Translation: airbrushing, hyping, linking to originals

I’ll bet someone’s internet manifesto already contains this commandment: Link to original documents if possible.

I seem to recall something like that; it’d be great to have a link.

The reason this is important in the context of China is that — in the course of translating, paraphrasing, and summarizing from one language to another — sensitive subjects often get filtered. In the direction of English to Chinese they might get filtered quite literally by the censorious eye. Black and White Cat and others document this kind of airbrushing quite nicely. In the direction of Chinese to English, words sometimes get a dose of rhetorical viagra, all the better to serve a particular constituency.

This kind of thing is unavoidable. But, but… if everyone would just link original sources, eventually someone besides the unfaithful translator might go back to the original in a disinterested way, to look at what was actually said and write it thus.

In this way, linking becomes a Good Thing in and of itself. I may have my biases in translation — I may not even know that I have them, right? — but if I link to the original source I’ve opened my work up for criticism and am prepared to consider alternatives.

Linking may not lead to world peace, but it might lead to a little less misunderstanding between China and the US.

Just a few days ago I was criticizing the news reports of large media companies for NOT including links to originals even when it seems eminently clear that they are just paraphrasing from other sources. So it seems only fair to praise WSJ when — in Stanley Lubman’s excellent summary of the legal issues around the Rio Tinto case — they publish links to Chinese scholars’ discussions of reform that actually get you to the original Chinese versions:

Chinese legal scholars have long explored ways of reforming the system, as the participation of some in a conference at Harvard in late 2008 illustrates. (The papers presented by Chinese law reformers are available here)

Sure, this kind of link happens every day on the internet. But not as often as it should for big media. So let’s give them credit when they do it right.

4 responses to “Translation: airbrushing, hyping, linking to originals”

  1. C. Custer says:

    Linking would be great, but mouseover text would be even better. See my blog, ChinaSMACK, etc. etc. for examples. I’m sure they never will, but how great would it be if you could mouseover anything in the New York Times and see the original text right there?

    The problem with links, especially those related to sensitive topics, is that the original documents tend to “disappear”.

  2. Syz says:

    C Custer: totally agree about providing copies of originals. It was pure neglect on my part not to mention that. I think it goes even beyond the net-nanny-and-sensitive-topics issue. Even from other sources, you can’t necessarily rely on the original writer to maintain the article in archive. Or even if it is in archive, they might change their website and end up breaking your link. So, yes, both a link and a copy of the original text are definitely in order.

    I have a small quibble with the mouseover text: that I don’t think it’s optimal as the only place to get the original source. It disappears quickly, which makes it hard to read a whole lot. Also, you can’t copy and paste…

    I bring up the “copy original text” point in another article today. Thanks for mentioning it.

  3. C. Custer says:

    With some browsers it disappears, with others it stays as long as you mouseover. And you can copy paste, although you’d have to do “view source” and then wade through all the HTML code to get to it. Not optimal, to be sure, but it’s a good way to preserve these texts without bringing down the hammer of the GFW, I think.

  4. Syz says:

    Do you have it on good authority that GFW ignores mouseover text? Seems unlikely to me since it’s just more text in the source as it goes through the pipes, but, hey, what do I know. If so, this would be a big plus.

Leave a Reply