WASHINGTON — A U.S.-based advocacy group is warning Western authors to be vigilant of censorship of their work in China’s fast-growing book publishing industry, which is sometimes done without their knowledge.
A report last week from the PEN American Center says translated versions of foreign books may be excised because of political sensitivities, like Taiwan, Tibet and the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown on democracy protesters. But references to sexually explicit material and gay and lesbian issues are also frowned upon.
The report intends to draw attention to how pervasive Chinese censorship could affect writers outside the country as China takes an increasingly prominent place in the global publishing industry. China will be the regional focus of this year’s BookExpo America in New York next week, with a delegation of hundreds of state writers and publishers.
China is one of the largest book publishing markets in the world, with total revenue projected to exceed $16 billion in 2015 and a growth rate of roughly 10 percent per year, according to the report. Chinese publishers acquired 16,115 foreign titles in 2012, up 60 percent from 2004. American and British books are the most popular.
The report says that in many instances, foreign authors and their agents and publishers do not have sufficient knowledge of the workings of Chinese censorship to ensure books aren’t censored.
Many have signed contracts that promise the preservation of the author’s original content but leave the translation to the Chinese publisher and fail to vet the resulting copy. Other authors consent to some censorship, reasoning that even in diluted form, getting new ideas into China will help the cause of free expression.
American novelist Paul Auster told PEN he did not discover the changes made to the translated version of his book “Sunset Park” until after publication in China last November. He said he felt his book was “mutilated.”
The plight of dissident and Nobel peace laureate Liu Xiaobo is a minor plot in the book. The publisher cut several pages, and in other places replaced the dissident’s name with “L.”
The New York-based agent of author Barbara De Angelis consented to the removal in Chinese translation of about 30 percent of the text of her “Secrets About Men Every Woman Should Know,” without the author’s knowledge, according to the report. The Chinese publisher found the sections dealing with bedroom secrets and advice too sexually explicit, it said.
PEN said it interviewed dozens of authors, publishers and literary agents in the United States, China, Taiwan, Australia and Europe for the report. It says that as book advances and royalties payments rise in China, there are serious concerns about the kinds of compromises foreign authors and publishers may make and the impact this can have on free expression.
“If we don’t act, how long will it take before a wide swath of writers begin to simply avoid taking up topics that could complicate access to readers in China or elsewhere once their books are translated?” said Suzanne Nossel, PEN executive director.
In response to a request for comment, Chinese Embassy spokesman Zhu Haiquan said the Chinese government protects its citizens’ right of freedom to publish, but those exercising that freedom must abide by Chinese law.
He said a growing number of foreign publications have been translated into Chinese and they are welcomed and well received in China.