How to say "Glass Universe" in Chinese

            I’m delighted to report that The Glass Universe will soon be published in a Chinese-language edition, and the translator is my friend Xiao Mingbo, whom I met more than ten years ago, when he translated Longitude.

            At the start of our working relationship, I thought Mingbo was a woman, and he assumed I was a man. The long-distance misunderstanding did not hinder us at all, however, as we began corresponding about shades of meaning and idiomatic expressions in my text.

            When Mingbo first approached me, in July 2006, Longitude had already been translated into some two dozen languages, including Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Thai. But, fortunately for me, the book’s continuing popularity had led to a tenth-anniversary edition in 2005, with a foreword by astronaut Neil Armstrong, and this new edition was enjoying a new round of attention from international publishers. 

Dear Dava,

This is Mingbo Xiao [he had put his given name first, American style, instead of after his family name as is customary in his country] from China. I am translating one of your books, Longitude, into Chinese. This book was translated and published by another company in 2000, but it turns out to be not very satisfactory, so I was asked to redo the translation.

I accepted the task, because I like the book and want to present it with high quality to Chinese readers.

I have encountered some difficulties and expect more as I proceed. I wish you could help me out. Could you please clarify the following items for me? 

         Mingbo had listed six specific questions concerning expressions such as “landed son” and “passing fair,” but what struck me about the letter was its invitation to a collaboration. No other translator, from any country, had ever tried to engage me this way. I had exchanged brief comments with the Polish and Hebrew translators, but nothing to compare with Mingbo’s hunger for the nuances of meaning. 

         One often wonders about the quality of the translations of one’s books, but an author has no control over the issue. Each publishing house chooses its own translators, who seem to work in a vacuum. The author never sees the translation until it appears in print (and sometimes not even then). Unless a friend in a foreign country reads the translation and reports back, neither the author nor the original publisher has any way to judge the outcome. Mingbo, apparently self-motivated, had taken untoward action, aided by the Internet.     

When I searched for "Kort Onderwys" [a Dutch book title mentioned in Longitude], I was led to Prof. Mario Biagioli's homepage in Harvard. He answered some of my questions, but he didn't have your email either, so he referred me to Prof. Owen Gingerich. From Dr. Gingerich, I got your email. From you, I get all my puzzles solved. What a wonderful world!

BTW, I got to know my editor via the Internet as well, when we met in a nice website of used-book transaction.

         My own experience of translating the letters of Galileo’s daughter had helped me appreciate the difficulty of selecting a single right word from among any number of synonym candidates. And that’s the easy part of the translator’s job. The real challenge is to absorb the spirit and tone of the original, and transfer that into the target language, despite all the untranslatable intangibles that separate the cultures speaking the different languages. Mingbo thrived in this danger zone. No sooner had he questioned the term “straw man,” for example, than he answered it himself, before giving me a chance to react.

I think I found a good Chinese word for it. That word literally means  a board taken as a shield to receive the attack of arrows, and implies something like a scapegoat or a forced protector.

In fact, there is a famous legendary story in ancient China related to the straw man. In the period of three kingdom (around 200 A. D.), two countries were in war. One party was much stronger than the other. The commander of the weaker one predicted that there would be thick fog one morning, so he prepared many boats with many straw men posted on both sides. When the foggy day came, he led boats out and pretended for sneak attacks. When the boats were within the arrow-shooting range of the enemy battleships, all drums were beaten and all soldiers shouted. The enemy dared not come out to meet the challenge but shot arrows at the boats. The straw men received most of the arrows and looked like hedgehogs in the end. So the weaker army got tons of free arrows, which helped to beat the strong enemy :).

Mingbo often apologized for asking so many questions, but of course I was thrilled to have them—and to have my own private tutor in Chinese lore. I was flattered, too, to think of the time and care invested in this new translation. Naturally I wondered whether Mingbo was being adequately compensated. I didn’t ask that directly, as I didn’t want to be rude, but he volunteered the information as we went along.

I must confess the payment for the translation is not very handsome, only 50 Yuan Per 1000 Chinese characters (equivalently, about $5 per 1000 words). 

Mingbo was translating purely for the love of books. I later learned he owns ten thousand volumes, most of which he acquired second-hand. He is not a professional translator, but a university professor, with research interests in wireless networking and mobile communications. He admitted he’d been a poor language student in his youth, but later mastered English to pursue graduate study in the United States. He and his wife had lived (and fished and traveled) in America for six years. During that time, Mingbo earned his doctoral degree from Neil Armstrong’s alma mater, Purdue University, in Indiana, where his daughter was born in 2001.

To make our correspondence less serious, I attach a picture of my adorable and creative daughter.

         The child, who was three at the time the photo was taken, had her face completely hidden by the deadbolt door lock she was holding up to her eye and pretending to use as a camera. Later Mingbo sent me other pictures as well, of the family vacation at Huangshan, with views from the top and the bottom of the Yellow Mountain.

         In November 2006, as Mingbo neared completion of his translation of Longitude, he signed a new contract with Shanghai Century to translate another of my books, The Planets. He expressed some concern about his lack of familiarity with the material, but neither his publisher nor I saw the least reason to worry. Mingbo’s work ethic guaranteed the level of effort he would devote to the task. What’s more, I had intended the book expressly for people who knew little or nothing about astronomy.

         Mingbo had apparently undertaken the new translation at a propitious moment.


According to Chinese tradition, tomorrow will be the Mid-Autumn Festival, when the moon is brightest and fullest at night. On this day, the Chinese will try their best to bring the whole family together, just as the western reunite in the Christmas eve.  Delicious moon cakes and wine will be consumed at the night to celebrate the festival. Many beautiful poems have been written for such occasions, especially when the dear ones are somehow unable to make the reunion.

Here Mingbo typed out for me two of his favorite seasonal poems, “When Shall We Have a Bright Moon?” by Su Shi, and “Looking at the Moon and Longing for One Far Away,” by Zhang Jiuling. Acknowledging the inadequacy of most poetry translations, he gave me four versions of the second poem, each by a different translator. This one is by Xu Yuanchong:

Over the sea grows the moon bright;

We gaze on it far, far apart.

Lovers complain of long, long night;

They rise and long for the dear heart.

Candles blown out, fuller is light;

My coat put on, I'm moist with dew.

As I can't hand you moonbeams white,

I go to bed to dream of you.

After that outpouring of Moonlight, I didn’t hear from Mingbo for six months.

Long time no contact. How are you? 

By May, he had returned to me in earnest, with new and longer lists of questions.

Sorry for the new round of bombing. I have the following questions for the first five chapters. 

We resumed our back-and-forth routine with the familiarity of old friends. 

It is interesting to learn that you thought I was a woman. Once

I indeed disguised as one when I was active in a cyberspace forum, and caused myself some embarrassing troubles :). 

Mingbo raised many more questions on The Planets than he had on Longitude, and yet I could see that this was the result of his doing more work, not less.  

I demand of myself to solve any question as best as I can, lest you are overburdened.

I recall, while I was painfully searching for appropriate Chinese words to translate some sentences in the chapter on moon, I wished the next chapter would be easier, but later on found with disillusion that it was as difficult.

On the whole, your book involves so many fields of knowledge that I have to look up and learn a lot of new material from time to time before proceeding, but as it is said, no pain and no gain. I am also plentifully rewarded during the procedure. 

An old Chinese translator once defined three stages that a translated work should achieve. From the lowest to the highest they are reliability, fluency, and elegance. Currently, I am still on the first stage or at best on the verge of the second, but I will try my best to approach the third one before turning in my work. 


By the time of the 2007 mid-Autumn Festival, Mingbo was “proofreading and polishing” his first draft of The Planets. But now he became a fact-checker in addition to his role as translator. He attended almost fanatically to technical detail. Whereas before I had only to look back at my own book to answer his questions, I now had to return also to the references I’d consulted in my research. 


You mention that "Yet the Earth, too, is decelerating, by a few hundredths of a second annually" (p.114) but on the next page, it becomes "the almost imperceptible decrease in the Earth's rotation amounts to a mere millisecond every fifty years".


As far as I understand, these two sentences cannot be true at the same time. It seems that the first value is too high.


I don't mean to be criticizing or impolite. Please forgive me if I sound fault-finding.


Mingbo was right. The first value was way too high. The Earth decelerates by only a few millionths (not hundredths) of a second per year. This is the kind of error that science writers call a “howler”—a gross, embarrassing mistake that should never have seen print. Yet I had made the mistake, and not one of the technical experts or copy editors among  my colleagues had caught it. Clearly, no one had ever read my book as carefully as Mingbo was reading it. I told him that in a thank-you note. Then I wrote to my American editor, and informed her of the correction that would have to be made in subsequent editions. By the time Mingbo completed his final review of The Planets, I had sent the American editor three more letters of correction.


How grateful I am to have your replies, telling me the truth, in the early morning. I had been in fear since I sent those two emails, lest my carelessness and ruthlessness offended you. Usually, I don't read a book as carefully. A translator has to go to details though, because he must make out the meaning and put it into a different language.

Sometimes, he may spend hours to find the right words or phrases to express something reading so simple and straightforward in English. When I become serious in translating your books, some people think I am foolishly making troubles for myself, since my major is not in English, literature, science history, or astronomy, and it is such a badly paid task. But I cannot put up with bad translations that ruin good books. 


         He had translated two technical books in the past, about communications systems and information theory. Apparently, his efforts went unappreciated on those occasions, as he told me that many of the corrections he offered were not incorporated in the final texts. Then, because of the errors left in, those books went quickly out of print. 

         I wasn’t sure which pleased me more—having Mingbo’s valuable assistance, or having awakened in him an interest in planetary science.


When I translate your books, it occurs to me that if I had read them when I was a teenager, I would have chosen a different major. Undoubtedly, I will feel greatly complimented if the book is to turn an unsuspecting young reader into an astronomer forever.


         He had already absorbed one of astronomy’s most powerful impressions.


The more I ponder over the space, the more I think we human

beings should cherish Earth and live in peace with each other.


         I sent Mingbo a press release regarding the launch of the first Chinese mission to the Moon. On October 24, 2007, Chang’e-1 left the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in Sichuan aboard a Long March rocket, to conduct a year-long analysis of the Moon’s geology and chemistry from close lunar orbit. The report stated that the name “Chang’e” referred to the Chinese goddess of the Moon. Mingbo wrote back to elaborate on her place in ancient Chinese mythology.


Her husband, Hou Yi, is said to be a super-hero, who shot down

nine of ten Suns in the sky so that the earth could cool down to support lives. The Suns were depicted as the sons of the heaven emperor (some kinds of thunderbirds). While they were supposed to be on duty by turns, they went out together one day and scorched the Earth.


After Hou Yi killed nine thunderbirds, the heaven emperor became

angry at him and refused his return to the heaven. That was bad for Hou Yi and his wife, because now they would be mortal like ordinary people. So Hou Yi, after experiencing lots of tribulation, obtained some elixir from the heaven queen. The elixir had enough dosage to allow two persons to survive a very long time, or for one person to become immortal. Chang'e didn't like the life on the Earth, so she secretly took the whole elixir by herself. She flew toward the heaven but felt shameful to have left Hou Yi behind, so she went to the Moon palace instead, where she has lived lonely ever since.


         The millennia-long heritage of these and other stories he sent me were, for Mingbo, “one of the reasons I cherish this country so much.” He encouraged me to visit, perhaps in connection with the 2008 summer Olympics in Beijing, but I didn’t think such a thing would be possible. 

         Then, thanks to the organizers of the Shanghai Literary Festival and the Man Hong Kong Literary Festival, I did travel to China—and finally met Mingbo.