Found in Translation

Netizens cry foul when a new Chinese media outlet selectively translates an Economist cover article.

On July 22, a glossy new Chinese media venture known as the Paper announced its launch to much fanfare. A subset of Shanghai’s state-run Oriental Morning Post with outside investment estimated at $32 million, the Paper seems to be a venture into state-funded public service journalism. The timing is appropriate, coming as the influence of staid party mouthpieces has diminished while new media has flourished among China’s increasingly internet-savvy populace. With several bold investigative reports in the past month alone, the Paper could be primed to break new ground, with the state-run Global Times hailing it as a “trail blazer.” But if a recent translation snafu is any indication, the Times may have overstated the new outlet’s promise.

On August 25, the Paper posted a Chinese translation of London-based magazine the Economist‘s August 23 cover article, “What China Wants.” The Economist feature proffered several recommendations for how the United States can accommodate China’s economic and military rise without forfeiting U.S. interests in Asia. But the abridged Chinese translation left out several key passages. An August 25 post on the popular mobile chat platform WeChat by a public account called Mayflower Report demonstrates how translators neatly excised negative conclusions and ominous predictions about trouble China may be creating for itself in the future.

Take, for example, the opening line. Italicized below are portions from the original Economist article but excluded in the Chinese version.

As China becomes, again, the world’s largest economy, it wants the respect it enjoyed in centuries past. But it does not know how to achieve or deserve it.

From later in the article:

Finessing this need for things to change yet stay the same would be a tricky task in any circumstances. It is made harder by the fact that China’s Leninist leadership is already managing a huge contradiction between change and stasis at home as it tries to keep its grip on a society which has transformed itself socially almost as fast as it has grown economically. And it is made more dangerous by the fact that China is steeped in a belligerent form of nationalism and ruled over by men who respond to every perceived threat and slight with disproportionate self-assertion.

And a third example:

Put together China’s desire to re-establish itself (without being fully clear about what that might entail) and America’s determination not to let that desire disrupt its interests and those of its allies (without being clear about how to respond) and you have the sort of ill-defined rivalry that can be very dangerous indeed. Shi Yinhong, of Renmin University in Beijing, one of China’s most eminent foreign-policy commentators, says that, five years ago, he was sure that China could rise peacefully, as it says it wants to. Now, he says, he is not so sure.

The author of the post, who uses the online moniker “Mayflower” in order to remain anonymous — under Chinese law, people who post what the government considers “harmful content” online can be arrested — told Foreign Policy in an interview via WeChat that selective translation is common practice in a variety of state media outlets. Mayflower, whose eponymous WeChat public account examines media trends, wrote that news platforms in China “will usually selectively translate” an article that “mentions sensitive material, such as ideology,” especially when “the perspective presented is different from the officially sanctioned narrative.” But this was the first time Mayflower had noticed the Paper publishing a compromised translation. Mayflower wrote a second post on August 27 called “Readers Can’t Be Cheated,” which explicitly castigated the Paper for misleading its followers; but that critical post has since been deleted after being “reported by many users,” which suggests that this critique of the Paper may have rubbed censors the wrong way.

The Mayflower post wasn’t an outlier; after the original complaint, a number of other alternative publishing platforms chimed in. An August 26 post by Deep Blue Financea popular WeChat public account that frequently covers Chinese media trends, also examined the spotty translation, concluding that “the Paper‘s credibility will hereafter be greatly diminished in the eyes of the public.” Ma Shaohua, professor of media studies at Beijing-based Renmin University of China, wrote on his blog that selective censorship “did not start with the Paper, and it will not end with the Paper.”

Yuxin Lin contributed research.