Foreignizing Translations in the New York Times

If you are a “China Watcher”–and if you’re reading this blog, you might be–you’re no doubt familiar with the recent trial against Gu Kailai 谷开来, accused murderer and wife of deposed Chongqing party secretary Bo Xilai 薄熙来.

I try to steer clear of politics on this blog, but at some point everything is potentially political, especially translation, which I noticed when reading the New York Times‘s coverage of Gu’s trial. As part of their focus, they highlighted a selection of quotations from her book Winning a Lawsuit in the U.S. 胜诉在美国, reveling in the irony of someone who had lambasted American due process in favor of China’s swift justice coming up against the swiftness of a trial lasting less than seven hours: “In a bitter twist of fate,” the NYT reports, “Ms. Gu, herself a lawyer, once expressed an unshakable faith in her nation’s legal system.”

The clincher on their list of quotations culled from her book reads, in the NYT translation,

China practices law in a different way than America; we don’t play with words. We have a principle called “based on the facts.” You will be arrested, sentenced and executed as long as we know you killed someone.

We don’t play with words, indeed. I’m in favor of a fair trial, and I’m not convinced that Gu Kailai received one in China (even Ai Weiwei 艾未未 doubts whether Gu and her husband can get a fair shake), but with translations like this, it’s evident that the New York Times isn’t letting her pick her own representation, either.

In short, the above quotation is not the only way to translate Gu’s statement–an obvious fact even without seeing her writing in Chinese. I agree that the sentiment is dubious at best, but with their specific choices in vocabulary and phrasing, they set Gu Kailai up as shrill, frightening, and unsophisticated. As they do in most of their reporting on China, the NYT comes short in representing the American principle of innocent until proven guilty. How different it would be if the passage read, “Chinese legal practices are different from those in America. We don’t play with words, but rather are fact-based: when we are certain you are guilty of murder, you will be apprehended, convicted, and executed.”

Some translations scholars such as Lawrence Venuti advocate foreignizing translations as the only ethical way to represent difference as difference. In this instance, however, I think we can see how foreignizing, awkward translations can reinforce prejudices and stand in the way of reaching our ideals about the principles of our judgment.