How do we value the work of translators today?

Wang’s original translations of Chinese poetry were used uncredited and without her permission by the British Museum. She tells guest host Talia Schlanger what that experience says about how the work of translators is valued today.

Canadian translator Yilin Wang shares her experience getting credit for her translation at the British Museum

Vancouver-based translator Yilin Wang, Chinese poet Qiu Jin.
Vancouver-based translator Yilin Wang, Chinese poet Qiu Jin. (Joy M. Kaegi Maurer, Wisconsin Historical Society)

Canadian translator Yilin Wang's original translations of Chinese poetry were used by the British Museum in an exhibit that opened in May.

The thing is, her translations were used both without her permission and without accreditation.

In the months since Wang realized this was going on, the British Museum has apologized, saying it will create a new policy to make sure translators are properly credited on future projects.

Wang joins guest host Talia Schlanger to talk about her experience with the British Museum and what it says about how the work of translators is valued.

We've included some highlights below, edited for length and clarity. For the full discussion, listen and follow the Commotion with Elamin Abdelmahmoud podcast, on your favourite podcast player.

Talia: You've said that translating poetry is an intimate experience. Can you describe that  experience of getting into [Qiu Jin's] mind to translate her poetry?

Yilin: When I translate, I'm reading the same poem many, many times, very carefully. It's not just about enjoying it as a reader. I'm looking at every word…. I tried to imagine how she felt physically, emotionally, when she wrote the poem. I think about the relationships she had with the women in her life that she wrote poems to, whether friends or sisters or her mother. I try to place myself also in the time that she lived in and imagine what it was like to face those kinds of limiting roles when it comes to gender, and the challenges that she faced and the socio-political background. So I really try to get into the space of the poetry.

Talia: So how did you find out that the British Museum was taking these translations that you put so much personal and artistic energy into, and using them without your permission?

Yilin: I had published some translations of her poetry back in 2021, and they were widely read; many translators and academics in the field know about the work. So when this exhibit started happening, multiple people came to me and were like, "The 'China's hidden century' exhibit has a section on Qiu Jin. It might be of interest to you. We saw that they have translations of her poetry, and you're one of the main translators doing this work right now. Are you aware of this?" So I started looking around at the exhibit; I looked at photos and videos, and then I just saw that multiple excerpts and a full poem translation of mine were used.

Talia: What was your reaction?

Yilin: I was shocked. I live in Vancouver and this was in London, halfway across the world. And they had used it in so many different formats without just reaching out to me at all and letting me know, and asking for permission.

Talia: So I'm curious, after you discover that the British Museum is using your translations, you're shocked. What did you do?

Yilin: So there's been, over the last few years, a movement on social media and in the translation community called #NameTheTranslator, where people will post on social media and talk about the importance of crediting translators. As someone who was active on Twitter and who has talked about translation issues in the past, and who can't physically go visit the museum — it had already been on display for over a month at this point — I went to Twitter. I tagged the British Museum and posted some pictures of what I saw and was like, "@britishmuseum I just found out that you used my translations without permission. How are you going to fix this? #NameTheTranslator."

Talia: What was their response?

Yilin: They contacted me through email. The first reaction was like, "We forgot to put your name on the acknowledgement board, and we are grateful for the hundreds of people who helped make this exhibit happen." Again, I was shocked because it's not just you forgot my name on the board — you literally did not get permission in the first place, and I was uncredited. There are multiple things going on here.

Then there were more emails, offering to send me a permission form to get permission but emphasizing that they're an academic institution and many academics allow them to use their work for free or at a very low cost. So again, I was just very frustrated by the minimizing of what happened. And then before I could respond to that, they had just removed the Chinese original poetry along with the English translation. It was like, "We'll just pay you for the appearance in the catalog, which there's nothing we can do about because it's printed."

Talia: Just to make sure I'm understanding this right, their immediate solution was just to erase the poetry from the collection, and also to erase your translation along with it, rather than figuring out a way to make this right?

Yilin: That's right…. I understand mistakes happen. What happened the first time was already not great. But you could have taken steps to just work with me and fix that, rather than make the problem worse.

Talia: So it's taken almost two months, but you reached a settlement with the British Museum earlier this month. Both Qiu Jin's poetry and your translations are back in the exhibit. You're now credited as a translator. You're on the museum's website. There's a statement also that talks about how the museum is committed to making policy to make sure translators are properly credited on future projects. That sounds huge. How does it feel to know that you helped in making that happen?

Yilin: I appreciate that the British Museum came to me after I was able to get legal representation. It was one of the main things that I really wanted because I think it's very important for them to be accountable and give an explanation of what went wrong and how are they going to avoid repeating this mistake in the future, not just for me, but also for the Asian community. So that is really kind of important to set a precedent for them and for other museums — for anyone working with translators.

Talia: What do you feel like your experience says about the way that translators are valued?

Yilin: I think translation and translators have really been underappreciated. Some people on social media thought that translation was not copyrighted; some people think that translation is just running something through Google Translate, or it can be using a dictionary, or being multilingual. But it requires so many different kinds of skills, and is a labour and its own form of art, a type of writing. I think people really don't recognize how much work goes into translation, and people don't think about the people who are behind the translation.

You can listen to the full discussion from today's show on CBC Listen or on our podcast, Commotion with Elamin Abdelmahmoud, available wherever you get your podcasts.

Interview with Yilin Wang produced by Jean Kim.