“You’re stepping on my shadow, please back off,” she said.

Sun Yisheng / Nicky Harman

Further Politics of Translation

By Lucas Klein, published

More for the files on how translation intersects with censorship:

How Beijing Butchered Sean Penn's "Commie, Homo-Loving" Oscar Speech

and the original article from Shanghaiist:

CCTV says no to commie homo-loving sons of guns

The question in my mind is, while we can see how censorship can rely on the practice of "nativization"--in this case, a translation that adheres to, rather than challenges, the mores of the linguistic culture of the target language--do we go too far to call all nativizing translations acts of censorship?


# 1.   

Two recent items now on Paper-Republic can not be accessed -- including "How Beijing Butchered Sean Penn's "Commie, Homo-Loving" Oscar Speech" (above). The other is "Taipei Times interview with Karen Kingsbury."

I'd like to speak factually about how the PRC pracices censorship, but when items on censorship are banned, it's hard to stick to the facts.

Talk about censorship!

 Bruce, March 6, 2009, 7:10p.m.

# 2.   

@Bruce: That's the first rule of censorship: You don't (let people) talk about censorship!

I don't think we can assume that the sanitization of Penn's comment was done to make it fit "the mores of the linguistic culture of the target language". It's not like Chinese doesn't have words for "commie" or "homo-loving", after all. This phrase was altered to fit the mores of the political culture of the target language. What if I were asked to translate some materials from the Cultural Revolution into English, and decided to change "American imperialist aggressors and their running dogs" into "American military forces and their allies"? Americans don't like to be called imperialist aggressors, after all – it would offend our sensibilities!

From my observations and talks with Chinese writers and translators, I get the feeling that it's very natural for Chinese translators to view linguistic and political translation as a single process. We're trained not to take responsibility for content – 'fidelity' not only means refraining from embroidering your translation, it also means the content is someone else's problem. The messenger is reasonably confident of not being shot. In China (and plenty of other places: "heavily censored in 53 countries around Asia"?! Isn't that all of them?) that disassociation is not made; "translation" means making the content acceptable, and the translator is held responsible. That begs the question: acceptable to whom?

One thing I'm curious of: how many of the people in China who consider themselves personally responsible for sanitizing incoming content from abroad have full access to unsanitized content? To what extent does censorship blind the censor?

As for how to tell when you've strayed from linguistic to political translation… It might be a hard line to draw for some, but for myself I think it's probably like pornography: I know it when I see it.

 Eric Abrahamsen, March 6, 2009, 8:33p.m.

# 3.   

You're right that political mores and linguistic mores are different, and that they're often inter-connected and that extricating them might be as fruitful as it seems futile, but for what it's worth... when I wrote "the mores of the linguistic culture of the target language," I meant all or any of the mores of any language group. What I was trying to avoid was an association with language & nation that would show up if I'd written "the mores of the country." They speak Chinese in many countries, but they share certain mores (and do not share other mores). Also, governments are not the only bodies that censor; companies do it all the time. Usually we translate that into Public Relations.

As for your question about censorship blinding the censor, I think it's a great point. Seems to me to be constructed around plausible deniability.

Lucas Klein, March 9, 2009, 10:56a.m.

# 4.   


Your first question seems to me 提得一针见血, perhaps because I have been turning over the same one in slightly dissimilar language for some time. It is a question that in one certain sense transcends the political context and challenges our rationale for translating in general.

“Do we go to far to call all nativizing translations acts of censorship?” Honestly, I don’t think so—but only if we agree that the terms *nativization* and *censorship* are defined on the bases both of process and of intent. Both terms refer to intentional alteration of a text or object during the process of its dissemination, yet the purposes behind these respective alterations don’t always fit the same description. Both are at least mildly paternalistic and certainly conservative; the translator, faced with expressions of perception that are too new in their raw form to feed to a dull audience, ‘adapts’ the piece into “good English” so that it won’t clash with established standards. There is more to flesh out here, but to cut to the chase, I find that censorship is strongly differentiated from nativization by its defensiveness, its imagination of a dangerous cultural polemic, and therefore operates directly against the foreign media it manipulates.

But to us, I think the sticking point lies in nativization. Translation carries with it a guarantee of loss, namely, the sights and sounds of the original language. The palpable, colorful stuff that Robert Frost bitched about. So the next question is, what have we got left? What do we keep? To know the answer to that, we have to ask, What do I do with this English? When I started getting serious about translating modern lit, I was immediately caught on this dilemma. Uniquely Chinese style and imagery, when faithfully translated, sometimes produced bony, mutant English that went in sideways; yet, in those times when it clicked, the result was shockingly beautiful. Conversely, having lost sound and sight, if we then adapt style and syntax to suit a cultural palate, what do we have left? Facts?

Now, this would all be a bunch of airy 空谈 for me if I hadn’t had translations rejected because the “grammar and style were not up to standard.” I’m not calling myself infallible by any means, but it begs the questions *whose* standard and why? Those essays were written by a Chinese man for a Chinese audience. If you are a translator and I an editor, should I always expect you to present me with a text that, but for its content, could have been written by an American, that reveals a creative process only minimally different from mine and thereby requires the least amount of energy in order to understand it? Or is English a tool, as rusted-real as a plough or tedder, whose object is to transfer a weight of substance from one state to another, while losing as little as possible? To what extent is translation teaching?

 Canaan Morse, April 2, 2009, 7:52p.m.


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