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
Book Publishers Scramble for Chinese Readers
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.”
3 thoughts on ““Chinese Book Publishing Industry Liberalizes”: But Where are Pederasty, Passion and the Dalai Lama?”
It’s so good of you to track the deletions! Actually I am more relieved than upset about the censorship of this article. Suppose an orthodox 中宣部 official come upon it in Cankao in a faithful, complete translation,and be scandalized by “pederasty” and “homosexual passion”?
I read Persian Boy many years ago, and it’s a splendid historical novel, a great read that makes the ancient past come alive.
But as a “positive gay love story for Chinese people to see as a role model” it’s probably a bad choice. For those who have not had the pleasure to read it, the problem is this:
“The Persian Boy is a 1972 historical novel written by Mary Renault and narrated by Bagoas, a young Persian from an aristocratic family who is captured by his father’s enemies, castrated, and sold as a slave to the king Darius III, who makes him his favorite. Eventually he becomes the lover and most faithful servant of Alexander the Great, who overthrew Darius and captured the Persian Empire.”
A 15-year old castrated slave’s sexual relationship with his master is hardly the basis for a positive role model of gay relationship, regardless of the mutual love, admiration and affection they felt and displayed.
Modern observers of the ancient Greek practice of “pederasty” (“sexual activity involving a man and a boy”) criticise it as fundamentally an abusive relationship – the power disparity between the master and slave makes it so.
Pederasty entered the English language and became fashionable among the educated classes of 18th and 19th century England, which, lacking an ancient historic civilized culture of its own,turned to classical Greece for inspiration “as a model of ideal beauty, transcendent philosophy, democratic politics, and homosociality or homosexuality”.
“In England into the 20th century, public boarding schools were limited to boys and all the teachers were male. Some upper class boys were sent to boarding school by age 7 or 8, and they studied there through the adolescent years. Some teachers justified homosexual relationships based on the Classics, both between the older and younger boys, and between teachers and boys. However, there were some scandals around such relationships. In the mid-19th century, William Johnson Cory, a renowned master at Eton from 1845 until his forced resignation in 1872, evolved a style of pedagogic pederasty which influenced a number of his pupils. His Ionica, a work of poetry reflecting his pederastic sensibilities, was read in intellectual circles and “made a stir” at Oxford in 1859. Oscar Browning, another Eton master and former student of Cory, followed in his tutor’s footsteps, only to be likewise dismissed in 1875. Both are thought to have influenced Oxford don Walter Pater, whose aesthetics promoted pederasty as the truest expression of classical culture.”
For the Chinese people, who already have plenty of stories from classical China about master-slave sexual relationships, they hardly need another literary work telling them how wonderful a sexual relationship can be between a powerful older man and a teenager. While such things no doubt happened often in ancient China and today, man-boy relationships were probably regarded as a perversion not to be celebrated.
In fact, the way the English language media deals with sensitive topics which risks censorship is to obscure it by using foreign or ancient languages – greek, latin, french – to obscure sensitive topics. There was at one time a practice of leaving untranslated the sexually graphic sections of foreign language texts – a means that avoided expurgation or Bowdlerisation while limiting the access to the “juicy bits” to those educated enough to be able to read the original.
Even the word “pederasty” itself – originating in the “early 17th cent.: from modern Latin paederastia, from Greek paiderastia, from pais, paid- ‘boy’ + erastēs ‘lover’” – is no doubt in part to obscure it more plain Anglo-Saxon meaning, “man-boy love”.
Which begs the question – if the term “pederasty” had been left in the Chinese version, how would it best be rendered in Chinese language?
An online dictionary renders “pederasty” as “鸡奸” = “sodomy / anal intercourse / buggery / bestiality”, none of which captures the meaning at all.
Meanwhile, “man boy love” was rendered as “男人男孩的爱” – a much more accurate translation.
Note that there is no way that the New York Times would have published the article with the much clearer and more graphic Anglo-Saxon term “man-boy love” than the much more obscure and refined term “pederasty”.
Remember, THE PERSIAN BOY isn’t a historical document written centuries ago, but a post-Stonewall novel by a modern author, herself gay, whose works have encouraged in the West a huge number of gay people to be themselves.
In a letter (3 August 1969), Mary Renault wrote to a scholar (prof. Bernard F. Dick) about THE CHARIOTEER (1953), her last contemporary novel, which was quite daring in its day, dealing as it does with gay England during World War II: “I’m glad I wrote it; I am still hearing from people who were children at the time it was written, saying it has helped them to hold on to values they believe in.”
The same can be said of THE PERSIAN BOY. In fact, I met quite a few native speakers who said this Alexander book was their favorite of gay literature. And I’ve lost count of the comments and emails I received from readers, gay and straight, who said they were deeply touched by my translation.
Forget about “pederasty” or “homosexual passion.” In the end, it is love.
By the way, THE PERSIAN BOY isn’t just Bagoas’ story. There’s also much about Alexander the Great and Hephaistion. It is same sex love in heroic terms.