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Britannica Becoming a Chinese Best-Seller

January 18, 1987|Frank B. Gibney | Frank B. Gibney, vice chairman of the Encyclopedia Britannica's board of editors, is also president of Pacific Basin Institute in Santa Barbara

SANTA BARBARA — On a raw December morning just over seven years ago, I stood shivering in a Peking auditorium, about to lecture editors of the Encyclopaedia of China on the problems of translating a sizable portion of the Encyclopaedia Britannica into Chinese. The whole situation seemed wildly improbable. My first trip to China. I had never been, to put it mildly, a friend of the People's Republic and my background in Asian matters was that of a working scholar in Japanese. With a few exceptions, American friends were skeptical. The Britannica in Chinese? In a communist country? Even if you got it out, who'd buy it?

Late last year the 10-volume Concise Encyclopaedia Britannica in Chinese went on sale in Peking and Shanghai, with considerable fanfare. The first 50,000 sets are now about sold out, with more printings in the offing. It is notably uncensored. Barring editorial condensation and some allowances for current Chinese needs (science and geography articles run longer than those on Western philosophy), readers have a translated version of what Americans read. We have received personal congratulations from the party secretary and the prime minister as well as the steady support of Deng Xiaoping himself.

"This is a barometer of our countries' relations," my friend and opposite number Liu Zunqi, then deputy editor of the Encyclopaedia of China, once told me. "As long as this project is in business, they are OK." Beyond political barometry, the workings of the project offer a microcosm of China today. The restlessness of students in the past weeks' demonstrations is not surprising--we have contributed to it. Neither is shake-up of party leaders. Political turbulence inevitably accompanies sweeping economic and social progress; everything in our experience, however, argues for optimism about the long-term outcome.

Our partner in this project, the Encyclopaedia of China, is a new organization. It was founded in 1978 by the Academy of Social Sciences, at least partly instigated by Deng himself. On receiving a copy of a new encyclopedia published by the Italian city-state of San Marino, Deng was said to have observed the incongruity of a tiny place having its own reference work, while China had none. Most of the China Encyclopaedia's handpicked scholars and editors were survivors of the disastrous 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution. Some in fact had just been released from the jails where Jiang Qing, Mao Tse-tung's wife, had sent them. (The managing editor, once Mao's Russian interpreter, had been in solitary confinement for six years). Anxious to begin reeducating China, they were almost all Deng-style liberals. Their new publishing house was free from encrusted bureaucracy--and from other government situations where newly released prisoners were sent back to work side-by-side with the people who had denounced them.

The Encyclopaedia of China was planned as a vast 75-volume opus. The idea of translating the Britannica 10-volume ready-reference Micropaedia into Chinese as a supplement came almost by accident during my first visit to Peking. When the Chinese editors heard about a similar reference effort I had edited in Japan, part of a 29-volume Japanese-language Britannica, they were intrigued. After the systematic isolation of their people from the outside world under Maoism, Peking scholars felt that a handy international reference set was a real necessity.

In Japan, we had heavily abridged the Britannica to fit the taste of Japanese readers. The Chinese did not want that. "Just let's translate Britannica as it is," they argued, "We want our students and young people to see for themselves what the world outside is saying and thinking." In retrospect this decision probably saved the project from much ideological attack. For if an effort had been made to alter the text for Chinese readers, editors and party bosses would have had to agree on what the modern Chinese reader needed--no easy task. But with a translation, the editors could truthfully say that they were bound by their agreement to respect the Britannica text.

The Chinese undertook the basic work of translation, editing and publishing. Encyclopaedia Britannica provided its latest revisions, plus all the editorial help that we could offer.

Dealing with undoctored factual articles was for many Chinese editors a new and unsettling experience. But they demonstrated mammoth competence as well as enthusiasm. Backed by the Academy of Social Sciences, they scoured the country for capable English translators. This was not easy. For many years Russian, not English, had been China's second language. And in areas of religion--or Western art and music--even well-educated Chinese were no longer acquainted with many basic terms.

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