Cross-linguistic plagiarism allegations

Last month I happened upon a report at Danwei (a site that purports to refer to and translate stories “from Mainland Chinese media … that you won’t find anywhere else”) that Zhang Zeshi, a Chinese memoirist, “has accused Chinese-American writer Ha Jin of plagiarizing his work for scenes in the PEN-Faulkner award winning War Trash.”

I don’t speak or read Chinese, and I can’t locate any other English-language sources for the story, so I have no way of verifying any of these claims. But the facts (as alleged) are pretty murky.

For starters, the alleged plagiarism would have been cross-linguistic: the memoir was published in Chinese; Ha Jin writes in English; and the memoirist had to read someone else’s translation into Chinese of Ha Jin’s work before launching the allegations.

What’s more, according to Danwei:

In his list of references, Ha Jin acknowledges using an essay collection that Zhang edited as a source for his meticulously researched novel. He has denied reading My Korean War, but the passages he is alleged to have plagiarized are found in an essay that was included in both the Zhang-edited volume and the later My Korean War.

The memoirist accuses Ha Jin of plagiarizing his depiction of a brutal POW camp commandant’s impromtu trial at the hands of rioting prisoners. But the allegations rest on the seemingly paradoxical claims that the novelist “only changed a few words after translating my work into English,” and “also twisted the characters I described.” More than a few words would have needed to be changed if the characters were twisted, right?

Using (and attributing) a nonfiction account of a historical event as inspiration for a fictional work does not constitute plagiarism. And the fact that Ha Jin’s characters are, by the memoirist’s own admission, different from Zhang’s cuts against the idea that plagiarism has occurred.

On the other hand, if a section of the memoir really were translated word-for-word, that would be a problem. But again, on the other hand (that would be the first hand, not a third hand), translations of foreign works, even from practiced translators, are notoriously subjective — if not, in fact, inaccurate.

Only an expert fluent in both English and Chinese could begin to offer an opinion here.

An anonymous reader mentioned the story in email over the weekend, saying:

I am quite surprised that so far I have not seen any news report appearing in the English language media of the United States….

The accusations were first reported in Time People Weekly. The latest development was that a friend of Ha Jin made some defense in a Chinese language newspaper in the US.

If you ask someone who knows Chinese to Google with the key-word “Ha Jin” and “plagiarism” (in Chinese), you can get much more newspaper coverage. I did just that and found the initial report here (it is not the website of Time People Weekly, though).


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