Forbidden Zones in Translation

By Eric Abrahamsen, published

The following is a translation of this article from Caijing magazine, entitled 译书有禁区 (Book Translation's 'Forbidden Area' in China).

Here's a comment left by a netizen on this writer's blog post, 'Huiyuan is a Foreign Enterprise':

"Is there a Chinese language version of Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics? Can you buy it on the Mainland?"

My blog post described a few ideas from a new book by Professor Huang Yasheng, at MIT's Sloan School of Management (Yasheng Huang, Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics: Entrepreneurship and the State, Cambridge University Press, 2008).

Professor Huang is an overseas-Chinese scholar, and his book is written in English. But I must agree with the commenter's point: there's little chance that a Chinese translation of the book could be published.

In fact, very few books published abroad by overseas-Chinese scholars are translated into Chinese, particularly when the books are written on the subject of China. Some scholarly works are translated into Chinese, but with some of the contents altered. Of course, works by non overseas-Chinese also meet with the same treatment.

I'll give a few other examples of which I'm aware:

In 2005, Hu Danian, professor of history at the City University of New York, published China and Albert Einstein through the Harvard University Press (China and Albert Einstein: The Reception of the Physicist and His Theory in China, 1917-1979, Harvard University Press, 2005). One year later, Professor Hu translated his own book into Chinese as 爱因斯坦在中国 (1917-1979), adding quite a bit of newly-discovered historical material, and it was published by the Shanghai Science and Technology Education Publishing House, part of the Shanghai Century Publishing Group.

The part of the book describing criticisms of Einstein and his theories during the Cultural Revolution was deleted, and the names of several famous people, including famous scientists, were removed. Interested readers can compare the published versions with some chapters available online:

The Chinese Century: The Rising Chinese Economy and Its Impact on the Global Economy, the Balance of Power, and Your Job (Wharton School Publishing, 2004), by Professor Oded Shenkar, Ohio State University's School of Business, was published in Chinese in 2005 by the People's University Press. But the chapters on intellectual property rights were deleted altogether, because the translator did not agree with the writer's point of view.

Some writers' works are treated very differently. Chinese readers are all familiar with the famous Chinese-born writer Zhang Chunru (Iris Chang), whose book The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II (Basic Books, 1997) was called "the first English-language book to fully research the Nanjing Massacre". The Oriental Publishing House once published a Chinese translation of this book: The Forgotten Massacre: The Rape of Nanking (I seem to recall having read another Chinese translation, as well).

But Iris Chang's first book, the one that made her famous, is a biography the father of the guided missile in China, Qian Xuesen: Thread of the Silkworm (Basic Books, 1995). This book describes Qian Xusen's contributions to the develoment of rocket technology in America, how he left America after falling prey to McCarthyism, and how he re-invigorated the development of space-flight in China.

Perhaps because of its descriptions of Qian Xusen's experiences in America, this book, thoroughly deserving of translation, could not be published on the Mainland. Luckily it was published in Taiwan: The Father of the Chinese Guided Missile: the Riddle of Qian Xusen (Taiwan Tianxia Publishing Company, 1996).

I myself have had similar experiences. My English-language book China's Scientific Elite (RoutledgeCurzon, 2004) discusses how the formation of a Chinese scientific elite fit with principles of universalism. Though it was recommended by domestic experts it stands very little chance of being translated, as it is obliged to make mention of the "both red and expert" issue.

I remember in 1979, when Reading magazine was established, they once said "there should be no forbidden zones in reading". Today, the forbidden zones may be gone for readers, but they still exist for translation.


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