Does Literature Get “Un-Censored” When Translating From Chinese?

The New York Times has an interesting article on how books being translated into Chinese are becoming censored as they get published in that country. So, for instance, this biography of Deng Xiaoping has apparently had all sorts of cuts made in order to be palatable to Chinese bureaucrats:

Chinese readers of Ezra F. Vogel’s sprawling biography of China’s reformist leader Deng Xiaoping may have missed a few details that appeared in the original English edition.

The Chinese version did not mention that Chinese newspapers had been ordered to ignore the Communist implosion across Eastern Europe in the late 1980s. Nor that General Secretary Zhao Ziyang, purged during the Tiananmen Square crackdown, wept when he was placed under house arrest. Gone was the tense state dinner with the Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev when Deng, preoccupied by the throngs of students then occupying the square, let a dumpling tumble from his chopsticks.

So if works being translated into Chinese are getting more censored, does that mean books being translated from Chinese are getting less censored? That’s kind of the case with our spring title, Running Through Beijing. This is a very racy, transgressive title; as our inimitable catalog copy has it,

In Running Through Beijing, leading young Chinese author Xu Zechen draws on his actual experiences and real-life friends to guide us through an underworld of constant thievery, hard-core porn, cops (both real and impostors), prison, bribery, crazy landladies, rampant drinking, and the smothering, bone-dry dust storms that blanket one of the world’s largest cities in thick layers of grime.

As you can imagine, some of this stuff didn’t play well with the censors when originally published in China, and some of the book’s more transgressive aspects were quite clearly toned down. It’s also clear that other aspects were downplayed to suit Chinese cultural norms. In our translation, we’ve taken care to meter the language as appropriate for an American audience, not only to achieve the right effect but also to ensure that the translation reads well. Let us be quick to add that we are doing this with the approval of the translator and the author.

So does this mean that Two Lines Press is un-censoring a book that was originally censored? And, if one fine day this book is published in China as Xu Zechen originally intended it to be, does this mean that our English edition will be the foundation of a more authentic text?

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