Translation and the Virus - A Conversation with Michael Berry

September 28, 2020

Translators often find themselves in a unique position, needing to interpret not only literal words, but having to provide full meaning for an audience that is often separated from the original writer's social, political, economic, and/or cultural context. For Michael Berry, a professor of Contemporary Chinese Cultural Studies at UCLA and the Director of the UCLA Center for Chinese Studies, this is a familiar conundrum. His impressive résumé encompasses award-winning translations of several important contemporary Chinese novels. Professor Berry is also a bilingual contributor to several mainstream media outlets in both the U.S. and China.

Yet, translating Wuhan Diary, an explosive and controversial online journal penned by Fang Fang, an award-winning Chinese writer, was a project unlike any other that Professor Berry had undertaken. Begun on Weibo, a popular microblogging site, Fang Fang chronicled her experiences with the novel coronavirus, candidly discussing the challenges of daily life faced by the residents of Wuhan to the physiological impact of forced isolation as the city entered a mandatory lockdown in an attempt to counter the highly contagious outbreak.

The blog ran for sixty days from January 25 - March 25, 2020 and it quickly became an online phenomenon, attracting tens of millions of Chinese readers. It also provided a window for Chinese speakers around the world to understand the outbreak, the local response, and how the novel coronavirus was impacting everyday people. At a time when reliable information about SARS-COV-2 was scarce, the blog provided a critical look into how one community was coping with an unprecedented situation. The diary featured a curious mixture of quotidian details from Fang Fang's daily routine under quarantine, medical insights from her doctor friends, and brave observations about the official response. Fang Fang's reputation as a well-known writer also gave her credibility in an environment fraught with misinformation and rumor, and her words quickly spread to the wider world. Eventually, Fang Fang's account would become the target of a series of online attacks by "ultra-nationalists," spawning debate about COVID-19, Sino-U.S. Relations, and the nature of civil society in China.

Although the information was largely welcomed, some began using particular details as fodder for criticism of China’s initial response to the virus. This alarmed cyber-nationalists who turned their collective ire on the perceived source: Fang Fang’s account of life in Wuhan. The initial backlash was fierce, and the vitriol only grew upon word of an international edition being published in English and German.

This was the context in which Michael Berry, the English translator, conducted his own work of interpreting Fang Fang’s words for a global audience. He noted near the beginning of the talk a question about the responsibility of the writer, observing that it is a key question, “not only for Fang Fang, but for the cultural politics of China, today, and what a lot of people are facing.”

He connected the controversy to a larger debate that is currently taking place about the role of art in contemporary China. Previously, under Mao Zedong, creative figures in China operated under the perception that the purpose of art was to serve the people, particularly the workers, peasants, and soldiers. Art was supposed to be politically motivated, but this fell by the wayside under reforms begun by Deng Xiaoping. More recently, however, many of the ideals from 1942 about the political purpose of art and the necessity of artists to conform to and serve those ideals have been resurrected under Xi Jinping’s leadership. As Berry noted, “the question boils down to one: who gets the final say about the ‘goodness’ of a story?” In the particular case of Fang Fang’s diary, “who gets to tell the Wuhan story?”

Berry went on to describe much of the context and controversy sparked by Fang Fang’s diary, the domestic accolades as well as the censure she faced for her candid disclosures, as well as her calls for citizens to hold leaders accountable for their actions (and inaction) that had such profound consequences for the lives of the people of Wuhan.

For Berry, ultimately, one of the key reasons Wuhan Diary is so important is that it “taps into larger debates about the very nature of civil society in China. What kind of country do people want? Do they want a country where someone can write a diary and post it on Weibo without it being censored and publish a book about it where people can have civil debate online without being attacked by trolls? What kind of country do we want to live in?”

In the end, Berry observed, “we need someone that has the courage to speak out, to hold our leaders accountable.” He also highlighted the importance of individuals sharing their stories with the broader public, noting that this particular translation project “has given me faith in literature as having the power to witness, to shape the world, to impact change.”

The online event on Friday, September 11, 2020, was the first of APSI’s 2020 Fall Speaker Series. It was moderated by two members of the Duke faculty, Carlos Rojas and Eileen Chow, both in the Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, who also have extensive experience translating Chinese literature and verse into English.

Watch a recording of the event: