Ravaging Times

May 15, 2018

fan request: celebrating chapter 500 by interviewing Merc

Filed under: Ravages of Time — Tags: , — merc @ 11:04 pm

Interviewer (Q): 玖琦陣謀 aka fyreFLYH (Discord nickname) aka timeforravages

Interviewee (A): Merc

How it all began

Q: So when and how did you find your way into Ravages, and ultimately the grand project of translating it into English?

A: If I recall correctly, it was a chance encounter at a comics rental store. Chapter 1 was weird, but by the end of volume 3 I was hooked. Probably around 2005 I found a scanlated version online by Fifay.net. I tried translating chapter 148, either by request or by my own curiosity. At first I didn’t feel the pressure of translating it faithfully like a real professional- I translated it more with my heart than my brain, if that makes sense. Two English-speaking readers said my version felt natural and easier to understand. When Fifay.net discontinued the project and Remnant Warriors started, I figured the least I could do was to be another pair of eyes to check the English. Eventually I carried on translating, gradually accumulating chapters over 10+ years.

Q: What gave you the energy and the motivation to continue the work for as long as you have done even up to this day?

A: First, I really like many of Mr. Chen’s ideas- the perspective he brought to an old tale with modern tainted flavor (although I’m not sure about all the mixed up anachronism like in speech; understandable since no one speaks ancient Chinese anymore), particularly social commentary and sprinkling of ancient wisdom. It’s “edutainment”, which I love in general. But I must say this work filled me with so much ethnic pride (finally a Chinese author re-telling this classic Chinese legend “better” than foreign authors), as well as professional pride (a comic artist that doesn’t plagiarize- as in brainless duplication without innovation). So I want this series to succeed.

Second, I like to help people and translating Ravages gave me a sense of purpose. However, this effort is only sustainable because I promised very little up front. It’s a slow-burn process, much like the series itself.

Third, languages are fun. Bi-lingualism really helps and I don’t want to waste that skill.


Q: How often in the past have you considered dropping out of the great burden of translating Ravages?

A: Between one and ten times. When it was just translating new chapters/materials once or twice a month the burden wasn’t felt so acutely. But re-translation efforts do feel like busy work and I’ve been dragging my feet with the Deluxe edition stuff.

In recent years buying new books has become an issue for me because I have grown to prefer minimalism in life. Less material goods (or anything) the better. Also I haven’t been financially independent for years and this expense needs increasing justification. Reading Ravages for free makes me feel bad because not paying for art hurts artists, which includes me.

Q: As a non-professional translator who is nonetheless fluent in a Chinese language, which aspects of the raw text of Ravages do you consider particularly difficult to properly handle and convey into English?

A: Other than cultural-sayings, wordplays, technical military terms, Cantonese slang, and Mr. Chen’s sometimes syntactically ambiguous dialogs, quotations from ancient Chinese text (especially when there are no modern annotated/translated versions) are really challenging for me, because I can barely understand them in the first place.

Fandom observations

Q: What stories can you share about the time when Ravages had a stronger albeit still small online following among Anglophone readers, and what are your thoughts regarding the gradual decline?

A: I’m not very active in the fandom. My interactions were limited to a few artists and readers who communicate with me on LiveJournal back in the day. We’ve all drifted apart and only once in a while binge on each other’s Ravages fan contents. I just remember shippers were the most visible fans online, similar to most other fandom.

I think the decline is due to mental fatigue from information overload in life in general. Everything demands our attention. Even entertainment is a chore when there’s a backlog. Not to mention Ravages can be difficult to read.

Q: About the broader Chinese-speaking fan base, how enthusiastic were people about prospects of spreading Ravages to more international audiences, and why do you think that is the case?

A: From the few posts I saw, it’s the usual small enthusiastic crowd versus the more common skepticism of how well it’ll be understood by people of non-Asian cultures. I think Chinese people can be just as self-important/arrogant/elitist as Americans (ie, “It’s too sophisticated for ‘those people.'” “I bet they’ll be so confused when they read words like ‘shixiong’.”). I’m guilty of it too.

Playing favorites

Q: Which Ravages chapters do you particularly like or at least find rather memorable, from the standpoint of translation?

A: Chapter 148 was memorable as that was the first chapter that got me into the translation mission. Other chapters that uplifted the usual “brainless brawn” characters were memorable because that enticed me to read further; and significant wordplay chapters also made me like the series a lot (but were nightmares to translate). I won’t say which chapters as they contain spoilers.

Q: What are your preliminary thoughts and reservations about potential animated or live-action adaptations of Ravages?

A: I really don’t want that to happen, but I also want Mr. Chen and his employer to make lots of money to keep Ravages alive. I prefer media that takes advantage of the strength of its medium, not adapted poorly with less (or none) of the love and craftsmanship that went into the original. I rather they profit by selling merchandise, but of course that’s limited.

Parting shots

Q: What pieces of advice would you offer to next-generation translators?

A: Translating Ravages (assuming for free) will be a marathon. If you don’t love it enough to do it regardless of fame/flattery, very little else can carry you through times when you feel burned out.

Q: How would you best describe and recommend Ravages, in a few sentences?

A: First, I will not recommend it to anyone who knows nothing about Three Kingdoms (elitism much?). If they are at least interested in learning, I would recommend that they first read up on the time period.

If you’ve known some version of the Three Kingdoms legend and would like a view from a modern native Chinese speaker, give the first three regular volumes a try. And if you are not hooked by the end of volume three, this series is not for you. If you are hooked, then this series will entertain you for decades.


November 27, 2017

reader Hsu Li-Heng’s 2007 critique on “The Ravages of Time”

Filed under: Ravages of Time — Tags: , , , — merc @ 12:01 pm

original blog post
(note: a reader asked me to translate this really old critique of Ravages, written in 2007, based on about 100 chapters of the story; it has solid points that are still relevant, but also possibly outdated commentary with regard to what Chen Mou tries to express through this work, sometimes a little obliquely in his “Afterwords” commentaries)

“The Ravages of Time” is a graphic novel series that upends the traditional Three Kingdoms lore. The author makes powerful forces that are hidden behind the scene as the lead, and makes Sima Yi the main character (even though he has very little screen time). With that setup, the author brings out the ingenious strategies of various factions to re-interpret the history of the Three Kingdoms.

I started reading it from its inception. I’ve also read his previous works- how the short stories in “Not Human” upended portrayals of Sir Guan and Wei Yan, or how the failed series “God Pretenders” was unnecessarily complex and unintelligible. I’m very aware of Chen Mou’s tendency, which is to make every character ultra smart, crazy powerful, full of schemes, and never how they appear on the surface. This became his view on history, the innovative idea in his work, and inevitably created his myth.

In Chen Mou’s imagination, every wise man, strategist, officer, and warlord thinks through their plans and understands what power (and related theories) is about; Lü Bu and Wen Chou are top-of-the-line thinking Generals, where the reputation of being “brave but brainless” was merely a cover. Of course, some of these people could calculate further than others, or be at a higher tier, which means any mistake will lead to death. Consequently, the author makes every battle of wits as complicated as possible, leaving readers who don’t think as deeply in the dust.

However, does that make this creative work brilliant? Maybe a little bit. I think once the novelty wears off, repeating this trope can be exhausting to read. The author wears himself out to come up with new tricks and schemes, or turns possible coincidences in history into the result of N-rounds of a game between masterminds. He ends up exhausted, and we feel exhausted reading it. And I want to ask: Why do you choose to craft a series like this?

Chen Mou’s view on history has a fatal flaw- that he uses his own view to frame history. In other words, it’s like how the trendy “use theory to bring along history” idea of the previous century led to “use theory to replace history”. Marxism and Leninism of that generation were eventually rejected because of it. Those of us who use history to create literature or art should put it at the same level as us or just above, so it’s from historical facts that we develop our viewpoint; to make characters approachable and let them help us grow, instead of willfully remain steeped in one’s own fantasy.

Of course you can create your own world and let characters roam free in it. But why should I pay attention to your unilateral dreamland? How will it benefit me? If it was just “for fun”, fine; but Chen Mou’s graphic novels are never just read for fun. His ambition is enormous. Through his upended history, he wants to expose the deeply ingrained ambition within human nature. We can be certain of such an avarice, for it’s a great motivator. However, people like that are also prone to straying off course or going off the deep end.

“The Ravages of Time” has reached over thirty volumes by now, right? I haven’t really stayed with it after a hundred chapters. It’s not because of the inconsistent release schedule, but that Chen Mou keeps making the same old mistake: expanding the scope so much that he loses control of it. Hundreds of pages later the timeline is still prior to Lü Bu’s death (I don’t know where the story is now). The finale that was revealed in chapter one depicts the emptiness of an old Sima Yi who knows all and controls all. I don’t know how many years it’ll take for the graphic novel to reach that point. Without new breakthroughs, it’s rare for an author to maintain the passion for a long series.

The historical view in “The Ravages of Time” does have a commendable quality: it illustrates the influential power of clans, especially those of royalty and deep lineage. Back then that was the basic structure within which power struggle was conducted. In the past we had Wang Fu Zhi‘s “Reading Zi Zhi Tong Jian” (this is so esoteric that it’s probably rare for anyone who is not a history major like me to have read it; even I was introduced to it by a professor), Fan Wen Lan’s “The Concise Edition of General History of China,” Lü Si Mian‘s “The Story of the Three Kingdoms;” average readers of this day and age would have heard of Yi Zhong Tian (and history buffs like me think his work is all right; flawed, but not enough to overshadow its brilliance); overall the general population has a higher understanding of Three Kingdoms period than past generations. Therefore if you want our attention, Chen Mou, you better bring out something of higher level, a historical view more comprehensive, and intellects that are more abnormal – but why torture yourself thus?

Someone whose name I can’t remember said, “Guan Ning in the Romance of the Three Kingdoms is the best character.” And Guan Ning is a hermit living in Liaodong (east Liao). What does that tell us? It tells us that there is a yearning for morality and sentimentality. Some people in times of chaos would abandon moral principles, while others would long for them. Not to mention that virtues were still celebrated values among the men of class near the end of East Han dynasty (despite it turning hypocritical). Confucianism was also the mainstream belief system (despite having produced “renowned literati” like Kong Rong and Mi Heng, who were only full of talk). But this seems to be a blind spot for Chen Mou. Or maybe Chen Mou only focuses on its negative side- the commonly criticized hypocritical and preachy side, without seeing the positive and other various sides to it. As a result, you have neglected a very important human mentality in the historical context.

In addition, Chen Mou is mistaken about another aspect of people’s mentality in times of great turmoil: uncertainty. Are those warlords really fully informed, confident, flawless strategists that only ever fail because of their own overconfidence? Chen Mou’s tendency to embellish, to raise characters to god or demon status reduces their believability. And even if he manages to justify it all, what’s so entertaining about a Three Kingdoms setting where it’s just a bunch of crazy strong brains and brawns going back-and-forth? You upended the traditional images from history, folklore, and literature in order to create your own imagery. But if none of that helps the reader to get closer to the reality, to approach better understanding and sympathy, then what’s the meaning of your work of art?

In short, I think Chen Mou’s failing can be summed up as “imbalance”. He is so eager to create super heroes and mysterious extraordinary talents that he and the entire series became a prisoner to this idea- unable to actually let these heroes and extraordinary talents present themselves to us. What a pity. On the other hand, I must still praise Chen Mou’s ambition and creativity. I also have reason to believe that with the ever increasing literacy of historical text by the masses, the widespread of education, the open flow of information, and the liberation in ways of thinking, that there will be creators in the future who may surpass Chen Mou in this regard.

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