The Wild Man of Translation

(yWeekend)  The Fast Food Style of Publishing Created the "Wild Man of Translation."  By Ma Jun (马军).  September 27, 2007.

Fudan University associate professor Jiang Zhihui translates at the rapid rate of two books per year and is labeled as the "wild man of translation" "who has a book in which there are 55 mistakes in the first 10 pages."  Many netizens questioned how such 'academic books' can ever be published?  Do the publishing houses have a good system to screen and evaluate and is anyone ever held accountable?

In recent years, the quality of translations in China has dropped across the board.  Why is that?  Can the publishing industry cope with this hard problem?  The reporter found out that most of the translations of scholastic works in mainland China operate in the 'fast food" model and therefore it was inevitable that the readers are dissatisfied.

The netizen Yuxiong wrote a post titled <Jiang Zhihui: The Chinese translation who 'raped Arendt's "The Life of Mind"> which was widely disseminated.  This post lists fifty-five errors of Jiang's translation of "The Life of Mind: Thinking") (Jiangsu Education Publishing) in just the first ten pages alone.  The post accused Jiang Zhihui of "not translating Arendt, but raping her instead."

Actually, the translations of Jiang Zhihui have been previously condemned on the Internet.  In the summer of 2005, the netizens focused their firepower on Jiang Zhihui's other translation <The Creative Evolution Theory> for carrying "numerous errors."

In the post titled "Criticizing Commercial Press' <The Creative Evolution Theory>, the netizen named Malebranche wrote:

When this writer read through this new translation, he was speechless because he was so astonished.  There is no doubt that Commercial Press' new book <The Creative Evolution Theory> created a new record by being the worst ever Chinese translation of <The Creative Evolution Theory> over the past century ... the translator's command of the French language was stunningly poor and he has near zero understanding of Bergson's philosophy.  In this translation, there was no page that did not contain mistakes and no paragraph that did not contain errors ... this author only checked three sections that covered two-and-a-half pages and found twenty to thirty errors already, without even counting recurring errors.  <The Creative Evolution Theory> from Jiang covers 306 pages, so how many mistakes are there in total?  ... What academic value does such a translation have?"

The netizens were surprised most of all not by the numerous errors but the fact that they came from some famous publishing houses.  For example, <The Creative Evolution Theory> came from the high-regarded and famous Commercial Press.

Jiang Zhihui had previously translated <The Creative Evolution Theory>, <History and Truth>, <The Phenomenology of Perception>, <A Guide to Hegel> and other works that were published mainly by Commercial Press.

To ordinary readers, Commercial Press appears to be a reputable publishing house and therefore many netizens cannot understand the situation: most people had trusted in Commercial Press, but they never imagined that Commercial Press could possibly produce such poor-quality works!

The netizen Malebranche wrote in <Criticizing Commercial Press' newly published "The Creative Evolution Theory"> and wondered: The most scary thing is that such an obviously poor-quality work of translation should be published by the most famous publishing house?  This writer wants to know which editor is in charge, but was unable to find a name after scouring through the entire book ... What has gone wrong in our fields of scholastics and translations that problems occur leading to these strange outcomes?

In speaking to the reporter about this affair, Jiang Zhihui repeatedly emphasized the good quality of his work.  He said, "My translations basically do not require scrutiny.  The several books published previously through Commercial Press were pretty good."

"You should not be concerned too much about the mistakes that they found in <The Life of Mind>.  That came from the foreword.  I think that the bulk of the book followed the thoughts of the author.  The author was too flighty in the foreword and used too many citations.  Therefore, there were some mistakes, but not as many as they said on the Internet."

At the Commercial Press website, Jiang Zhihui debated with some of his detractors.  This website has been shut down by now.  From the cached web pages on the Internet, it is possible to see how Jiang Zhihui defended himself: "There are various reasons for these mistakes such as word processing and typographic errors.  Sometimes, it was because the computer crashed.  There were also some errors in typesetting, etc."

Q: So how many of the 55 errors that they pointed out are valid?
A: I did not count.  I admit that errors occurred, because they are being blamed on me.  Most publications have an acceptable error rate of 1/10,000.  In truth, the error rate in my translations is far less than this.

Q: So what exactly is the error rate in your translations?
A: I cannot tell for sure.  There are definitely some mistakes, but there are many reasons why they occurred.  If they can calmly point out what those mistakes were, I can deal with them.  But when they curse me out like this, I am angry and disconsolate.

The criticisms from the netizens have been reported by the media recently.  On September 20, the translator Jiang Zhihui wrote at his brand new blog in a post entitled <Translating and Being Criticized>:  "I made some bad moves in the first ten pages of the translation of Arendt's <The Life of Mind: Thinking> (to use a term from the chess master Nieh Weiping) and I ended up being beaten all over the place by netizens.  It is one thing for me to be scolded by anonymous netizens, but some people using real names joined in the hunt ..."

Some netizens said that Arendt's <The Life of Mind: Thinking> and <The Creative Evolution Theory> were masterpieces of philosophy which the translator Jiang Zhihui did not comprehend fully because he did not study philosophy.  Jiang Zhihui demurred.  He told this reporter: "The division in scholastics is artificial.  How can expertise be so finely partitioned?"

52-year-old Jiang Zhihui is an associate professor in the Fudan University School of Social Development and Public Policy's Department of Psychology.  He teaches Fudan University students every week.  His principal area of interest is psychology.  He said that he got into translation as a matter of outside interest, but he believes that he is well-versed in philosophy.  "If I have no training, how could I have published so many translated works?  Are the publishing houses all fools?"

Actually, the fields in which Jiang Zhihui has done translations are quite broad.  In the more than 20 works of translations, one half are in philosophy and the other half include psychology, history, medicine and other areas.

Over ten years of translating, Jiang Zhihui has translated more than 20 books at an average rate of two books per year.  "If it is a thick book, it may take a year or two.  Smaller books may take six months.  On the average, I translated two books per year."

Before 2003, Jiang Zhihui did his translations mainly in hand writing and therefore took more time.  For example, <The Phenomenology of Perception> published by Commercial Press took almost 18 months to translate in 2002.

In 2003, Jiang Zhihui began to use a computer to translate <The Creative Evolution Theory> and his speed increased dramatically.  That book took less than one year to complete.  In 2006, the two volumes of <The Life of Mind> took only eight months to translate.

It is noteworthy that the two books that netizens are most critical about in terms of errors are <The Creative Evolution Theory> and <The Life of Mind> which Jiang Zhihui translated using a computer for the first time.

Jiang Zhiui has specialized in learning the French language, but he also knows "something" about English, German, Latin and Greek.  "I never consulted anyone when I was translating all those books.  I did them all on my own."

Some netizens suspected that Jiang Zhihui might have used certain translation software such as "Jianshan Ciba 金山词霸" to assist him.  But Jiang Zhihui said that this was "total nonsense."

During the interview with the yWeekend reporter, Jiang Zhihui said that translators cannot avoid making mistakes.  There are many reasons for mistakes to occur.  For example, the editor factor is very important.  The level of translation is significantly worse than in the 1980's principally because the editors back then took their work seriously.  Jiang Zhihui said that his books were messed up by his editors.  "Their levels did not match mine.  They changed my correct translations into errors.  Sometimes, my manuscript was correct and the editor also edited correctly, but it was wrong after typesetting."

During the publication of <The Life of Mind>, Jiang Zhihui did not maintain much contact with the editor.  The two volumes of <The Life of Mind> were first published by Jiangsu Educational Publishing in August 2006, and a second printing was made some time later.

After reading the Internet post by Yuxiong, Jiang Zhihui made some corrections immediately based upon what the netizens said and sent them over to the editor.  Some of these mistakes were corrected in the second printing.  "But the editor did not contact me again and therefore some of the other mistakes have not been corrected."

At the end of his blog post, Jiang Zhihui wrote: "The translator is always at the receiving end.  Sadly, the only way to avoid being criticized is to not translate at all."

In his defense speech, Jiang Zhihui is more or less articulating the dilemma in translating contemporary works of philosophy.

Many translators have been criticized.  Professor Wang Xiaochao of Tsinghua University achieved fame for translating <The Complete Works of Plato> but he was still criticized by netizens.  At many forums and blogs, this reporter saw netizens' criticisms in the manner of "Too inferior!" and "Pathetically wrong!  Off the chart!  It is unbelievable that a specialist in western philosophy can make such errors!"

The situation of translators is bad enough already, and they also have to cope with netizen complaints.  But that is not the main problem, which Jiang Zhihui believes is the low fees being offered for translation.

"It is very hard to translate works of philosophy.  The pay is lousy at 50 or 60 yuan per 1,000 words.  It is like that all across China.  Some people go through half the book and then they quit.  The publishers seek me out.  I need to have some interest because I cannot do it otherwise.  I can always teach and I make much better money that way."

"At the university, an article is valued much more than a translation."  Jiang Zhihui said that he does not receive any rewards from the university.  The academic field does not respect translation, and this creates a vicious cycle.

"I hope that your reporting will cause China to pay more attention to translation works.  As for me, I don't care if my reputation is ruined and everyone tramples on me.  If I can gain more space for our translation work, I feel that it is worthwhile."  This was what Jiang Zhihui said to this reporter.

Next, the reporter located Commercial Press Translation Department Chen Xiaowen.  But Chen said that those critical Internet posts pertain to the reputation of Commercial Press and therefore he declined to be interviewed.

Jiangsu Education Publishing (which published <The Life of Mind>) deputy chief director Wang Qiaolin explained how they asked Jiang Zhihui to translate.

The publishing house gave the translator a short time to complete the translation.  This is something that neither Jiang Zhihui nor the publishing house denies.

Wang Qiaolin said that the copyright terms for the translation is usually for five years.  Once the contract is signed, the book must be published in six months (or twelve months).  This leaves only a short time for the translator.

Q: How do you usually choose your translator?
A: The editors will find someone that they already know.  They must be influential and they must have translated some books.  For example, Jiang Zhihui has translated many books, of which quite a few were published by Commercial Press.

Q: If there are mistakes in the translation, will you punish the translator?
A: Usually, the translator will assume all responsibility.  But we cannot punish them.  The translation mistakes are not immediately apparent because there is a time delay.  Under the terms of the contract, the payment will have been made already.

Just like most major publishing houses, Jiangsu Educational Publishing does not its own team of translators.  Only Yilin, Shanghai Yilin and a few publishing houses have their own teams of translators.

Some netizens point out that there are too many mistakes in the translations because the editors fail at their jobs at gatekeepers.  But China Renmin University associate professor Zhang Zihui said that most of the editors are not professionals.  Instead, they focus mainly on stylistic issues (such as whether the punctuation marks meet the publishing guidelines).  They will not make many changes with respect to the deep content.

This assertion was confirmed by Jiangsu Education Publishing's deputy chief editor Wang Qiaolin.  "I have read that Internet post.  I do not know about the specific circumstances.  <The Life of Mind> was translated by Jiang Zhihui directly from French.  Our publishing house does not have any editor who can read French, and so we are unable to tally the error rate."

Zhang Zhihui (director of the China Renmin University School of Journalism Research Institute for Publishing) believes that the quality of translation has gone down recently for three main reasons.

First, there is the problem with the system at the publishing houses.  Before the market economy model appeared in the publishing industry, they didn't have to worry about survival and they can work hard on certain things.  But the problem now is that the publishing houses need to worry about two things.  On one hand, they have to pursue economic interests, because they cannot survive without money.  On the other hand, how shall the publishing houses sacrifice certain short-term interests in order to guarantee the quality of their publications?

As for the industrial associations or the publication administration organizations, they can only award certain prizes periodically for certain distinguished works.  If the deterioration in quality was due solely to lousy literary quality instead of political mistakes, the publishing houses will not be punished as a result.

Zhang Zihui emphasized that the translation of certain profound scholarly works will have to depend on the economic support by the publishing houses.  Some established publishing houses can rely on the profits from their technical books to subsidize these translations, but they are not as strong as one might imagine.  One can say that the ability to support is going down gradually.  As for the smaller publishing houses, they need to realized profits as soon as they procure the copyrights.

Next, and this is the most important point, is that the translations used to be active as opposed to passive.

Active translation means that the translator has to be interested.  They contacted the copyright owners and they settled the copyright issues.  Then they began to translate.  When they were done, they contacted the publishing houses for publications.  At the time, there were specialist translators such as Fu Lei who were exceptional and professional.  But such expert translators are few and far in between nowadays.

The common situation nowadays is that the publishing house obtains the copyright first and then a translator is found.  A likely situation is that this translator is unfamiliar with the work, he/she is disinterested in the work and is doing so only to make some money.

The problem with the current translations is that the translators do not understand the works.  In certain profound subjects, the translators do not have any command of their subject.  The publishing houses found the translators only because of their command of the language and then they turned over the assignment to them.

For example, when it came to translating Book 1 of the Harry Porter series, the People's Publishing House asked for a famous old translator who has great skills.  However, he was lacking when it comes to a fantasy work intended for a young audience because he did not share their understanding and expression of interests.  Later on, the publishing house chose the younger Ma Ainong team.

The third reason is about the change in the timing for the translations.

Before the translators of yore began their work, they usually made years of preparation beforehand.  The process of translation was therefore very long.  There was one Fu Lei work which took almost ten years.  He treated the project as a long-term hobby.  Whenever he encountered something that he did not understand, he researched it.  The resulting translation was obviously an exquisite masterpiece.

But when publishing houses procure the copyrights nowadays, they face a time limit.  When the publishing houses receive the contract, they want to go to market as quickly as possible.  They do not have the patience for the translator to take one or two years, or even three to four years.  They cannot let you procrastinate until you have come up with the ideal version.  They will force you to produce as quickly as possible.  Basically, this is a "fast food model of production."

In the case of volume 7 of the Harry Porter series, the copyright of the Chinese-language version was obtained in July and the translation has to be on the market in October.  This was imposed on the publishing house -- if they did not produce, the Internet pirated copies would be everywhere by then.

Associate professor Zhang Zihui felt that three months was too hasty for the experienced Ma Ainong team to translate the 700 pages of Harry Porter 7.  "This has an impact on the quality of translation.  For a scholarly work, the impact would be even greater!"

Associate professor Zhang Zihui said that the situation is the result of cumulative stages.  The publishing houses face the need to grow as quickly as possible.  When they don't have all the means, they sacrifice the quality of their products.  This is a common phenomenon in the publishing industry.

Zhang Zihui has thought long and hard about the future of the publishing industry and he has a couple of ideas.

The first thing is that when they seek translators, they should go through translation companies or ask for bids.  When the translation is good, they will offer rewards; when the translation is bad, they will impose penalties.  This is fairly common for publishing houses outside of China.  They will assess and make comparisons over the price necessary to find the right translators.  The brand-name publishing houses will never sacrifice quality for the sake of money.  Very few publishing houses do so inside China.

Jiang Zihui said that of the more than twenty books that he had translated, only <The Phenomenology of Perception> paid a commission on sales copy whereas everything else was based upon a one-time-only payment.

Basically, this is the situation in mainland China.  For a bestseller such as Harry Porter Volume 7, the fee was fixed.  Even if 5 million copies of the book were sold, the Ma Ainong team will not receive an extra cent.  Outside of China, it is almost universal to pay by sales percentage.

"If an extra copy is sold, the translator can obtain a percentage.  So he will be more active.  As for the translation fees, most university professors cannot be bothered with that kind of money.  You have to raise the fees considerably to match their incomes in order to attract their interest." 

It is hard to change the current situation.  Business problems should be solved by business means.  "The market will go through a self-examination.  If the quality of your publications are terrible, you will be eliminated by the market," said Zhang Zihui.

Jiang Zhihui had previously translated many works before and he has a reputation in the publishing field.  That was why Jiangsu Education Publishing sought him out.  But he does not have any translation projects on hand anymore.  He said that he is unlikely to do any more translations in the future.  "There are so many criticisms of my translations on the Internet.  Maybe the publishing houses are worried that my translations won't have a market."

Related Link: Translation and its discontents  Joel Martinsen, Danwei