While researching Oscar screeners last month, I stumbled on a remarkable example of online collaboration in China that's completely undiscovered here. In short, a group of dedicated fans of The Economist newsmagazine are translating each weekly issue cover-to-cover, splitting up the work among a team of volunteers, and redistributing the finished translations as complete PDFs for a Chinese audience.
It reminds me of the scanlation movement, in which groups of fans scan, translate, and redistribute manga into another language. But I've never seen it applied to a newspaper or magazine, especially one as high-minded as The Economist.
It's an impressive example of online collaboration with simple tools, a completely non-commercial effort by volunteers interested in spreading knowledge while improving their English skills. In the process, they're taking a political risk in translating controversial articles about their homeland behind the Great Firewall.
I can't read Chinese, but with the help of Google's translation tools and several Chinese-speaking friends, I think I've pieced it together. (If anyone out there knows more, please email or IM me and I'll add it in.)
How It Works
They call themselves The Eco Team, a group of about 240 passionate Economist fans led by a 39-year-old insurance broker named Shi Yi. The ECO China forum was originally founded in May 2006 by a mysterious character named "nEo," though he's no longer involved with the site. On their About Us page, nEo delivers the mission statement:
"Like the forum name says, producing a Chinese version of The Economist is our goal. But we're still young and immature; very amateur, not professional. So what? Because we are young, we have the fervor, the enthusiasm, the passion. Because we are amateurs, we'll double our efforts to do our best. As long as we wish, we can be successful and do a good job!"
Every week, in their Weekly Topics forum (translation), a moderator creates a thread linking to every untranslated article from the newest issue on Economist.com. Here's the list for this week's issue, published on February 21.
Volunteers choose their stories in the comments, while the moderator keeps track of assignments. As each story's translated, it's posted as a new thread in topic-specific forums, like Special Reports or Science & Technology.
Each article weaves together paragraphs of the original text and its translation, while other volunteers suggest their corrections in the comments. The lead editor incorporates all the comments, eventually arriving at a final draft ready for publication.
The Finished Product
While the Eco Team works on translating every article as soon as each issue hits the stands, the Eco PDF Team bundles up finished translations into Eco Weekly, a bi-weekly PDF with two complete issues for forum members to enjoy and share.
The result is a bit rough around the edges, focusing more on the content than presentation, but perfectly readable. Below is a side-by-side comparison of one article from the issue (view larger).
Only logged-in users can view the PDFs, so I've mirrored one below. It's locked with the password www.ecocn.org, largely so they get credit for their work.
Eco Weekly 2008049.pdf (5 MB)
Self-Censorship and Political Taboos
But The Economist frequently covers China with a critical eye, leading to frequent clashes with Chinese authorities. In July 2002, an entire issue was banned from the country because of an editorial by Beijing correspondent James Miles, who noted that articles about China are often ripped from the magazine before it hits the newsstands. And there have been reports that access to the Economist website is being disrupted by China's firewall.
In an interview from 2006, former editor Bill Emmott said, "The Economist would not publish a compromised or censored version of the magazine in order to get into China. However, if the authorities tear out a page of an issue to censor it, we do not then withdraw the whole copy on grounds that it is tainted: as the censorship would be plain to anyone who saw it."
How do the members of the Eco Team tackle this touchy subject, without risking the entire project? To start, they only translate articles about China in a protected forum that blocks access to search engines and non-members.
Inside, most articles get translated without incident, but there are some exceptions. In a thread explaining why the forum's protected, a moderator lists some guidelines and some topics that are off-limits:
Along with rapid growth, China is starting to get more influence on the international stage. This can be seen in the international media coverage, with more articles involving China. Since the content of those articles comprises many areas, some topics are prohibited by the Chinese government. To avoid any unnecessary trouble and for the survival of ECO, all comments/articles published in The Economist must abide by the following policy:
There's one general rule: If the article involves any sensitive topics, if you're not sure whether it's permitted or not, please don't risk any chance by publishing it.
Even though this appears to be severe, people shouldn't be overly sensitive. In China, not everything related to politics is off-limits. Some issues involving politics can belong in the scope of discussion; for example, discussions on the reform of local government architecture. Articles revolving around these matters are often published in the government newspaper/magazines, it's not forbidden.
The list of sensitive subjects includes China-Taiwan's political relationship, Tibet, Falun Gong, the Tiananmen Square protests, the Cultural Revolution, discussions of freedom of the press or freedom of religion (including the "Great Firewall"), and any discussion of the establishment of a new Chinese political party. They note exceptions for the finances and social issues of Tibet or Taiwan, targeting only the political issues.
"Violation of these rules is strictly prohibited. If someone breaks these rules in your forum, don't allow it," the moderator writes. "Delete the note right away. If this is the poster's first offense, give them a warning. If it's the second offense, delete the ID and block the user!"
As far as I can tell, there's no political motive behind the Eco Team's efforts. They simply want to improve their English, while learning about the world around them and pursuing the unbiased truth. But they're not going to risk the entire project to do it, which makes their moderation guidelines largely defensive. One editor compares it to American political correctness, an attempt to look out for other's feelings.
Copyright Issues and The Economist's Stance
I spoke to Shi Yi, the Eco Team's current leader, and he told me that he has a good relationship with The Economist, including ongoing discussions with executive editor John Micklethwait and the head of their Chinese office. Yi said the Eco Team was granted official permission to do translation in their forum exclusively, since it's an entirely non-profit and volunteer effort.
The Economist does not approve of the commercial reuse of their translation by third parties. While the Eco Weekly issues are for members only, others have taken their work without permission and syndicated them for commercial use on sites like Blogbus and Ecosky.
Yi mentioned the Eco Forum is funded entirely by donations from an annual fund drive. In the forum's primary navigation, they also prominently encourage members to purchase a subscription. He also pointed me to the only other similar project he knows of, a Chinese fan translation of TIME Magazine.
I reached out to The Economist several times myself over the past month, but I was unable to get a response. If they respond, I'll be sure to post a followup.