Liu Xiaobo Is Locked Up in China, and Locked Out of the Translation of a Paul Auster Novel

A portrait of the Chinese dissident-writer Liu Xiaobo at the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo. Mr. Liu was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010.Credit Espen Rasmussen for The New York Times

A portrait of the Chinese dissident-writer Liu Xiaobo at the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo. Mr. Liu was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010.Credit Espen Rasmussen for The New York Times

The New York Times
By Chris Buckley
May 20, 2015
The works of the New York writer Paul Auster often hinge on ominous disappearances, and his novel “Sunset Park” has passages about the secretive detention of the Chinese dissident-writer Liu Xiaobo in 2008 and the efforts of the PEN American Center, a writers’ advocacy group, to secure his release.

Lately, Mr. Liu has vanished again from Mr. Auster’s fictional world.

n his novel “Sunset Park,” Paul Auster wrote about the secretive detention of Liu Xiaobo.Credit Todd Heisler/The New York Times

n his novel “Sunset Park,” Paul Auster wrote about the secretive detention of Liu Xiaobo.Credit Todd Heisler/The New York Times

In a twist that might well fit in one of Mr. Auster’s self-referential novels, a report released on Wednesday by the PEN American Center says that the section of “Sunset Park” about Mr. Liu’s arrest was cut without Mr. Auster’s approval in the Chinese translation of his book, another target of censorship that can strike literary works as well as explicitly political books. 

“This is their new case, the most pressing case on the current agenda, and ever since Liu Xiaobo was detained in early December, they have worked on little else,” says a passage about PEN American’s efforts to free Mr. Liu in the English version of the novel, which was published in 2010. “He is being held in an undisclosed location, with no access to a lawyer, no writing materials, no way to communicate with anyone.”

In the novel, Alice Bergstrom, a graduate student working at PEN American, senses “that no amount of indignation will alter the plans of the Chinese authorities, and even if PEN can roust a million people to pound on drums across the entire globe, there is little chance those drums will be heard.”

The mainland Chinese edition of the novel, published late last year, left out the main parts about Mr. Liu’s case, and remaining mentions of Mr. Liu and China were replaced by cryptic, almost Auster-esque references to “L” and “country C.” In reality, Mr. Liu was sentenced to 11 years in prison in 2009 and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010. His wife, Liu Xia, who is also mentioned in the original version of the novel, and appears in the Chinese edition as “L’s wife,” lives in heavy isolation under informal house arrest.

“Well, I live in the world I write about,” Mr. Auster, who has supported PEN American’s efforts to secure Mr. Liu’s freedom, said in a telephone interview.

“I’m not even blaming the publisher,” he said. “I understand the pressure they’re under, and if they had taken a stand and printed those pages, they probably would have been shut down.”

The New York Times confirmed the cuts by comparing the English-language and mainland Chinese editions of “Sunset Park.” According to the PEN American report, the Chinese company that oversaw the translation in China said that it had told Mr. Auster about the changes through a Chinese journalist based in New York. Mr. Auster denied that happened.

Hollywood has been grappling with how to avoid offending China’s censors while studios cultivate the country’s huge audiences for action spectaculars. And the pressures on foreign book publishers and agents are growing. Despite the inroads of Internet entertainment, the Chinese remain avid readers of books, including many in translation.

In 2013, Chinese publishers registered copyright contracts for 16,625 books from abroad, including 5,489 from the United States and 2,521 from Britain, according to government data. At BookExpo America, a major gathering of the publishing industry that opens in New York City on May 27, China will be the “guest of honor” at the Global Market Forum.

report in The Times in 2013 described how foreign writers grappled with China’s censorship demands, some accepting cuts or changes as the price of reaching Chinese readers, others rejecting changes as violating their principles. The report by PEN American says that authors and their agents often fail to read or to demand contractual safeguards on translation, or to take other steps to control what appears under the authors’ names in China.

“Many have signed contracts that promise the preservation of the author’s original content, but then leave the translation to the Chinese publisher and fail to vet the resulting copy, leaving their material vulnerable to undetected censorship,” says the PEN American report.

“Some writers leave the details of their foreign rights agreements to their agents or publishers, who may neither challenge cuts to the Chinese edition nor raise the matter with their client. Often the writer is never consulted about the censorship of their work and is completely unaware of it.”

The PEN American report says that authors should ensure that contracts with Chinese publishers require that the authors have final say over any cuts or changes and that authors should also find their own expert translators to ensure that the publishers are faithful to their words.

“Books that deal directly and heavily with politically sensitive topics such as the Tiananmen Square massacre, Tibet and Taiwan are almost inevitably censored, but works of poetry, fiction, memoir and even self-help texts are not safe from the editor’s scalpel in China,” the report says.

The Chinese Communist Party enforces a nebulous web of rules about what can appear in print and online. And publishers, agents and translators often try to avoid any trouble by anticipating what might offend officials and bowdlerizing manuscripts, even beyond what censorship rules explicitly demand. Chinese-language translations published in Hong Kong, Taiwan and other places outside mainland China do not undergo the same cuts but are harder for mainland readers to obtain.

Other examples of work censored in China without approval cited in the report include an essay by Robert Hass, the former poet laureate of the United States, who wrote an essay that was cut in translation. “On China,” by Henry A. Kissinger, the former American secretary of state, suffered some unauthorized excisions, despite offering a generally sympathetic view of China’s evolution.

After Mr. Kissinger was told about the cuts and changes a few weeks before publication, he told the Chinese publisher that “if asked about discrepancies he would make clear that no changes had been authorized,” Mr. Kissinger’s press officer, Jessee LePorin, said in emailed comments, echoing remarks she made in the PEN American report.

Mr. Kissinger, Ms. LePorin added, “also believes, on balance, it has been useful to present an American view of the events in ‘On China’ to a Chinese audience.”

Andrew Solomon, a writer and professor of clinical psychology at Columbia University in New York, belatedly found that much discussion of homosexuality, including his own reminiscences, was cut from his book about depression, “The Noonday Demon,” when it was translated and published in mainland China in 2006 as “Escaping From Depression.”

“I am angry that deletions were made without my approval or notice,” he said in emailed answers to questions. Mr. Solomon, the president of the board of trustees of the PEN American Center, said he found out about the cuts from the authors of the group’s report on censorship.

Mr. Solomon said that, had he known beforehand about the cuts, he would probably have reluctantly gone along, but that he would have demanded that a preface note the excisions and that ellipses in the main text mark what was cut. He said he would be more vigilant about the planned mainland Chinese edition of his latest book, “Far From the Tree.”

“ ‘Far From the Tree’ deals with gay issues, and I will press the publisher very hard not to make unauthorized changes,” Mr. Solomon said. “It is critical that authors and publishers know what is going on, and that they take steps to resolve censorship issues on a case-by-case, page-by-page basis.”

Mr. Auster said that he was taken by surprise not so much by the cutting of the passage about Mr. Liu, but by what he said was the publisher’s failure to discuss the difficulties and the options. He said he discovered the cuts several months ago when a sister-in-law, who is fluent in Chinese, examined the translation against the original and noted Mr. Liu’s absence.

Mr. Auster’s agent, the Carol Mann Agency, confirmed by email that its contract with the Chinese publisher demanded written consent for any changes or cuts. “It was a fait accompli by the time I got the book,” Mr. Auster said. “I would probably have said, ‘Let’s not publish this book.’ ”

Peng Lun, the editor at Shanghai 99 Culture Consulting, the company that oversaw the book’s mainland Chinese translation and publication, said in a telephone interview that Mr. Auster was informed through the journalist who served as the company’s intermediary about the proposed cuts. Mr. Peng said he did not send Mr. Auster or his agent a written record of that communication.

“During the editing process, our only course was to make excisions,” Mr. Peng said. “If Chinese readers know about Liu Xiaobo’s case, they’ll still be able to guess.”

Mr. Auster said that later this month PEN American would sponsor a reading of works by censored and imprisoned Chinese writers on the steps of the New York Public Library.

“I’m going to be reading a poem by Liu Xiaobo,” he said.

Kiki Zhao contributed research.