Recommended By:   SFRevu:4

An aircraft crashes in the desert on an unpopulated planet, and the passengers struggle to survive.

Mini-Review (click to view--possible spoilers)

The basic outline of the story is fine: a group of stranded people start eating each other. One of them discovers how to escape, but ends up being killed and eaten before he can tell them.

This is the ultimate tell-don't show story. Nearly all of it is narration, with random POV changes. It's heavily larded with fantasy science. e.g. "A laser is just a kind of vibration." They can't eat the local food because the DNA has a different helix, but the local animals can eat them with no problems.

Is it the translator's fault?

Apparently not. Shao Ping actually looked at the original Chinese story:
I just compared the beginning of both–and tbh my modern Chinese is rusty so take my opinion with a lot of salt–but while in a few places the translator is perhaps overwrought and the Chinese dialogue is smoother, he’s faithful.
File770, December 8, 2015

5 comments (may contain spoilers):

  1. I'm OK with the heavy narrative but as Lois Tilton points out, there are odd issues with the prose that could be an artifact of the translation and the pseudo-science you mention detracts from the story. An example of where narrative can be gripping is this New York Times article about a Syrian migrant family's journey (http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/10/22/world/europe/syrian-refugees.html), though I suppose that's not acceptable for fiction these days. As for translation issues, this profile page for the author (https://paper-republic.org/authors/pan-haitian/) includes two related posts by translators who have done some work for this author and other Chinese SF/F writers. Finally, I just want to mention this story made me think of the show "Lost" with its mystery beast(s) in the first season and secrets discovered by the survivors about the island. :-)

  2. I'm going to be charitable about this one and say 'it could have done with a better translator', for example "In the dying light they began to run, setting off a dust storm which stuck to their calves." I'm hoping the author didn't REALLY mean the entire dust storm glued itself to their lower legs.

    That said, this story was dire. Not because of the heavy narration, but because the dramatic moments were completely obsfucated. The bit where people start eating each other receives the same narrative weight (one paragraph) as people running and kicking off their boots.

    Some of the description is laugh-out-loud bad (again, maybe the translation):

    "If we are to be rescued, then we must band together in this time calamity," the captain said. It comforted them a little to look at his ruggedly unyielding grey eyes, his muscular neck, his sturdy and well-defined chest."

    Apart from 'time calamity' (calamitous time, surely) and the stilted dialogue, his 'well-defined chest', his 'ruggedly unyielding grey eyes'. What is this? Fifty Shades of Cannibalism. None of the characters have names either.

    I struggled to get to the end....

    1. It's my #1 candidate for the worst short SFF published in any professional venue in 2015. Congratulations on finishing it!

      I read novels in four languages, so I've also got a fair idea of what can be blamed on the translator and what cannot be. First, translators are normally native-English speakers. "This time calamity" is likely a cut/paste error that lost the word "of." But the people being comforted by looking at the captain's chest--that's the fault of the writer.

      I don't think this would ever have escaped the slushpile had it been written in English.

  3. Here's an informative comment from someone who read it in Chinese.

  4. Here's a detailed response from Nick Stember, the translator of this story. http://www.futureslesstravelled.com/?p=786#comment-2401