Chrter 08: Creative Translation?

Written by Julen Madariaga on December 23rd, 2008

Last 10th December, a group of Chinese human right activists published a document called Chrter 08,  requiring political reform in the PRC. This document has had surprisingly little impact in the Western media/blogging scene.

There is no telling right now how influential this document is going to be looking into potentially conflictive 2009. In any case, it is a must read for anyone interested in the political evolution of this country. I have spent the little free time that I had last week reading the Charter in its original Chinese form. I am preparing a more detailed post about it, but for the moment, I want to share these  notes:

  • There is a translation by professor Perry Link, published on the New York Review of Books, that has been almost the single source for non-chinese speaking readers worldwide. It is the translation used by Wikipedia (unless they accept my change), and also by the mainstream media, including WSJ and Time. I was shocked to see that the translation is not accurate, including in the preamble some references to the Tiananmen incidents that are not on the Chinese original. Has the original been modified, or did Perry Link publish a creative translation, adding juicy  details about his favourite subject? I leave this question open until I find an answer. But needless to say, I think if the translator has consciously altered the content of the document it is a lack of respect for the brave Chinese who risked their freedom to sign it. (my apologies to professor Link if this is not the case)
  • I am surprised by the little echo that this significant event has had on the Western media/blogging scene. All those noisy journalists that are self proclaimed defensors of Human Rights in China, but only raise thir voices when there is some spectacular violence to sell newspapers, and not for a “boring” document without pictures that lazy Westerners will never read anyway. Fair enough, it is very possible that the Charter will not fly, but there is no telling what 09 will bring us in China, and the effort and sacrifice of all these Chinese intellectuals in itself deserves more attention.
  • The Chinese government has done a good job of controlling the net. At the time of writing  it seems impossible to access from the mainland any site carrying the Charter in Chinese. It is sad to see that they have succeeded in silencing also the Western blogs (although as far as I know there has not been a single one blocked for speaking of the Charter). I guess most are simply not interested or else too scared of seeing their blog blocked in PRC. I know that I am risking many hours of efforts if I get my own blog blocked because of this post, but I think it is the least I could do for those 300 odd authors that are risking much more than this.

Because of point 2 some readers might still not be aware of these events. You can get a summary in the Wikipedia article for Chrter 08 or on this article on Global Voices.

I have also found a more accurate translation of the Charter here.

UPDATE1: The article on Wikipedia has been changed. See the article’s dicussion page for more details.

UPDATE2: Thanks to comment below and to some further research on the internet, I have the theory now that Chinese authors introduced last minute modifications to eliminate some non-essential points and avoid trouble for those already arrested, like Liu Xiaobo. This would make sense, as Liu Xiaobo had been sentenced before for participation in Tiananmen89 activities. Even if this is the case, it is difficult to understand why professor Link didn’t change his translation accordingly, perhaps reflecting some disagreement among the original authors.

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Comments so far ↓

  1. Dec

    Prof. Link apparently was working with the authors of the document to get it translated and released concurrently with the release of the Chinese-language original. In a short note to the MCLC mailing list, he attached the text of the document that was the basis of his translation and then said, “there were a few last-minute changes skyped in from Beijing.” So that could be the source of the differences.

    [Reply to this comment]

  2. Dec

    Thanks for the tip. I imagined Prof. Link had worked with the authors, otherwise he wouldn’t have had the time to come up with a stylish translation in such a short time.

    So perhaps some last minute changes were introduced in the Chinese version (presumably and understandably to avoid further consequences for the PRC authors that were already under arrest before the 10th Dec)

    Whatever the reason, Professor Link’s “massacre” text comes across more agressive than the original. Somebody should correct the article on Wikipedia and elsewhere. As it stands it’s an inaccurate translation.

    [Reply to this comment]

  3. Jan
    Charles Liu

    Was the original’s advocacy #1 “A new constitution”, or “Amend the Constitution”?

    There exists a night-and-day semantics - while the latter merely is for changes within the current political framework, the former advocates abolition of China’s constitution, or revolution.

    Since this charter was tauted as purely Chinese, I’m suprised to hear Liu working with outside voices. This might be a little OT. bit has there been any discussion regarding Liu Xiaobo’s prominent association with CIPC and Mingzhu Zhonguo - both funded by the National Endowment for Democracy (NED)?

    [Reply to this comment]

  4. Jan

    Hi Charles, thanks for tipping me off on that one. Indeed, the original text is 修改宪法, so again the translation as “A new constitution” is wrong, it should be “ammend the constitution.”

    I really can’t understand how they could have such a bad coordination, and why the American counterpart didn’t correct it. As I said above, the real value of this Charter is in the Chinese people that signed it, and the document they signed is not the same one that most Westerners have seen.

    As for the NED funded Chinese PEN, yeah, this is public information. Liu’s association with PEN is indeed prominent since he is the president. It is an interesting discussion whether it is legitimate for a “independent” movement to receive money from the American Congress.

    But this is a different discussion, and I don’t think it makes this Chrter 08 any less powerful. For one thing, because the value of the Charter IMO lies not so much on who drafted it, but on the thousands of Chinese writers/bloggers/journalists etc. who dared to give their names for it.

    [Reply to this comment]

  5. Apr
    Carey Rowland

    1.) Thank you, uln, for the steady supply of insightful, incisive information. Since discovering your site, I have worked somewhat backwards in reading it, so that this uninformed American can begin to achieve some understanding of what China is and what is happening there. It seems that the implications and impact of Chrter 08 will be manifested over the course of a long uphill struggle.

    2.) I would like to reiterate a fact that you have mentioned in some context: Marx was also a Westerner. And though Chairman Mao’s strategy for revolution was highly influenced by Marx’s life works (Engels, Lenin,etc included), his writings are part of a longer universal (not merely Western) body of thought and action, including Jefferson and Rousseau. This tradition of human rights is carried forth in modern times through the influence of Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Lech Walesa, and many others, including perhaps Liu Xiaobo and his brave comrades.

    3.) We once hosted a few young Chinese students in our home. These guys were born in the 80′s. One of them told me “Deng Xiaoping was a great man.” At that time, he began a serious effort to understand the paradox of Chinese struggle for political expression. Your assessment of Deng’s role as enactor of the “peaceful consensus” strategy sums up well what I have learned of the man so far. Having read an account of the Tianenmen incidents of 1989, I can understand why he advocated, for the sake of “order,” the use of force. I’m not saying his response was correct. Perhaps those events will be judged in future years as historically similar to our Lexington and Concord in US history. And hey, we’ve become pretty good friends with the Brits since then.

    4.) Re: point #2 above, I am interested, and I am willing to help lines of communication to open up. I am not a member of that exclusive club known as journalists. (My two daughters qualify for that role, although they are presently still knocking at the door of that profession, hoping to gain admittance. Perhaps the dynamics of elitism, or hierarchy, are similar anywhere in the world.)
    Nevertheless, as an author and teacher, I am willing to help in any way I can. Currently, I am preparing (intellectually; my wife is overseeing the travel and visa preparations) to visit China for 2 weeks this summer.

    5.) And so I am wondering if my interest in this blog, or my response to it, jeopardizes our status as candidates to receive visas when we apply for them in a few weeks. In that connection, I will follow your honest, pragmatic example and conclude this post with a note

    6.) To the Censor, whoever you may be: Please offer your endorsement to the appropriate authorities, so that I, my wife and two daughters can visit Shanghai, Beijing and other places in China, this summer. We only want to be tourists. And perhaps you could also speak to another appropriate official about unblocking my website. Thank you.

    Carey Rowland, author of Glass half-Full

    [Reply to this comment]

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