Friday, April 10, 2009

The Politics of Translation

I am writing about this because I have a few Chinese colleagues, mostly new immigrants to Australia, and I was very aware of this ambivalence towards the Tibetan protests prior to Beijing Olympics. So what happened with the Canadian newspaper does not surprise me.

The top editor of Toronto’s Sing Tao Daily was fired after he edited out criticisms of the Chinese regime from a front-page story published during the thick of the heavily repressed protests in Tibet last year. Wilson Chan, then managing editor at the Chinese-language Sing Tao, was let go in the fall.

The story, which ran on April 13, 2008, was written by a reporter for the Toronto Star, an English-language newspaper owned by Torstar Corporation. Torstar also holds a majority share in the Canadian edition of Sing Tao an international Chinese-language newspaper headquartered in Hong Kong. Sing Tao is owned by a certain Charles Ho, who is a member of the Standing Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, a select group of the communist party’s most loyal friends. So what did they expect at the Toronto Star???

The controversy first erupted after The Epoch Times reported major differences between Sing Tao’s translation of the Tibet story last April and the original English version that appeared in the Star on the same day.

Sing Tao and Toronto Star each ran the same story at the top of their front page, an article by Toronto Star immigration and diversity reporter Nicholas Keung. Sing Tao labeled the article "Special from The Toronto Star, " but it had some noticeable differences from Keung's original as it appeared in the Star.

The Star ran the story under the headline "Chinese Canadians Conflicted on Tibet." The article probed the feelings some Chinese Canadians have in hoping for more human rights in their homeland while also feeling nationalist sentiment towards the upcoming Olympics and what they perceive as interference by Tibetan protesters. The Star also quoted observers – including the publisher of this newspaper, Cindy Gu – who said the Chinese regime has intentionally confused national pride with support for the communist party its policies, such as its handling of Tibet.

Those comments were cut in the Sing Tao version, which used instead a page-width headline: "The West Attacks China With Tibet Issue, Inciting Chinese Patriotism Overseas." By the time Sing Tao's editors were through with the story, criticism of the Chinese regime had been removed. There was no mention of an effort to distort facts to stir up nationalism. Instead, the story opened with two paragraphs apparently added by Sing Tao editors, berating Western news coverage and critics of the crackdown in Tibet. "When China is suppressed by the West," it read, "overseas Chinese generally feel outrage, and would not forget to step forward to defend China." Sing Tao offered as examples of this "suppression," Western media's reports on the Tibet crackdown and the recent protests that met the Olympic Torch. The article continued: "Most Mainland Chinese immigrants stand on the side of the Chinese government, supporting the suppression of the rampant Tibet independent forces before the Beijing summer Olympics."
Even critics of Chinese human rights "think it is not necessary for the West to use Olympics to 'bash' China," it said.

Sing Tao's cuts included some mid-article paragraphs quoting a Chinese broadcaster on how Chinese nationalism had begun to erode the support for democracy in Hong Kong. Sing Tao's editors also broke the article into sections under four conspicuously pro-Beijing subheadings: "Harming Chinese People," "China Is Like a Mother," "Human Rights Will Gradually Improve," and "Unfair to China." Comparing the Sing Tao version with the original Toronto Star article, The Epoch Times noticed that Sing Tao appears to have added "so-called" in front of "human rights violations" in a quote from the radio broadcaster. And "Tibetans" were changed to "Tibetan separatists" in the comments from a Markham investment advisor.


Often, the Canadian media executives are unable to read the contents of the newspaper, and, as in the case of Sing Tao, much of the content is provided by Hong Kong-based parent companies that they have no control over, and which have in recent years been accused of tilting increasingly in favour of Beijing.

Wilson Chan defended the changes, saying that the radical revision of the headline fell within an editor's right to use whatever headline best suited the story. "Different editors have different readings; if this is the way the editor reads into it, then it's the way he reads into it." He said criticism of the regime was cut because some of these comments were "not something new," and that these quotes appeared toward the bottom of the article, where editors frequently cut if a story runs too long.

My question is - what happened to the freedom of expression? It obviously was not a mistranslation, it was an opinion. So would it have been all right if they had altered the text enough to make it clear they were not quoting verbatim from the Star?

Doesn't the same apply to all non-English publications published in English-speaking countries?

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