It’s always good fun to observe how the Chinese media exercises censorship even as it seeks to use the foreign press to trumpet the PRC’s modernity and openness. An article in today’s Cankao Xiaoxi (参考消息), China’s Book Publishing Industry Gradually Liberalizes (中国图书产业逐渐变的开放), is a marvelous case in point. It is an edited translation of an article which appeared in the New York Times, “Book Publishers Scramble for Chinese Readers.”
Cankao Xiaoxi is a respected and influential Chinese-language digest of the world press with a long history, and in many cities across China it sells out every day before noon. Virtually no English is used and little or no content is added. But references deemed unbecoming to China’s image are often “airbrushed.”
As usual in my pieces on Cankao Xiaoxi, I run the original English copy immediately below. For the benefit of English speakers who cannot read the Chinese version published and distributed throughout China, I cross out the English words that were deleted when the article was translated, and indicate any added copy (normally just for readability) by putting it [in brackets]. Highlights:
- Several phrases and even some quotes referring to love between males have been “harmonized” (i.e., deleted or translated less than accurately)
- Negative references to the Communist Party are deleted
- All references to Li Jihong (李继宏), the English-to-Chinese translator whose best-selling version of The Kite Runner was censored before publication, have been omitted
- The reference to the Dalai Lama as “the [Chinese] government’s arch-nemisis” has been cut
By Dan Levin (Dec 21, 2010) The New York Times
BEIJING —Star-crossed love between Alexander the Great and his teenage male slave. Ferocious battles that defined an empire. The bloodshed and romance of Ancient Greece.
The novel “The Persian Boy,” by Mary Renault, has it all. In the West, the book, which is filled with [homosexual] scenes of pederasty and homosexual passion, raises a few eyebrows nearly four decades after it was first published. But in China, where omnipotent censors regularly smother [delete] sensitive content and portrayals of sexuality are illegal, one would think a book like this would never make it to the bookstore itself, let alone past a publisher’s desk
Well, think again. When Zheng Yuantao, a 30-year-old translator, came upon the English version in 2005, he set out to bring this tale to the Chinese readership in a language they could understand.
“My goal was to translate a positive gay love story for Chinese people to see as a role model,” he said on a recent afternoon near his home in Beijing.
Two years after he first approached a Chinese publisher, Horizon Media, with the project, he celebrated his succcess at the book’s introductory party this past August, signing copies for a line of eager readers. A second printing of 5,000 copies ran in November following a first run of 10,000.
Mr. Zheng’s triumph marks a stunning shift in Chinese society as the country’s headlong economic development has brought new liberalization and ideas to its shores. While film, radio and television remain squarely under the [strict control] thumb of the Chinese government, the book industry has steadily become more open.
With tastes growing more sophisticated and worldly, foreign book publishers have leapt at the opportunity to attract new readers among China’s growing middle class.
Although certain subjects like the Dalai Lama, Taiwan independence, dark episodes in Communist history, and overtly religious themes remain verboten—and are deleted from translated editions of foreign titles—the hunger for literature, business advice and self-help books among Chinese publishers and their international counterparts to translate classics and the latest best sellers into Chinese, creating new opportunities for book agents and translators to help bridge the gap between East and West.
According to the General Administration of Press and Publication [official sources], more than 15,700 foreign titles were bought by Chinese publishing companies in 2008, including more than 4,000 from the United States, the No. 1 country of origin. In 2005, less than 10,000 foreign book titles were sold to China.
Horizon Media, part of the Shanghai Century Publishing Group, was founded in 2002 with a mission to publish social science books and had no literature department. But it has adapted deftly to the evolving demand, now publishing about 150 titles a year, 70 percent of which come from outside mainland China. The company sells novels for between 20 and 36 renminbi, or $3 and $5.40.
Wang Ling, Horizon‘s [Media’s] chief literature editor, cites as a turning point the company’s publishing of “The Da Vinci Code” in 2003 , of which two million copies have been printed here, followed by the huge success of “The Kite Runner,” with 800,000 in print—astronomical numbers in a country where, Ms. Wang says, only “super-best sellers” reach a half million copies.
[If a foreign title is to succeed] The quality of a translation plays a major role in a foreign title’s success in China, [quality is very critical] so Horizon takes great care to hire someone with an ear for language and a contemporary voice that readers will enjoy. “A good translator is not just fluent in the source language but must also know how to write an eloquent Chinese sentence,” Ms. Wang said.
Frequently, Horizon turns to Li Jihong, a 30-year-old from Shanghai who has translated 20 books, including “The Kite Runner,” “A Thousand Splended Suns” and the “Conversations With God” series by Clive Cussler and Margaret Atwood. He usually translates with a dictionary by his side for obscure terms. “You have to see through the words in the original language and get what the author wants to say, and then find an accurate and decent way of expressing it in Chinese,” he said.
Sometimes, however, an authentic translation runs afoul of [is not advantageous to] the Chinese government, and then changes must be made. In “The Kite Runner,” references to the Soviets’ disastrous meddling in Afghanistan were removed, as it was deemed to tarnish the Communist brand, as was a glowing mention of the government’s arch-nemesis, the Dalai Lama, in the book “Communion With God.”
Mr. Li loved the “Conversations With God” series so much that he bought the Chinese rights, which also ensured that no editor could change his translation. The first book stayed on the Amazon China top-100 best-seller list for a year after it was first published. It is a constant affirmation to Mr. Li, who thinks these books can benefit Chinese society because they “awaken the conscience of the powerful and bring consolution to the powerless,” he said.
Of course, translators alone do not bring foreign books to China. The Big Apple Agency, the mainland’s largest, represents publishers and imprints from around the world seeking to license book titles to the more than 1,000 publishers it works with in China. Big Apple handles the legwork, which includes sending samples, negotiating offer terms and tracking royalty payments, for which it generally receives a 10 percent cut. The agency said it sealed more than 2,000 contracts in 2009 and expected that number to increase this year. Contracts can be lucrative—last week Big Apple resold J.D. Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye” for more than $200,000.
Big Apple and other agencies also make sure the publishers’ intellectual property does not fall into the wrong hands in China, which has a notorious record for ignoring copyright laws. “All too often do we hear stories where proprietors send book samples to publishers directly and never hear back from them,” said Wendy King, vice-president of Big Apple. To safeguard material, the agency keeps a log of lent review samples, sends out only partial electronic files of manuscripts for review and notes which publishers have bad credit or fail to promptly provide royalty statements.
Western publishers are flocking to China, with many opening offices in Beijing and Shanghai and mobbing Chinese publishers at international book fairs. HarperCollins says its number of deals and revenue from those sales have more than doubled over the last three years, mostly in the business and self-help categories: Donald Trump’s “Think Big in Business and Life,” and Jack Welch’s “Winning being two of the most successful titles.
This gives both foreign and domestic Chinese publishers confidence that the industry will become increasingly free and lucrative. That books like “The Persian Boy,” “The Da Vinci Code” and “The Kite Runner” caused some jitters over their controversial themes yet were published and then became popular reveals a nation willing to push boundaries and a government growing more at ease with foreign ideas, says Ms. Wang, the Horizon Media editor. “The industry is driven by a desire to pursue profit,” she said. “Because society at large is liberalizing, readers demand different books, so we take the risk and hope it pays off.”