The Fine Art of Selective News Translation

In Lost in Translation, veteran journalist Nailene Chou Wiest comments on how airbrushing foreign news articles in the name of China boosterism prevents serious discussion of real issues:

Translators in China are not neutral message conveyors but active censor-oriented rewriting hacks. Their job requires the sensitivity of knowing the parameter. Foreign news is not used as a means of national self-reflection, but an adjunct to domestic propaganda. Veteran translators are infuriated by the accusation that they are accomplices to an authoritarian regime. They point out that the core issue is not how to translate, but how to translate and get published. Publish or perish is the rub.

How the translators hew to the adaptation and rewriting is often an indicator of where the publication stands in the Communist Party-condoned ideological spectrum. Reference News (Cankao Xiaoxi) was founded in 1931 as an internal publication to provide the party leadership with an idea of how the world perceived China. When it turned into a mass circulation paper in 1985, translators were given the mandate of selecting passages from world press and adapting a propaganda agenda. Boasting a daily circulation of 3 million, Reference News is influential and profitable. Global Times, a tabloid subsidiary of the People’s Daily, routinely mangles foreign news articles to bolster its nationalistic stance. But when ThePaper.cn was launched this summer, hopes ran high that it would set itself apart to attract weary online readers. There is a sense of betrayal that it commits the same sin of translating only the positive while blocking passages critical of China.

I’ve been following Reference News (参考消息) now for five years or so. To see how it repackages foreign news reports to make China look better — and feel better about itself — please visit China Media.

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