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.

18 thoughts on “Foreignizing Translations in the New York Times

  1. To say nothing of reinforcing the already abysmally low expectations for Chinese-English translation, and giving readers the impression that this is what Chinese actually sounds like.

  2. Wow you are the first “translator” who “translates” without seeing the original. Gu, as seen through her writing here, IS shrill, frightening, and unsophisticated. That is the whole point.

    It was not translating her. It was quoting her. YOU DON’T EDIT SOMEONE’S QUOTE. It’s just something you don’t do in journalism.

    Congratulations on finally finding one little thing you THINK you can do better than other people, writing a bad blogpost about it and tweeting it. Well done to you.

    • I’m certainly not the first translator to translate without seeing the original. It happens over and over again throughout the history of translation, in almost every language.
      Nor was I saying that my rendering was “better”; I was offering an alternative that would have framed things differently. Framing matters, with a quotation or with a translation. And if the quotation was from a language other than the language it’s quoted in (i.e. other than English, in this case), then quotation involves translation–and translation is, by necessity, editing someone else’s quote.
      Gu’s writing may very well come off as shrill, frightening, and unsophisticated in Chinese (I can think of other people whose writing is shrill, frightening, and unsophisticated!). Even so, how it’s translated matters. If you have a link to this passage in Chinese as Gu wrote it, I’d love to see it. Then we could really get into the discussion of how different versions prepare readers for different takes on the facts.

  3. 1. A quote needs to be as little edited as possible. I think the NYT, in this case, did with minimal editing. Your rendering would be editing too much, and therefore less accurate (not shrill, frightening and unsophisticated enough), which equals less good in journalism.

    2. I have no webpage but only a PDF of the book. I can send it to you via email if you want.

    • I wouldn’t be able to say what minimal or appropriate editing would look like without seeing the quote as written. Please do type it up and post it here in the comments section–thanks!

    • But is this a quote, or a translation of a quote? Gu’s book hasn’t been translated into English, to the best of my knowledge, so presumably the article was offering its own translation (or someone else’s translation, unattributed). And surely you’d concede that presenting something in a different language than it originally appeared would count as more than minimal editing, no?

      Anyway – would be very interested to see how this read in the original. Whether Gu’s a lousy writer in Chinese or not – and I have no problem believing that she is – she presumably writes as if Chinese were her native language. The quote presented in the NYT is not something that any native speaker of English would come up with, and it is awkward in a way that is typical of translation from Chinese, but not typical of texts composed by native speakers of English, even uneducated ones. (“Do not X, but rather Y” tends to show up a lot as an English rendition of Chinese structures; the “as long as” is not idiomatic here and is awkwardly positioned; the order of the last sentence is not — to me, at least — natural.)

  4. I wonder who did the translation — the original reporter or one of their local fixers? I don’t know if you read the recent profile of Bill Bishop, but Evan Osnos of The New Yorker basically said (praising Bishop) that the ability to read Chinese well (and, it would stand to reason, to translate well) is still pretty rare among Western journalists in China. Translation by committee may still be the norm, then, and may hold true in this case, too.

    • I would be very surprised if the translation were done by anyone but the local fixers. The formulation of “We have a principle called “based on the facts”” sounds unlike what even unpracticed L1 translators would come up with. The fact that no translator was credited also attests to the lowly position of the translator.

      Osnos says “Bishop can read Chinese voluminously and fast – “a rarer quality than you’d think,”” so speed is also part of the equation. But yeah, I expect that a lot of the “China hands” don’t have very good Chinese, when it comes down to it. And on top of that, I expect a lot of journalists would find translation work beneath them. We’ve all got to look down on somebody!


  5. Would someone please give us the original Chinese text so we can judge for ourselves the quality of the two versions?

  6. The version of this quotation that’s been making the rounds in the Chinese internet (yes, not only the NYT is pointing out the irony of Gu’s comeuppance, though I read the irony as differently tinged when coming from Chinese commentators) is as follows:


    Based on just that sentence alone, I would translate it as follows:

    Chinese law doesn’t mince words, and as long as we do indeed know that you have killed someone, you will be apprehended, brought to trial, and executed.

    This quotation may still not be accurate, but assuming it is (I haven’t gone through the barrage of links Daria pointed us to), I think we can see not only that the NYT version above does indeed edit the quotation beyond what commentators like Daria should approve of, but also that the tone is again remarkably different from that of the NYT translation. I said that the NYT version made Gu come off as “shrill, frightening, and unsophisticated”; with this quotation, she is just as frightening to anyone who believes in due process (translating 审判 as “brought to trial” reveals that the verdict–indeed, the execution by gunshot–is a predetermined outcome of any indictment), but I don’t think she is unsophisticated or shrill. She displays a certainty in her convictions that would make shrillness or unsophistication impossible, but which may have been the tragic flaw that led to her downfall.

    But there are some questions about translation and framing that we must still ask even if we are sure that we have the right quote in the original. The above Chinese sentence could also be translated: “Chinese law doesn’t mess around with semantics–if we know you’re a murderer, then Arrest! Convict! Execute!” This presents things quite differently. This difference opens into the question of style and its implications, and the relationship between how style contributes to meaning in one language, such as Chinese, versus another, such as English. There is no simple answer to this issue, because it is based on questions that have no simple answer: what is the relationship between one phrase or sentence and its surrounding phrases or sentences in the apprehension of style? how does punctuation contribute to the definition of style, and is punctuation immediately transferable between languages? what are the distinctions and gradations within and between vocabulary, and how do the distinctions in one language match up against the distinctions in another?

    I have no information on whether Gu Kailai is guilty or innocent; in short, I trust neither the English language press nor the PRC party system in which claims of her innocence or guilt would be made, so I have to be suspicious of all judgments (the question that begins this article sums up something of my attitude). My concern here is not with defense or prosecution, but rather with how translation, by virtue of its linguistic framing, prepares us, like lawyers do, to make certain judgments. And even when we can see the “evidence,” in the form of an excerpt of the original quotation, we have a hard time getting free of translation’s frames.


  7. This has been fascinating. I think Lucas brings up valid points about the framing of translated or quoted utterances, but I’m unsure of the conclusion. It proves to me only that nobody can represent what Gu Kailai says without taking a moral position with respect to Gu Kailai’s personality, if not her guilt or innocence. In other words, the only alternative to demonizing her seems to be sympathizing with her. Particularly because the quotation was brought into play as evidence of irony, the rhetoric of irony almost requires exaggerating the “shrill” quality–real or perceived–of her statement.

    I was very much struck by Daria’s statement “It was not translating her. It was quoting her.” If her original statement was in Chinese then it was translated at some point, whether by Gu herself or some other translator or by one of the article-writers’ helpers, etc. It is not possible to quote Chinese in English, and where there is translation, as Lucas puts it, there is style and the related issues of perspective and judgment. In fact, Daria seems unreasonably confident in the “objectivity” of journalism. Even without getting into the issue of translation, a journalist certainly strives for objectivity, but I think demonstrably never achieves it, except perhaps when meteorologists report yesterday’s weather. Any telling of a story requires a perspective, a theme, and some foregone conclusions–in short, a judgment–or there will be no coherence in the story. This is actually interestingly related to Gu’s point: she implies that “we” know when someone is guilty, and thus mincing words (i.e., style, spin, etc.) plays no role in our process. In fact, journalism under socialism is similarly confident of the “truth”–there is no possibility of different interpretations of an event because it can only have one correct meaning. To me, the striking thing in Gu’s Chinese statement is not the style, but the logic: the knowledge of guilt is presented as prior to the apprehension, trial, and execution of the murderer (只要确实知道你杀了人,[那么我们就] 逮捕,审判,枪毙。–excuse my supplementation), while in American jurisprudence if certainty under the law exists at all, it can only be the outcome of the process, and not its starting point.

    • I think Lucas brings up valid points about the framing of translated or quoted utterances, but I’m unsure of the conclusion.

      That’s right, Charles–I report, you decide!


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