This is sort of part two of another post, one I hadn’t originally intended to follow up on. But in discussing his new podcast with the ever-wise Kaiser Kuo the other day, he reminded me of something important and something all-too-easy to forget. When it comes to China, none of us really knows anything.
I mean that figuratively. Of course, many of us know many things, and I obviously think that what English-language China bloggers do is extremely valuable, or I wouldn’t still be doing this. Moreover, I get a ton out of all of the English sites on our blogroll. My point is that being a “China commentator” on the internet can become intoxicating, especially in our little community, which is small enough that many of the “scene’s” most popular bloggers know each other personally. Speaking from my own experience, with a little mutual linking and press attention, one can come to believe that he has become a “China expert” — someone whose advice people should seek out whenever something of import occurs in China. And that is always dangerous.
China, to its credit, always seems to find a way to remind you that you’re an idiot. But it doesn’t always post that on your blog, so let me take this moment to remind everyone who reads ChinaGeeks: we are not experts. We are not expert translators, we are not expert analysts, and while many of us have studied China formally for some time now, the number of things we don’t know and don’t understand could fill vast tomes, and these tomes, when stacked, would form towering, ominous stelae, reminding netizens whose ships have docked or been dashed upon the rocks of our shores that while our words may be interesting, they are never infallible.
As a blogging community, perhaps we congratulate ourselves too much, and challenge ourselves a bit too little. Perhaps we’re a bit too willing to stay within the confines of our well-defined community here and keep doing the same things we’re doing, to our own detriment. I’m not talking about anyone in specific other than myself, but the shoe probably fits elsewhere, too. To put it bluntly, fuck that shoe. Let’s try to get rid of that shoe.
My own translation, especially, concerns me, as although I have now posted hundreds, I’m not actually qualified to do it. Serving as the bridge between Chinese writers — more often than not, the capable ones — and English readers who may draw conclusions about a nation based on my translation is a daunting thought, and one that keeps me up at night from time to time. Shouldn’t somebody far more skilled, more qualified, more experienced be doing this, rather than me?
David Simon, the creator of The Wire (probably the best television show ever written), once said of his writing that his goal was to have the real people — the people he was writing about — feel as though he had captured them. He said,
That’s my goal. It derives not from pride or ambition or any writerly vanity, but from fear. Absolute fear. Like many writers, I live every day with the vague nightmare that at some point, someone more knowledgeable than myself is going to sit up and pen a massive screed indicating exactly where my work is shallow and fraudulent and rooted in lame, half-assed assumptions. I see myself labeled a writer, and I get good reviews, and I have the same doubts buried, latent, even after my successes. I suspect many, many writers feel this way.
As a translator, that fear might be stronger for me. I live in fear that the people I’m translating might someday pen such a screed, or assert, as Ai Weiwei did on Twitter a few months ago, that something I’ve translated got his meaning absolutely wrong. But people generally compliment my translations even when they’re kind of crap — there’s the echo chamber effect again — probably because no one else is writing them.
The point of this post is not to condemn anyone else — please don’t look for hidden messages here about other blogs or bloggers; there aren’t any — or necessarily to condemn this blog, the product of my own blood and sweat as well as that of my excellent staff. It is more to remind you, and to remind me, that while we have a bit of a pulpit here, we are still — and will always be — students. There are moments worthy of celebration, yes, but you as readers must also bear witness to our failures, and they, too, are many.
Note: None of the wonderful ChinaGeeks staff had any say in the writing of this article one way or the other, so if you want their thoughts on the issue, you may need to look to the comments.