Racist Erasure at the British Museum: Somehow Not Shocking

photo of Chinese woman on pink background with poetry in Chinese and English. The English reads "Don't speak of how women can become heroes. Alone, I rode the winds east for ten thousand leagues." Translated by Yilin Wang.

Debbie says:

Laurie and I have written before about artists who are mistreated by their venues, including Dorian Katz being censored from trash cans, and the cowardice of the museums which postponed Phillipe Guston exhibits for four years. This time, the shabby museum is the iconic British Museum and the misused artist is a translator rather than a visual artist.

Canadian-Chinese translator, poet, writer, and editor Yilin Wang is facing up against the British Museum, and the facts seem crystal clear. Wang has translated poetry by Qiu Jin, (秋瑾), “a Chinese revolutionary, feminist, poet, and essayist who lived from 1875 to 1907.” The museum has an exhibit called “China’s Hidden Century,” curated by Jessica Harrison-Hall.

When it opened, the exhibit apparently featured Wang’s 23-line translation of a Qiu Jin poem, A River of Crimson: A Brief Stay in the Glorious Capital, with no translator credit (and the museum and the curators had had no previous contact with Wang). According to Wang, this poem was featured “in a giant projection, on a sign, in digital and print audio guides, in an audio form and its transcript, and in an audio guide in their app store, in connection with the physical exhibition.” When Wang learned about this copyright violation, she wrote to the British Museum, an institution more than well-enough capitalized and respected to apologize and fix the problem. She asked that they either pay her and credit her work or remove her translation.

So what did the great minds at the museum do? First, they offered to acknowledge her work, and sent her a permission form, with none-too-subtle prodding to let them use the material for free. Then, before she had time to respond across the 8-hour time difference, they followed up by saying they had “removed her translations,” which turns out to mean that they removed the entire Qiu Jin feature. So, as she says:

The current position is the worst possible outcome – the public are now not only being denied the chance to see my translations, and to know who wrote them, but also the chance to read Qiu Jin’s words too. The result is that two female writers of color have both had their work erased. We are not disposable.

The museum says that the mistake was “human error,” and also says they can’t make quick changes to an active exhibit (although they managed to remove all this material overnight). They have not acknowledged that their named curator certainly looks Caucasian and not Chinese. Wang is crowdfunding for money to pay an attorney to represent her. (Full disclosure; I have donated a small amount to this fund, though I never heard of her before I saw her story on social media.) More details of the story are available at the crowdfunding link.

If everyone involved was of the same race and ethnicity, the only acceptable response to Wang’s letter would have been for the museum to apologize fully and publicly, restore the material with full credit to the translator, and pay whatever the fair market price is for such use, plus damages. (In the U.S., the penalty for copyright violation is three times the original fair charge; this may not be true in either Canada or the United Kingdom, but it’s a benchmark.) Given the clear racist nature of the outcome–women of color silenced and made invisible, refusal to pay what we know a white man would have expected and received–the apology should go deeper, the payment should be higher, and the curators should be apologizing on their own as well as through their employer.

Poetry translation is highly skilled work, and opportunities to have it showcased so publicly are rare. They should not be tainted by racism and greed. I wish Wang successful crowdfunding and successful litigation. The only silver lining her is that I never heard of Qiu Jin, who sounds fascinating, and I will be learning more. If you never heard of her before this post, maybe that’s a silver lining for you as well.


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