A camera “decorated” in Tibetan-style, filming Lhasa’s Barkhor area
In this blogpost, Woeser looks at censorship in the PRC of translations and essays related to Tibet and also writes about her own experiences of censorship.
Interesting further reading on this topic can be found here on ChinaFile where Andrew J. Nathan, Zha Jianying, Ian Johnson, Alec Ash and Michael Berry discuss censorship and publishing in China.
“Censoring Translations and Essays on Tibet”
A friend of mine asked me whether foreign books translated into Chinese are subject to censorship in China. I compiled a few examples of books about Tibet that were not only censored but heavily mis-translated so as to be able to publish them in China.
One example is “A History of Modern Tibet 1913-1951: The Demise of the Lamaist State” by the American Tibetologist Melvyn Goldstein; it was translated into “The Destruction of the Lamaist State” by the Chinese official Du Yongbin and published in 1993 by China Tibetology Publishing House. Several scholars who had sufficient knowledge of English compared the translated version with the original and realised that the translation was full of errors and misinterpretations. These kinds of deliberate misreadings are basically a result of “the politicisation of academic translations”; Chinese official translators use the fame of international Tibetologists to mislead and deceive Chinese readers and their works treat academic principles with contempt.
It is said that Melvyn Goldstein knew about the fact that his book was heavily censored in the process of translation, and also that the official translators deliberately misinterpreted and mistranslated his work; but he did not oppose it; instead, he tacitly accepted this violation of basic academic principles, or perhaps he simply hoped to get a wider readership by remaining silent.
Another example is the work by the Austrian Heinrich Harrer who spent many years in Tibet; his book, “Seven Years in Tibet”, became well-known around the globe and was translated into over 30 different languages. There actually exist two Chinese versions of it: one dating back to 1986 published by People’s Publishing House under the name of “Tibetan Adventure” and translated by Yuan Shipo, the head of the Foreign Affairs office of Jinan University. The second one came out in 1997, published by the Taiwan Locus Publishing House titled “Seven Years in Tibet and the Young Dalai Lama”. The translator was Diao Xiaohua from Taiwan who had previously been a research fellow at San Jose State University in California, USA.
I once compared two pages of the Chinese and the Taiwanese translations and noticed that there existed some tremendous discrepancies. In the Chinese version, contents had been added or omitted to an absurd extent. Heinrich Harrer’s words were deliberately changed and misinterpreted so as to be able to demonise Tibetan culture and the traditional Tibetan political system, giving Chinese readers the impression that even this Westerner who had entertained such an intimate relationship with Tibet, was looking at the place in despise. With regards to the Taiwanese version, friends who were proficient in German or English conveyed to me that the translation is very accurate.
I also came across some more recent modified Chinese translations. But because today’s translators have been exposed to western education, the deliberate mistranslations have become more subtle. Without good command of English one would hardly notice them. One example is the book by the American anthropologist Joseph F. Rock, “In China’s Border Provinces: the Turbulent Career of Joseph Rock, Botanist-Explorer”, who travelled extensively in Tibet. The Chinese translation was published under the name of “Tough Travels” by the Shanghai Lexicographical Publishing House in 2013. The translator was Li Ruohong, a Harvard Phd. I read this translation with great suspicion. It was apparent that there had been many changes and even complete omissions in this version. The text gave me an uncomfortably familiar feeling, it read like any Chinese work that has been scrutinised by the censors. Later, I re-read the book with a good friend who was proficient in English and who indeed found many problems in the Chinese translation.
In fact, it is not only foreign books about Tibet that are censored when translated, other works about politics, philosophy or history experience the same fate. In an authoritarian regime, spiritual and moral life is constantly under investigation, as George Orwell has famously depicted; “Big Brother” is always watching you.
A friend from a democratic country who has probably never encountered this form of censorship once asked me to talk about my own experience with the censors. So I compiled a short review.
As a writer living in an authoritarian regime, I have been exposed to rigid censorship from the very beginning. I started, however, by writing poems whose obscure and implicit nature enabled me to publish them. As soon as I began writing non-fiction dealing with history and the present, however, I was punished.
In 2003, my collection of essays “Notes on Tibet” was published by Huacheng Publishing House in Guangzhou. The book attracted a wide readership, soon getting reprinted, but also caught the attention of the local authorities. First, the United Front Work Department labelled my book as containing “serious political errors”. The person in charge of Tibetan ideology henceforth required “Notes on Tibet” to be censored. It had already been disallowed in Tibet and was subsequently also to be temporarily banned in China.
In 2004, the Deputy Director of China’s General Administration of Press and Publication, Shi Feng, criticised “Notes on Tibet” in a reappraisal, claiming that the book “contained several serious political and ideological errors, such as praising the 14th Dalai Lama, and the 17th Karmapa, and spreading religious ideas. Some of the essays show critical levels of political inconsistency, including the two essays “Nyima Tsering”, and “Tenzin and his Son”. The former describes the complex feelings when the religious Nyima Tsering meets with Dalai Lama supporters at an international conference, which reflects the author’s lack of understanding of the Dalai Lama’s intention of splitting the country and promoting Tibetan independence; the latter, on the other hand, reveals some misunderstandings about the pacification of the revolt back then.”
My work-unit at the time, the Tibet Federation of Literary and Arts Circles, gave “Notes on Tibet” the following verdict: “It exaggerates and beautifies the positive function of religion in social life; in some essays, the admiration and esteem for the Dalai Lama is revealed; some content also expresses narrow-minded national sentiments and opinions that diverge from the idea of ethnic unity and one nation. Some content ignores the great accomplishments that several decades of reform and opening up have had in Tibet, and instead overly indulges in the nostalgia for an imagined old Tibet; the content shows faulty values and departs from correct political principles, failing to assume the societal responsibility that a contemporary author has and also the political responsibility in constructing an advanced culture.”
Because I refused to admit these “mistakes”, one year after the book had been published and banned, I was fired, my apartment was confiscated, my insurance was cancelled, and I wasn’t allowed to apply for a passport to go abroad; from this moment I started the difficult career as an independent writer. My situation very much resembles what the Chinese columnist Xu Zhiyuan wrote in his essay “The Art of Censorship”:
“Once you enter that ‘zone’, they will not immediately massacre you. They might well allow you to keep writing, drawing or filming, perhaps even allow you to publish, exhibit or screen your work abroad. But don’t even hope that your work will be available to people in your own country. They exile you in your own home. You live here, describe everything you see here, but the people around are completely oblivious…”
This post is also available in: Chinese (Simplified)