From Tehran to Twitter, censorship has become increasingly visible of late around the world. As part of that trend, the academic freedom of scholars can also come under threat when the financial and intellectual agendas of their publishers run up against nationalist and other populist ideologies in different countries. I recently experienced such tensions when a book I co-edited met with some unexpected obstacles while being translated. On this basis, I can offer other academics, their publishers and institutions some insights about how to prepare for and address such circumstances.
About five years ago, I edited a volume on the history of anticorruption, along with my colleagues Ronald Kroeze and André Vitória. It contains 20 essays, covering classical antiquity to the late 20th century, and each case study examines how a different society has framed and fought corruption.
In our work on the collection, which includes several “premodern” and Middle Eastern examples, we pursued two related goals. First, we aimed to draw a rich and diverse canvas depicting corruption’s ubiquity and the evolving challenges—indeed, the impossibility—of ending it for good. And second, we wanted to resist overly celebratory and sometimes exclusionary accounts of how Euro-American modernity achieved good governance. We were pleased that our efforts found a prestigious publisher with Oxford University Press and that the volume was positively reviewed, gained citations and went into paperback.
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To our surprise and delight, moreover, Chinese and Kuwaiti publishers soon purchased the rights to produce translations of the work in simplified modern Chinese and Arabic, respectively. Both editions were to be printed in massive quantities—5,000 and 43,000, respectively—certainly by our modest academic standards. We were unaware of those publishers’ precise considerations, but it occurred to us that the topic in general and our revisionist view of the history of good government in particular might appeal to their readership, too. At any rate, we were all greatly looking forward to learning how some unanticipated audiences of our work would engage with it, a rare occasion for many academics.
Of the two projects, the Chinese edition progressed more quickly, and it was here that we came to look an apparent gift horse in the mouth. OUP conveyed the concern of the Chinese publisher—a nongovernment entity—about the essay “Corruption in an Anticorruption State? East Germany Under Communist Rule,” by André Steiner, an expert on the German Democratic Republic. The Chinese publisher suggested either cutting out large parts of the original text or omitting the essay from the volume entirely.
Our OUP partners were crystal clear that they would support any decision we as editors and authors made, even if it led to canceling the translation contract and returning the payments they had already received. They assured us that they had already done so on several, if rare, occasions in the past.
Reneging on the deal certainly seemed the simpler solution. But after deliberating among ourselves and with our contributors, especially with the essay’s author, Steiner, we chose to try and see the project through. Yes, being translated is a rare treat, even if in this case it carried virtually no financial benefits to any of the authors or editors. But our main reasoning was that some intellectual exchange is preferable to a display of righteous indignation towards a private publisher trying to operate in a complex situation.
We did, however, make several stipulations. First, that the Chinese edition mention the omitted chapter by name. Second, that OUP fund a Chinese translation of the chapter, waive the copyright and provide free access to the text through their website. And third, that the Chinese publisher share with us the final version for spot checking, likewise to be funded by OUP, as a condition for completing production. While the latter was a simple quality-control measure, the first two were designed to render transparent the volume’s modification: they would restore its original constitution, albeit in hybrid form, by suggesting how Chinese-language readers could find the missing piece.
Our requests from the Chinese publisher were met with swift approval and later carried out as agreed. Negotiations with OUP took longer to conclude, yet in the end, it funded both the spot checking and the translation by a scholar that we the editors identified, as well as waived the copyright to the translated chapter. The press said that it was technically unable, however, to upload the text onto Oxford Scholarship Online, now Oxford Academic. Our hybrid solution had to be found on another platform and through the author’s private initiative. At our recommendation, he opted for the nonprofit repository Humanities Commons.
To reiterate, at no point did OUP put any of us editors or our authors under pressure to compromise our values or the integrity of our collective work. And having stayed the course, we now understand how taxing working with other publishers in foreign countries can sometimes be from a legal and administrative standpoint. None of us had previously even considered the possibility of having to deal with ideological (self-)censorship in the context of an academic work’s translation, and informing ourselves about how to deal with it, both morally and technically, followed a steep learning curve. That would have been true, incidentally, even had we retained the rights to all foreign language translations when signing the original contract.
Our volume’s amputated Chinese translation eventually appeared in 2021, simultaneously with its missing limb. The latter text has since been downloaded more than 320 times, although we do not know where or by whom. The Arabic edition also appeared, in 2022, without any prompting or additional input from the editors or OUP. The copies we received, however, do not seem to contain any omissions or changes from the original text.
A Growing Issue
Peculiar as it may have seemed at the time, the situation we faced with the private Chinese publisher is no longer unusual. According to our OUP contacts, self-censorship among some publishers has been rising over the past few years. Extreme nationalism, cultural entrenchment and antidemocratic sentiments are impacting the quality of cultural exchange around the world. And these apparently include the censoring of translations of academic works, which are rare to begin with.
In this climate, academic presses, as well as grant givers and universities, would benefit from gathering systematic data about similar situations and developing adequate resources to cope with them. The fact is that, in a shrinking publishing market, especially for humanities and social sciences, some publishers may find lucrative revenues from licensing translations and massive print runs hard to resist. Both scholars and academic presses should therefore consider how to address such eventualities through policies, contracts and informal workarounds like those we proposed. The paramount concern is to avoid being hijacked to promote someone else’s agenda.