I’m 8 pages (out of 302) into my book for the year, 三体 (although I feel like I should get to count the book jacket and the page of the foreward that I read before I figured out it was a foreword) so I thought it was time to give an update on this new reading challenge.
Yeah, it’s a challenge. I’ve made a couple of obversations that I want to record; it will be interesting to see how many of them resonate at the end of the year.
Walking Into a Dark Cave
I talked about this when I read Corazon tan blanco, the first book I read in another language that I hadn’t read first in English – it’s hard to keep track of the overarching story when you’re so focused on individual words. All I knew about this book was the brief summary from a NYT article about the forthcoming English translation:
“The first book in the series explores the world of the Trisolarans, an alien civilization on the brink of destruction. When a secret military project in China attempts to make contact with aliens, the Trisolarans capture the signals and decide to invade Earth. Back in China people split into two camps: those who welcome the aliens and those who want to fight them.”
And I read the article several months ago, so I didn’t even remember it when I was struggling through the book jacket . . .
Besides this short blurb, opening the book for the first time is like walking into a dark cave. I had no idea, really, what the first sentence would contain.
Wang Miao thought the four men who came looking for him were an odd bunch: two policemen and two military men. If the two soldiers had been military police, it would have been normal, but they were army officers.
Um. I have no idea who Wang Miao is or why anyone would be looking for him. Of course, you usually don’t know these things when reading a new book, but when reading or talking in a foreign language I rely heavily on context, which is totally absent in these situations.
The Challenge of Names
Another challenge of the first sentence is that it contains a name. Sigh. Chinese names are one of the hardest things for me. Not just because they’re hard for me to remember (especially if I only know the pinyin) but because they look like everything else in Chinese – just another character. Can you spot the name in the sentence above? This one’s actually not tooooo difficult because I know other people with the last name Wang (汪) and the character is used much more often in names than for its actual meaning (an expanse of water). But in the book jacket summary, there was a character named 叶文洁 (Ye WenJie) and I spent a few minutes trying to figure out what leaf culture had to do with space exploration. (叶 = leaf, 文 ＝culture.) I have a Bible that has all proper nouns underlined, which is like the best thing ever. Apparently they don’t do that for most books, though :(
Another problem with Chinese names is that they often use characters I’m unfamiliar with, so I stuck an index card in the front of the book and I’m adding character names as I encounter them. I make myself read out loud, so this makes it easy for me to check my pronunciation.
The book would have taken 6-8 weeks to ship from China, but a friend was at home in Beijing for the holidays, so I asked her to bring me a copy. I didn’t get it until a few days into the year, so in the meantime I started reading a PDF version that my roommate found me. I was excited to read it on my iPad, but after a few pages was really glad I was getting the paper book. I found it difficult and inconvenient to try to underline or mark on the iPad. Plus, at the beginning of the book I’ve been really reliant on the app Pleco for looking up words, and I felt kind of silly juggling two electronic devices – especially because I really try to duplicate the experience of “reading” as much as possible, instead of making this feel like studying.
Pleco has been great, though. Especially here at the beginning of the book, there are lots of words that I can’t quite figure out from context and are essentially to my understanding of the story. We’re talking basic nouns and verbs, not adjectives and adverbs, which are fine to look up in batches after reading. In Pleco, I can type in English, pinyin, or characters; I can assemble characters by radical or draw them by hand; and there’s even an OCR feature (Optical Character Recognition) that I use for characters with a lot of strokes (嫌疑, for instance). Highly recommended!
Written in Chinese vs. Translated
This is my fourth time reading a book in another language, so a lot of the process has become familiar. I do think that the reading is a little bit harder this time because the book was originally written in Chinese. The writing seems a little bit more literary (书面语) than a translated book, and there are more idioms (成语). With that said, though, most of the words I don’t understand and have to look up are just vocabulary that I had no reason to know in Chinese before. Examples:
- science fiction
- military police
- extort a confession
- missing in action
- major general
My dad and several of my extended family were in the military, so some of these are actually nice to know . . . So far, I’m enjoying the book and the experience, and I’m looking forward to the rest of it!