Maria Holland

Posts Tagged ‘三体’

Show Me the Data

In Uncategorized on March 8, 2015 at 2:32 pm

I’ve been reading books in other languages as a yearly project for a few years now, and I’ve been keeping data on the endeavor for the last three.  It’s been interesting!


This graph shows the number of words I underline, which means I don’t know them, in blue; the number of new flashcards I add to my Anki deck, in red; and the total number of cards in my Anki deck, in purple (on the secondary axis).  The x-axis is the page number; the graph starts with Vida de Pi, Corazon tan Blanco starts around page 400, and 三体 started a little before 700.

One thing that I notice from this is that I am much more selective about the Chinese words that I choose to add to my Anki deck – that’s the gap between the blue and red lines starting around page 700.

One new metric I’ve decided to track is my reading speed.  I time myself while reading to get an idea of how long it takes me to read a page.  It turns out that I can read a page in about 8 minutes, although there have been two more difficult patches, which took 15 minutes per page.  And yes, I definitely feel that increase in difficulty . . . There are times when the reading feels natural, and times when it feels like slogging through quicksand.

Take this weekend’s reading, for example.  I spent an hour fighting through four measly pages.  But oh, what difficult pages these were!  The chapter begins by setting the scene: “China, 1967.”  It’s full-fledge Cultural Revolution, so there’s vocabulary like “Red Guards” and “rebel factions” and “Bolshevik” and “reactionary” and “public criticism”.  The Red Guards are fighting, so in one paragraph I had to wade through a list of their weapons, including carbine rifles, machine guns, submachine guns, rifles, and spears.  And then the person being denounced was a physics professor, so there were a bunch of scientific terms like “osmosis”, “in series”, “parallel computing”, “concentration”, “theory of relativity”, and “the Big Bang Theory”.  At least I already knew Einstein’s name . . .

If You Love Computers, This Novel Should Be on Your Must-Read List

In Uncategorized on February 22, 2015 at 2:24 pm

So I was just clicking through my RSS feeds on feedly the other day when I saw the headline:

If You Love Computers, This Novel Should Be on Your Must-Read List

I like books.  I like computers.  So I clicked.  And guess which novel the article was about???

Liu Cixin’s science fiction novel The Three Body Problem was a smash hit bestseller in China, and has finally been translated into English by Ken Liu.

NO WAY!!  This is the book I’ve chosen to read this year (in the original Chinese).  Granted, I first heard about it from a NYT review, so it’s not like I can claim any hipster cred for the discovery, but it still seems like an incredible coincidence.

Also, when we had friends over for Chinese New Year yesterday,

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my old roommate was excited to hear that I was reading 三体 because it’s her favorite book!  I definitely chose well.

I couldn’t finish reading the entire Gizmodo article because I could tell it contained spoilers – let me just say that the event they claim the novel “opens with” has not happened yet, and I’m on page 55 out of 300.  But, I am sharing the link in case it inspires others to read it (probably in English).  Just don’t try to talk to me about it until December!!

Not Sure If My Chinese Is Terrible, Or If This Book is Just Strange . . .

In Uncategorized on February 1, 2015 at 2:05 pm

This book really is like walking into a dark cave.  So much of communication is context, and I have none.

I’m in the fourth chapter right now.  The main character (so far?? apparently there is another, more main character, that I have not yet met??), Wang Miao, is playing a video game.  He is walking in a cold place and sees two men wearing robes.  One of them introduces himself as Zhou Wen-Wang, and the other as his follower.  The second guy is carrying a giant hourglass.  They use this to track the time, because the sun is not reliable.  Actually, there are two suns, and they come out and go away seemingly at random.

With me so far?

After they walk for some time, the second sun comes out.  Unlike the first sun, which is weak and doesn’t warm them, the second sun is so strong that they seek shelter behind a rock.  But then there’s a conversation between Zhou and his follower along these lines:

Follower: I can’t stand it; you won’t give me any dried fish and you won’t let me eat the dehydrated ones . . .
Zhou: Then you can just dehydrate.
Follower: After I dehydrate, you won’t throw me away?
Zhou: Of course not, I promise to bring you along.

Around this time, I go and look up the word 脱水, just to make sure it does mean “dehydrate”.  This just doesn’t make sense, right?? But it does.  So I keep reading.

The follower climbs out from behind the rock, takes off his cloak, and lays down on the ground.  He starts sweating heavily, so heavily that it turns into little streams . . . and after ten minutes, he is just a human-shaped piece of skin.  

Zhou assures Wang Miao that he is not dead as he rolls this piece of skin up into a convenient bundle.  He further explains that everyone in this world has the ability to dehydrate under this sun.  And that they have to carry him with them, because if they leave him by the side of the road he’ll get eaten or burned by others.  

This was my understanding of the passage.  But this whole eating dehydrated people struck me as a little odd, no?  So I stopped by my roommate’s room; she’s read the book and has offered to help me if I get stuck.  I explained to her my interpretation above, and she listened, nodding every few seconds.  When I got to the end, she looked at me as if to ask, “So what’s your question?”

Never mind.  It’s hard to tell if my Chinese is good enough – if I’m actually reading or just making up fantastical stories.  I guess that’s one additional challenge of reading science fiction.  In these books (and especially when the characters are playing video games) anything is possible!  

The Three Body Problem

In Uncategorized on January 10, 2015 at 12:33 am

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:

  • doomsday
  • science fiction
  • military police
  • plainclothes
  • migraine
  • superconduction
  • nanometer
  • kidnap
  • hostage
  • extort a confession
  • missing in action
  • major general
  • colonel
  • liaison
  • ashtray
  • sleeptalk

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!