To translate a word from one language to another is easy; to translate a context is hard.
The New York Times (NYT) carried an article in its May 4 book review that called Guo Jingming "the most successful writer in China". That must have pleased millions of Guo's fans, but it surely shocked a lot more people.
"How can NYT stoop so low?" many asked.
Guo is currently the bestselling author in China and, by correlation, the highest earning one as well. But the 24-year-old is not respected. He was found by a court of law to have committed the cardinal sin for a writer - plagiarism. But, against the court order, he refused to apologize, explaining that he needed to uphold his image in the eyes of his adoring fans.
Apart from this, nobody is praising his adolescent schmaltz for literary achievement.
All this was sketched out in detail in the NYT essay. But whoever first reported it in the Chinese press did not bother to read the whole article. He or she was so focused on the word "successful" that everything else probably became a blur.
From the NYT article, it is natural to deduce that the author meant "commercial success". However, the Chinese translator-cum-commentator has obviously interpreted it as "literary excellence" or "high quality overall".
In an ideal world, a work of great literary value should have high sales. But we don't live in an ideal world, and bestsellers, like blockbuster movies, do not necessarily do anything except fill a few hours of your leisure time.
The misunderstanding of NYT's appraisal of China's literary pop idol is more evident when the context is enlarged from the article to the whole book review section. On that day, NYT carried four full-length reviews of four Chinese novels: Wolf Totem by Jiang Rong, Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out by Mo Yan, The Song of Everlasting Sorrow by Wang Anyi and Serve the People by Yan Lianke - all serious works by accomplished writers. The Guo Jingming piece was like a dessert, nice and frothy, but not supposed to replace the main entrees.
None of the Chinese commentators mentioned any of the four book reviews. Through endless copying and reposting, which is the pillar of Chinese website management, the point has been hammered home that Americans, for whatever unfathomable reason, favor China's most ridiculed literary pretender as their favorite Chinese writer.
There are commentators who suspect the NYT piece was being sarcastic in its choice of words, countering "most successful" with a detailed description of Guo's less-than-flattering acts - but you won't be able to go into that much depth from the headlines or the opening paragraphs. As we know, website editors have a flair for creating outrageous headlines that hardly correspond to the general idea of the article.
This is a perfect example - albeit innocuous - of what I call "cultural mismatch". It's more than getting lost in translation. It's about picking up only what interests you and leaving behind everything else, including the right perspective and right context. It can happen between two languages and two cultures, but also between two demographic groups.
An American writer once noticed that street kids were wearing a special badge as part of a necklace. He thought it was a sign for peace and was heartened. It turned out they were insignia from brand-name automobiles, the preferred object of theft among that group.
Another ridiculous misinterpretation was made by a reporter from a big-name American magazine. He paid us a visit during his trip to China. Later, he wrote that the security guards at our building were here to intimidate us into self-censorship. At such skin-deep observation, I couldn't help but laugh.
(China Daily 05/10/2008 page4)