On Translation: North Korea in the Sinophone Gaze

Chinese writing about North Korea is peculiar. And perhaps it ought to be. Surely, well-informed insights and even genuinely insightful speculations ought to be welcomed to the table with alacrity, regardless of the nationality or linguistic tendencies of the thinker. Translators naturally serve a vital role in the enterprise of tying together Korea-oriented policy and analytical communities.

Chinese writing about North Korea takes on an additional point of interest when it appears to indicate that the Chinese Communist Party is modifying, or considering modifying, its policy direction in an effort to reshape North Korean behaviour. Except, perhaps, that Jang Song-taek is dead and Kim Jong-un is alive and able to take off his own shoes, very little is certain from Pyongyang. Conversation is therefore needed from as many vantage points as possible. We still need to know what the Jang purge meant for fisheries management, for the Byungjin line, for possible internal dissent over the depictions and monumentalization of the dead Kims, for what it meant economically to the DPRK’s northern border with China, and – not least – what impact it had on the fate of North Korea’s largest unfinished Special Economic Zones. Believe it or not, some of these topics are still very hot among Chinese scholars.

Fortunately we live today in a world where Chinese authors are able to launch their missives over the linguistic divide and into the seething, steaming, and occasionally-accurate mass of the Anglophone press. One important outlet for Chinese views on recent events in North Korea is the Global Times, which is often described as “the English version” of the nationalistic Huanqiu Shibao. Both Huanqiu and GT, as they occasionally shortened by their more loyal readers, operate under the arm of the Chinese Commmnist Party organ of the People’s Daily, and are linked administratively. In the case of of covering the Jang Song-taek purge, GT has been helpful, providing reasonably timely factual aid from Zhang Lian’gui, in English, and published essays roughly approximate to Huanqiu editorials.

But such editorials in English should not be mistaken with proper “Chinese writing about North Korea.” Global Times editorials are better described as “based upon Chinese editorials which are translated with heavy alterations and cuts for purposes of consumption by Western readers who are generally and inaccurately led to believe that Global Times represents what Chinese elites and/or the public is reading.” Not to put too fine a point on it, but the Huanqiu editorials are generally much more combative, revealing, and interesting than the sanitized English versions. Sino-NK, the analysis website which I edit, makes a regular habit of translating (or more faithfully retranslating!) such essays.

When it comes to North Korea analysis, we have seen at various times what a huge impact one passionate translator can have, with perhaps a small team of assistants and probably not much money, in amplifying defector voices. As important for the broader understanding of the North Korean system, the DPRK’s foreign relations, the North Korean economy, and the future of North Korea, I would argue, are Chinese voices.  At some point we are going to get past the point when we read a Chinese author only looking for cracks in the ‘lips and teeth’ edifice and start to appreciate the verve, the vertiginous quality, and the depth of historical allusion in the work. I will certainly continue my own efforts to keep the linguistic and analytical channels open so that these voices, too, can be heard.

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