Lost in Translation

Selective Translation of Foreign News Articles Is Ultimately Self-Defeating

Is selective translation of news articles from the foreign media more insidious than no translation at all? The debate was sparked by a garbled translation of the cover story of the Economist headlined "What Does China Want?"

In a translated version run on ThePaper.cn, a generously funded website covering political and social news, passages following some transitional device such as "but" and "however," which seek to give a counterpoint and more often than not contain the core messages, are excised. For example, the translated passage renders: "As China becomes, again, the world's largest economy, it wants the respect it enjoyed in centuries past," while leaving out "But it does not know how to achieve …"

Translators in China are not neutral message conveyors but active censor-oriented rewriting hacks. Their job requires the sensitivity of knowing the parameters. Foreign news is not used as a means of national self-reflection, but as an adjunct to domestic propaganda. Veteran translators are infuriated by the accusation that they are accomplices to an authoritarian regime. They point out that the core issue is not how to translate, but how to translate and get published. Publish or perish is the rub.

How the translators hew to the adaptation and rewriting is often an indicator of where the publication stands in the Communist Party-condoned ideological spectrum. Reference News (Cankao Xiaoxi) was founded in 1931 as an internal publication to provide the party leadership with an idea of how the world perceived China. When it turned into a mass circulation paper in 1985, translators were given the mandate of selecting passages from world press and adapting a propaganda agenda. Boasting a daily circulation of 3 million, Reference News is influential and profitable. Global Times, a tabloid subsidiary of the People's Daily, routinely mangles foreign news articles to bolster its nationalistic stance. But when ThePaper.cn was launched this summer, hopes ran high that it would set itself apart to attract weary online readers. There is a sense of betrayal that it commits the same sin of translating only the positive while blocking passages critical of China.

Pity ThePaper.cn. The fledgling news website has already got a rap on the knuckles that its wayward experiments must be reined in. A think tank affiliated with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences posted online that propaganda officials have issued a "timely warning" after a series of minor transgressions by the website that all news mediaincluding new mediamust adhere to one standard and the same "foundation color." The media can experiment with different ways of reporting, varying the means of delivery, but the messages must be identical.

In the age of global communication, officials take filtering reports from the foreign media seriously. Letting people know what the world thinks of them must be managed with great care and a firewall erected to guard against "foreign infiltration" to sow seeds of doubt in China's greatness. Boosterism is de rigueur and under no circumstance can it challenge the legitimacy of the regime. As a result, readers of Reference News think the foreign press on China is filled with either starry-eyed admiration or rabid imperialist hostility.

I once wrote a column on the perception of China in Latin America, in which I described how the local people, awed by China's economic success, look to it as an alternative development model. China's defiant stance vis-à-vis the United States in international politics also struck a sympathetic cord. But people in those predominantly Catholic countries are troubled by religious persecution in China, especially the sufferings of the "underground" churches and the vilification of Dalai Lama. In a translated version, religion and Tibet disappeared.

"What Does China Want?" asks searching questions. If the excised passages had been translated and published, there could have been a chance to start a serious national discussion. The distorted translation reinforces what political commentator Edward Luttwak calls "great-state autism" that China traps itself in. This, ultimately, is self-defeating.

Media, Politics
Translation, Censorship