What is lost in translation? It’s a perennial concern for someone like me, but it took on a new twist when I was recently asked to approve a Chinese translation of a review of Maghiel van Crevel’s book Chinese Poetry in Times of Mind, Mayhem and Money (2008). My review of the original English version appeared in The China Quarterly back in 2011, but I gave permission for it to be translated and published in China following the release of the Chinese translation of Van Crevel’s book, Jingshen yu jinqian shidai de Zhongguo shige 精神与金钱时代的中国诗歌 (2017). This Chinese version of my review will formally be published in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Modern Chinese Studies (现代中文学刊), but you can already read it here.
A translation of a review published as a review of the translation: the complexities only begin here. Readers of Chinese will already have noted the title change in the Chinese translation of Van Crevel’s book: “money” (金钱) and “mind” (精神) remain, but “mayhem” has disappeared. That omission also signals a larger one: the Chinese version lacks the chapter on “Exile,” which includes discussion of poems written by Bei Dao 北岛, Wang Jiaxin 王家新, and Yang Lian 杨炼 after the Chinese government’s violent 4 June 1989 suppression of dissent.
No one familiar with working and publishing in China will bat an eyelid at such changes. Yang Lian’s own collected poems were published in China with some works removed and the titles of others changed. “To A Nine-Year-Old Girl Who Died in the Massacre” (给一个大屠杀中死去的九岁女孩) became “To a Nine-Year-Old Girl Who Died Suddenly” (给一个猝死的九岁女孩). Journals and publishers that engage with China—The China Quarterly and its publisher, Cambridge University Press, among them—face a similar pressure to avoid sensitive topics in disseminating their work in the country.
In approving the translation of my review, I faced the same dilemma that Van Crevel and these publishers and editors face in deciding whether to allow their work to be censored: refuse to change anything and so lose the possibility of addressing a Chinese audience, or make the changes and hope that one’s translated words and the mute marks of censored omissions might communicate better than the total silence of refusal. Van Crevel’s is an excellent book on contemporary Chinese poetry: I stand by my review’s description of it as the “definitive sourcebook.” It therefore deserves a wide audience in China, where its insights are most relevant. Cutting one chapter was the price of that audience.
The pressures and choices are not, of course, the same in every situation. As a large and important source of scholarship, Cambridge University Press and other major international scholarly publishers have a much greater power to stand up to censorship, as their wholesale banning in China would severely inhibit the government’s desire to make the country a world leader in research and higher education. Yet even large multinational publishers often bow to the pressure, as illustrated by Cambridge University Press’s widely publicized decision to block selected articles from The China Quarterly at the request of Beijing authorities, a decision that was only reversed after “international protests, including a petition signed by hundreds of academics, and the threat of having its publications boycotted.” Despite its enormous financial and cultural capital, Cambridge University only refused the demands of censorship because of external pressure, public embarrassment, and reputational threat. For an individual researcher working on Chinese poetry, however, there’s little to be gained and much to lose by refusing to modify one’s work to satisfy the censors.
With a heavy heart and somewhat pained conscience, then, I allowed explicit reference to events like 4 June 1989 to be removed from the Chinese translation of my review. My review retains, however, a discussion of the book’s “major advantage” when compared to “similar studies published in the PRC.” As the Chinese translation by Zhang Yaqiu 张雅秋 puts it, “this book’s advantage compared to similar research published in China is clear: . . . its frank discussion in relation to relevant historical facts” (在中国出版的同类研究著作相比，这本书优点显明：……对相关史实有率直讨论).
The ironies here, of course, abound. The translated review discusses advantages that the book, in the version published in China, no longer possesses. And the reference to Van Crevel’s “ability to address directly sensitive political matters, such as June Fourth” has been transformed into a vague reference to a “frank discussion in relation to relevant historical facts” (对相关史实有率直讨论). Still, I took small and perhaps false comfort in thinking that my reference to “historical facts” (史实) that cannot be openly discussed in China—though perhaps not quite as explicit as the phrase “sensitive political matters” used in the original review—would be clear enough to any intelligent reader. I also took some satisfaction in how the review highlighted the omissions of the Chinese translation of Van Crevel’s book by referring to the thirteen chapters of the original English version and to the discussion of work by Yang Lian and Bei Dao. Are these the false comforts of people who seek to find righteousness in their own cowardice? Perhaps. It’s a question I keep asking myself and one that I hope anyone else writing about contemporary Chinese society and culture does too.
In writing this piece and reviewing my original review published in The China Quarterly, however, I was surprised to discover something more unexpected and disturbing. Unbeknownst to me, The China Quarterly had also removed my reference to 4 June 1989 when it published my original review back in 2011. I went back to check the final version submitted to The China Quarterly and confirmed that the Word document that I submitted referred to “June Fourth.” However, in the version published, those words had been changed to the “Tiananmen incident.” While June fourth is occasionally (and erroneously, given the much wider geographic reach of the protests and the crackdown) called the second Tiananmen incident, the term Tiananmen incident usually refers to the 5 April 1976 protests in Beijing’s central square and not to the massacre of protesters thirteen years later.
Rather bizarrely and ironically, then, my very reference to the ability of those outside China “to address directly sensitive political matters, such as June Fourth” had been altered and so disproven. In fact, the Chinese translation now published in Mainland China actually gets closer to my intent than my original review after it was subjected to silent censorship by the editors of The China Quarterly.
It is easy to become worn down or even blind (as I was) to the many silent and insidious operations of censorship in the world today. Perhaps the one advantage of engaging directly with overt censorship in China is that it can make one aware of the broader workings of censorship and self-censorship that operate in contemporary culture. These lessons are, like censorship itself, eminently—and frighteningly—translatable.
Jacob Edmond is an associate professor in English at the University of Otago, New Zealand. He is the author of A Common Strangeness: Contemporary Poetry, Cross-Cultural Encounter, Comparative Literature (2012) and has published essays in such journals as Comparative Literature, Contemporary Literature, Poetics Today, Slavic Review, and The China Quarterly. He has recently completed a book manuscript entitled “Master Copy: New Media, World Literature, Iterative Poetics.”