Paper Republic: Chinese Literature Matters

Politics of Translation

By Lucas Klein, published

Is translation an inherently political act? I suppose that depends on your definition of "inherent."

But if nothing else, though, translation--like so much else--provides an opportunity for censorship. One latest example, as many have noticed, is a certain government's censorship of Obama's inaugural speech. Here's the New York Times article about the issue, and here's the China Digital Times report, including a clip.


# 1.   

I think it's possible to look at the omission as a favor to the US and Obama. In the least, it reflects an understanding that Obama wasn't out to offend the Chinese leadership and/or suggest that China's Communist government is an enemy that the US needs to defeat. He was simply trying to evoke an image that Americans are generally proud of in order to inspire a belief that our current problems in the US are not insurmountable. So, I think coverage of Obama in China has generally been quite favorable, and the media's decision to omit his reference to vanquishing a Communist regime should be seen as a favor. It is no time for the US president to be issuing threats of any kind, and it is to everyone's advantage (not just ours as Americans) that he is translated in this context as non-threatening.

Matt, January 22, 2009, 3:15p.m.

# 2.   

An understanding that Obama wasn't trying to offend the Chinese could have been best expressed by publicly stating, "Obama said such and such; we're confident he wasn't really talking about us." The sudden scramble to cut away from the televised version of the speech spoke of nothing but defensiveness to me.

And doing Obama a "favor" by editing his words to conform to what he might have/should have meant… aren't these the patronizing beliefs that got us into the whole censorship mess to begin with?

 Eric Abrahamsen, January 22, 2009, 3:32p.m.

# 3.   

Maybe you're right, I'm just saying...

Matt, January 22, 2009, 3:43p.m.

# 4.   

Politicians, even more so than writers, speak to particular audiences. They have often been taken to task when their words are overheard by different audiences (remember the criticism of Obama when something he said in a closed room in San Francisco about voters in Western Pennsylvania was released to the broader public). The ethics and politics of context are pretty complicated, as are the ethics and politics of translation, because they always seem to have to deal with the question of context. And if the ethics of censorship seem pretty straight forward (censorship: we tend not to like it), do they get more complicated by some of what complicates translation ethics, namely the problem of ethnocentrism?

But what strikes me about censorship in the Chinese media is how clumsy it can be. What's the good of censoring something if people know it's going on? Wouldn't it be more effective to hide in the crowd?

Lucas Klein, January 22, 2009, 6:46p.m.

# 5.   

@Matt "...and the [Chinese] media's decision to omit his reference to vanquishing a Communist regime should be seen as a favor."

A Chinese friend of mine commenting via SMS on the censorship of the broadcast and the translated speech text:


Her thinking doesn't surprise me. It's fairly mainstream in China, and comes from someone who has never been beyond the Great Wall. But your comments, coming from a translator, blow me away...

Bruce, January 23, 2009, 3:23a.m.

# 6.   

Just to stretch the argument I made a little bit further...

The question of clumsiness is interesting. What if part of what we are calling "censorship" has a motive other than "hiding the truth of what is going on from some people in China." What if the motive is partly to send the message (to the US?): "we know you're not talking about us when you say that" - but without having to actually say so directly because 1) it would be rather embarrassing and 2) it might end up not being true. The message is there regardless, and the Chinese government has clearly demonstrated that it is not interested in making a mountain out of a molehill with respect to things that America's political leaders say in public.

In the end, what is it that has actually been hidden from anyone?

Matt, January 23, 2009, 3:45a.m.

# 7.   

How it ought to work is, next time someone in the Chinese government makes a horribly gauche statement about the Dalai Lama being a "jackal in sheep's clothing", or how America secretly means to destabilize China, the Western media should just 润色 the hell out of the press release. If these officials had any idea how they sounded to listeners, and how many people's feelings they were hurting, they would never consider saying those things, right? We'd be helping them out – everyone could get along so much better!

"…and in other news, Hu Jintao said a hearty 'thank you' to the US president for his assistance in cross-straits diplomatic negotiations. For CNN, I'm…"

I don't mean to pile on you, Matt (or rather, I do, but in the friendliest way possible), but these things do get us riled up…

 Eric Abrahamsen, January 23, 2009, 3:53a.m.

# 8.   

What if the motive is partly to send the message (to the US?):

This is certainly worth considering, but everything about the way they did this, and the way they typically handle PR, makes me think this is aimed at domestic audiences. If they didn't care what people within China saw, why the mad scramble to cut away from the speech. Why the panic? My sense is that they are, precisely, making a mountain out of a molehill, when they could have demonstrated their cool by letting the whole thing slide.

 Eric Abrahamsen, January 23, 2009, 3:58a.m.

# 9.   


I can understand why you might be "blown away," but I am really not trying to be judgmental. I am just trying to present one possible way of looking at things that has been overlooked. It doesn't necessarily reflect my own attitude toward professional translation, or anything like that, and honestly, I am not a professional translator. Nor does my comment serve as an indication of how I would have personally translated the speech if I were calling the shots at Xinhua or wherever. The very notion of that is absurd. All I am trying to do is present a way of understanding the situation from another possible perspective. There is a lot of context here and there is no way that an Inauguration speech by an American president is anything but political, way before we get to the question of translation.

Matt, January 23, 2009, 4:01a.m.

# 10.   

Obama said, "To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.” Where this sentence was censored, I'm having a hard time imagining how the censors could see themselves as doing anything but rejecting said extended hand.

That said, the makers of international policy are probably not the individuals making decisions on what gets censored. I imagine the network of censorship is such that, for their own careers and political safety, the censors will err on the side of caution. I also expect that what Xiāo Qiáng 萧强 of the China Internet Project at UC Berkeley said seems right: "Propaganda filtering is one thing, but there are certain concepts, phrases or lines that ring true among the Chinese people and that is what the Chinese propaganda people really want to filter out."

Oh, and I just noticed that on the China Digital Times page, the article's tags list includes the terms "Obama," "Communism," and "Propaganda." I wonder how many Fox News viewers have reached that page in error.

Lucas Klein, January 23, 2009, 5:36a.m.

# 11.   

I'm wonder if this particular cut was simply a mechanical application of a broad rule about how communism is portrayed in the news media, rather than having anything to do with Obama, Sino-US relations, or anything else specific to the speech, its setting, or what "rings true among the Chinese people." That is to say, there's a rule (whether written or unwritten) that probably goes something like "Communism is not to be portrayed negatively," and this gets applied across all media. Does anyone directly connected to this particular incident of censorship really care what people within China see any more than the people who have their hand on the bleep button care about the delicate sensibilities of American television audiences? Or are they both simply carrying out general instructions from agencies several levels removed?

The translation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church presents a similar example: in the printed version issued on the mainland, paragraph 2425, which dismisses the extremes of both communism and capitalism, leaves a blank space for the "communism" clause (and an agonized explanation for this decision in the translators' foreword). It's made conspicuous by its absence (here is an online discussion of the change), but there's no telling what would have happened had the couple-dozen characters been left in place.

You could argue that the news media, with its (probably unreachable) goal of reporting the uncolored facts, ought to be treated differently from publications that actually bear the imprint of domestic organizations that are not supposed to undermine the state, but journalism in China is still explicitly rooted in the mission of upholding orthodox ideology. Many journalists may chafe at their role as propaganda-spinners, but like Lucas says, many of them will choose to mechanically apply the rules just to be on the safe side.

When literature is giving the task of being morally edifying, translations get bowdlerized. When publishing has the duty to promote the official language standard, a translation's narrative voice gets compromised. The same goes when a translation has to fall in line with a political ideology.

zhwj, January 23, 2009, 8:34a.m.

# 12.   

I've been trying to get my wife to read some of my favorite books in translation (Fahrenheit 451, On the Road) to see if they've been censored in Chinese. There would certainly be a difference between translations of literature and speeches.

And if you look at translation as a form of art, you can claim that all art is political in some way.

Chinamatt, January 23, 2009, 11:24p.m.

# 13.   


Of course, most world literature is edited -- lightly or otherwise -- before it is allowed on the market in China. Whether you consider that editing "censorship" is up to you.

As zwhj suggests, there ARE clear guidelines for censorship in China when it comes to certain subjects, including the portrayal of the Communist Party, be it in China or elsewhere.

Here is an excerpt from my article, "“The Kite Runner” /《追风筝的人》: An Afghan Childhood Re-packaged for the Middle Kingdom:

"The Kite Runner" original copy:

“Not that it was a mystery; everyone knew the communists had no class. They came from poor families with no name. The same dogs who weren’t fit to lick my shoes before the Shorawi [Afghan term for the Soviets] came were now ordering me at gunpoint, Parchami flag on their lapels, making their little point about the fall of the bourgeoisie and acting like they were the ones with class.”

In the edited, Chinese version:


In the published Chinese version above, “the communists” and “Parchami” have been deleted and both replaced by the term “new government.” Parchami refers to a wing of the pro-Soviet People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan. Thus the Chinese reader is reading a critique of a “new government” which “despises people with money,” not of Soviet-backed communists who are equated with dogs.

And there is a reference to the hush-hush events of June 4, 1989, which has been airbrushed out of the Chinese version:

“That was the year that the cold war ended, the year the Berlin wall came down. It was the year of Tiananmen Square. In the midst of it all, Afghanistan was forgotten.”


Interesting to note that the translator, whom I interviewed for the article, DID fully translate the English phrases in question, but the potentially offensive copy was edited or simply deleted by his editor.

See my article on what happened to other mentions of the Communist Party, and Islam, in the Chinese version of "The Kite Runner":

Bruce Humes

Bruce Humes, January 24, 2009, 9:14a.m.


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