An Interview with a Chinese Translator
“Censorship is the elephant in the room”
On November 13, 2012, Sampsonia Way published a column by Fearless, Ink. writer Bina Shah which chronicled her five-day stay in China as a part of Hong Kong Baptist University’s International Writers Workshop. Shah’s prior involvement with freedom of speech issues had made her aware of the presence of censorship in China, however this was the first time she came face-to-face with its reality. She describes her experience in this way: “We’d been asked to send in our texts months before arriving in China so that they could be translated for a booklet that would be distributed at the events. But I realized, staring at my work translated into Mandarin, that I had no idea whether the work had been translated accurately or not.”
Shah’s concern about censorship through translation in China has a wide background. Some examples are the Chinese version of Hillary Clinton’s memoir, Living History, published in 2003, which omitted entire sections where Clinton mentions Chinese Human Rights activist Harry Wu; the Chinese translation of President Barack Obama’s 2009 inaugural address left out the moments where the President addressed communism and dissent. However, these isolated instances do not provide much insight into the frequency with which content is censored through translation.
That’s why Sampsonia Way spoke with a Chinese news media translator who works for the Chinese version of a prominent international business magazine. It’s important to clarify that due to the fact that the mainstream media outlets are government-owned, this translator’s work differs from those who translate literature.
In this interview, the translator—who preferred to remain anonymous—discussed the issues raised in Shah’s column and further delved into the intricacies of censorship through translation in the Chinese news media: Its method, its frequency, and its effect on the public.
What is the role of a translator in China?
Before an article is handed to a translator, it has already been cleared of the possibility of being controversial enough to get the organization in trouble. So the role of a translator is to just translate. Translators, especially those who work for the news media, generally don’t have a say in which articles are to be translated or what part of the translated work is to be published.
Who is held accountable for the message in a translated work?
In the case of a news organization, it is often times the editor-in-chief, or company leadership. Editors that are accountable for all content usually keep an eye out for potentially sensitive messages.
If the message is too controversial, an editor will be summoned by the related government departments, get a warning, take down the article in question, and try not to cross the line again (which is now a little more clearly defined).
How is this “line” defined, if at all? What topics does the news media avoid?
Censorship is the elephant in the room; it is not something that’s officially admitted, so there are not official ‘guidelines’ of any sort. It’s up to the individual translator or writer to calculate whether certain messages will be tolerable to the censor, based on past instances. The censors probably want to make sure no information reaches the broader public that can potentially cause social unrest or undermine the government’s effort of ideological education. Examples of taboo topics are comments on the political system, especially information revealing the personal life of important political figures, controversial current events which the official media has claimed the exclusive right to comment on, and reports on dissidents and their advocates.
What word is the most sensitive to censorship?
“Censorship” itself is among the most sensitive of all. But the censorship regime, the Great Firewall of China, the various ways of bypassing it, and the whole ‘sensitive words’ list, are all easy triggers of censorship.
Who is the censor in China and what does one of their warnings entail?
There is no ONE department that does the overall censorship for everything. There are censors in regulators of different areas. For example, the State Administration of Radio Film and Television is the regulator of radio, films, and television content all over the country. It has its own rules and degree of tolerance for different subjects, and it would have a group of people to do the review and decide, for instance, whether a film should be imported, or which scene has to be cut before it hits the theatre.
I believe that this is part of what every regulator of a specific industry does, no matter the country; however, in China it is carried out according to an extremely closed-minded attitude, based on an obsolete ideological mindset. Due to the absence of a sound legal system China’s regulators can often bring consequences to transgressors without resorting to legal procedures.
In a warning, the organization, previously not on the ‘naughty list,’ will now be watched more closely. It will also become more self-conscious, thus carrying out more self-censorship in the future. In severe cases, the news organization’s website will be barred from inland visitors indefinitely, ranging from several hours, to months and even years. Some websites’ certificates can be suspended and there are ways for the regulators to cut them up financially. It’s usually the organization’s concern for survival that makes them grow conservative with regard to their choice of reports. This happened once to the organization that I work for, due to reports on a high-profile political struggle.
Are there any ways a translator can subvert the censors to communicate a controversial message? If so, what are these methods?
Sensitive messages are more often skipped, or blurred with a general description within a sensitive context. For example, Xi Jinping, the name of the General Party Secretary of the Communist Party, will just be translated to “leadership.” Due to the formal nature of news media, there is not much room to communicate controversial messages creatively. This is left to places like Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter, and various blogs, where controversial messages or information are actively exchanged/discussed through euphemism, jokes, stories, and so on. But at the same time these people also bear more (as well as more personal) risks.
How aware is the Chinese public that something has been censored? For example, Hillary Clinton’s memoir in 2003, or President Barack Obama’s inauguration speech in 2009. What is the effect on those who are not aware?
The Internet is where most people get their first personal encounter with censorship and learn what it’s about. Because of the censorship of Google search results, for instance, people are denied access to information that they may care the most or are the most curious about. So I would say that a person’s awareness of censorship, to a large extent, depends on how technologically-minded he is, and how often he exposes himself to this kind of discussion online.
Those who are skeptical will find a way around it, either through reading original foreign-language news or negotiating the Great Firewall of China for bolder Chinese-language media. The rest will not sense the difference, I’m afraid.
How has being a translator affected your understanding of words and the flow of information in your country?
Translation allows me to distinguish between what is true information and what are just meaningless dribbles, as the latter would be untranslatable. A large part of the mainstream media’s reports fall into this category.
The effect of censorship on translation, it seems to me, is to take otherwise refreshing foreign articles and blend them harmoniously with the official propaganda.
The fundamental problem with the news system in China lies not in censorship but the fact that the mainstream media is owned by and will always serve in the interest of the state (or the Party). Suppose the censorship regime is lifted: Outspoken media will emerge (as there already is now), but the mainstream media still gets to decide what information most people will consume and how they are to think about it.
The idea for this interview was inspired by a column one of our contributors wrote about a concern that her message was not being communicated fully in a live translation of her work. Her article can be found here. What are your thoughts on the column? How much of this is true? Where do you see discrepancies?
I find it to be a fairly decent account of the current situation, except for the quoted description that “all Chinese people access international social media through proxy networks, called VPNs.” Not all, of course, but rather a pretty small, if select, portion of the total online population. You should check out this TED talk given by prominent Chinese journalist Michael Anti, who provides a multi-layered explanation regarding China’s online scene.