Pro-active Guide for Foreign Scribes: How to Deal with Censorship of Your Writing in Xi Dada’s China

Foreign authors entering China Zone: To ensure "faithful" translation, best hire a bilingual third-party to vet your China publisher's "rendition"

Foreign authors entering China Zone: To ensure full and faithful translation, best hire a bilingual third-party to vet your China publisher’s “rendition” before publication

In a global world where the printed book resembles a species under threat, China’s publishing industry is a striking exception. Total revenues exceeded US$16 billion in 2012, and annual growth averages 10 percent. And in that same year, Chinese publishers acquired 16,115 foreign titles.

Authors worldwide naturally want to break into this potentially lucrative market. There’s just one catch: the book you wrote may not be the same one they publish in China. The culprit: your China publisher’s in-house editor-cum-censor.

“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,” advises Pen America’s newly released Censorship and Conscience: Foreign Authors and the Challenge of Chinese Censorship.

I’ve actually been documenting censorship in China for over 5 years now on this blog. Some of the most popular posts:

  • China even censors foreign book reviews of novels written by its own writers. See a review of Yu Hua’s Brothers for an easy-to-follow, real life example.
  • More predictably — and at least as fun — is what happens to brazen foreign news reports about the unspeakable in China. See Just Say “No” to Orgasms.
  •  我是马拉拉 (I Am Malala) appeared one year earlier in Taiwan than mainland China. Guess why?

But back to the free report from Pen America, which makes great reading for several reasons. For one thing, it opens the lid widely on what is, for most people outside the Middle Kingdom, the black box of Chinese censorship. Foreign authors, agents and publishers who coyly claim “But I didn’t know!” henceforth have no such excuse. And the 25-page report is well researched, citing a host of Chinese and overseas publishers, agents and writers. Most are identified in full, but unfortunately, several of the Chinese authors seem to have requested anonymity.

And best of all, the report closes with Recommendations, a series of practical, bulleted steps to ensure that you negotiate the best deal possible for your “published-in-China” book, including the ultimate weapon of conscience — simply refusing to publish it in censored format.

A few highlights of the report:

  • References to books that are so politically incorrect that although they’ve been purchased by China publishers, they can’t be published in the current environment. They include Fifty Shades of Grey and American Dervish.
  • Authors who assert they were unaware that their works had been censored until after they were published in Chinese: Robert Hass (collected poetry); Paul Auster (Sunset Park); De Angelis (Secrets about Men Every Woman Should Know), and Hilary Clinton (Living History).
  • Authors who were aware of the censorship, allowed publication and explain why: Peter Hessler (see Defensive Censorship); Mike Meyers (The Last Days of Old Beijing); Ezra Vogel (Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China), and Henry Kissinger (On China).
  • Practical advice for dealing with censorship: Ensure that contract stipulates author must see and agree to cuts/alterations; negotiate rather than accept outright demands for deletion; commission a bilingual third-party to vet the translation before it is published.

May 23rd update: In the wake of the release of Censorship and Conscience: Foreign Authors and the Challenge of Chinese Censorship, Zha Jianying (Tide Players, China Pop) and Andrew J. Nathan (China’s Search for Security) reflect here on how their works have been effected by censorship in China.

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