A Failure to Sanitize: Xinhua Editor on Beijing U. 1989 Story

If you read Xinhua’s English story on the removal of Beijing University message boards, you may have noticed a few instances of nonsense. The headline contains a non-word, “trimcampus,” and the lead unnecessarily pluralizes “informations.” As Chris O’Brien reports, this is not because Xinhua’s English language polishers are incompetent. Or maybe it is.

O’Brien is a polisher and was tasked with cleaning up this article about the demolition of message boards on the Beijing University campus. (I linked to AFP’s take here.) The forum in question was used by students to post political materials in 1989. That’s the only reason the story is worth reporting in the first place, really, but evidently writing anything about 1989, whether explicit or implicit, leads to recasting by censors or editors with a minimal grasp of English.

We came up with this lead paragraph:

Peking University officials have sparked controversy by removing public notice boards from the center of the university campus that were formerly used by students to express their political, cultural and academic opinions.

Personally, I thought this was fair enough. Clearly, after nearly two years at Xinhua, I am still drowning in naiviety. The published version:

Peking University officials have sparked controversy by removing public notice boards from the center of the university campus that were formerly used by students to get various informations and express opinions.

And that’s the risk you take. Push the political limits and the lead paragraph ends up being clumsy and grammatically incorrect.

Check out O’Brien’s full recounting of his handling of this sensitive story here.

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