Translating Chris Crawford on Interactive Storytelling

After making the final touches to the manuscript of a simplified Chinese edition of Chris Crawford on Interactive Storytelling 2nd Edition (CCoIS2), I have a lot in mind for reflecting.

My conversion to a lazy but longing Interactive Storytelling pilgrim happened at around 2004, when the first edition of the book (CCoIS) was published. I begged my elder sister to ask her friends to buy me a Traditional Chinese translation from Taiwan, which was not easy as it is now. As every mind-opening experience does, it changed my outlook (and in-look) in a profound way. I was hooked instantly.

Chris Crawford’s vision of interactive storytelling (IS) is a far-reaching one, but one that appeals to and resonates with me. His attack on the video game industry makes quite much sense. While don’t get me wrong: I’m an avid fan of Prince of Persia (PoP) and Civilization; I played Wolf 3D late into the night; I play what people play, albeit not die-hard. But something’s missing in most of the games I play: the emotional entanglement that derives from dramatic engagement.

Time goes by, as I was getting into and out of the publishing industry (and played a big role in producing and publishing some of the top-selling and award-winning computer/programming books in China), moving from one startup to another, and eventually focusing on UX and service design, I had also been elaborating on applying what I learned from CCoIS to somewhere between foreign language education and digital improvisation theatre.

But “life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans“, while I was, shamefully, dreaming about IS, Façade came and faded, IRIS funded and completed, and Chris Crawford’s ambitious Storytron initiated and bravely failed. I’ve been loosely following what Chris has to say about IS on his web site, but also have been intensely occupied by work and spare-time reading. Considering myself a somewhat early-adapter of IS, I really didn’t think I’d get excited about things like the release of a new CCoIS2 book, which came out at the end of 2012. Ladies and gentlemen of the internet, I did.

By seemingly happenstance, Mr. Chen, a friend in the publishing industry (we worked in competing publishing companies), having collaborated with me on my previous translation work Thoughts on Interaction Design 2nd Edition by Jon Kolko, asked me if I would like to translate it. I was busy planning for a major relocation with many uncertainties, so I politely rejected the offer.

By early 2013, I have already masticated the whole book on Kindle and was in the process of actually digesting it. Then came Mr. Chen’s message:”Can you do the translation now?” With much time to spare, I said okay and started working on it. And of course, translating it was in no way like reading it.

That was months ago (I hate to admit that’s more than a daunting year). I went through lots of twists and turns in both life and career. I crawled on.

I’d be lying if I say I didn’t realize the scale or range of the challenges in translating the book. Challenges are there, in plain sight. And I’ve been a solid translator for over a decade. So it’s really not about them.

So what are the challenges anyway?

  • The terms and concepts in Interactive Storytelling are borrowed from diverse fields, and, to make things worse, people in the field can’t even agree on the very basic ones. I created a “concept/knowledge map” for easy reference, so that I’d know what to use in a specific literal context.
  • There’s hardly an established IS scene in China. There are no agreed-upon terms and concepts in Chinese. I had to make use of the Chinese conventions in the corresponding fields. Research, research, research.
  • The author himself had a hard time with those borrowed terms: the player of interactive storyworld is and isn’t a player; the interactive storyworld itself is and isn’t a game. I did my best to streamline the narrative in my translation based on the primary topic involved in each chapter or subsection.
  • There are many holes in the arguments — the readers are supposed to grab the big picture behind, rather than the exact descriptions. I had to add loads of footnotes for further explanation and reference materials. Again, research, research, research. Wikipedia is a best friend who seldom fails me.
  • By not going into too much technical details, the explanations are somewhere between practitioner hypothesis and patched up theory.

Having said that, this is still an important book, the rare kind that actually makes you think.

I have this realization that, being a translator, the moment you complete the translation tend to be the last moment that you put so much focus on the original work — by translating it into another distant language, you feel like you’ve fully consumed it, in many cases to the extent that you rarely find reasons to go back to it again (except duty-bound revisions and erratas). That’s kind of like genuine inception — the idea has been planted deep inside your mind.

Well, maybe for certain books. Or it’s just me.

With that in mind, I guess my Interactive Storytelling journey has just begun. There always has to be a fixed time-space for people to recognize as a starting point. Mine was there.

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