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Welcome back, Yeeyan

If I had to pick a project that most excited me in 2009, it would be Yeeyan, a distributed translation project focused on making influential English-language media accessible to a Chinese-speaking audience. Yeeyan’s founders built a community that included thousands of translators and struck partnerships with content providers like The Guardian, giving them permission to publish translated content. I was particularly struck by the talk Yeeyan cofounder Zhang Lei gave at the 2009 China Internet Research Conference at UPenn Annenberg – he made it clear that the motivation behind Yeeyan was a desire to use translation as a bridge between cultures, letting Chinese and English-speakers see the world from each other’s perspective.

I was singing the project’s praises to a journalist last week when he pointed out that Yeeyan’s website was down. I hadn’t checked in on the site in the past few weeks – I’ve been a little busy in newborn land – but was disturbed to find that Yeeyan has been mostly offline since early December. The Guardian, who partnered with Yeeyan, reported on the closure, and their editor Alan Rusbridger expressed his unhappiness and concern that the closure of Yeeyan reflected attempts to control the range of ideas and opinions Chinese readers are exposed to.

Danwei’s article on Yeeyan’s closure gives a sense for how abrupt the move was. Translating from Yeeyan’s status page on the closed site, the site administrators say:

Due to our errors in handling some of the articles on the website, we went against the relevant regulations; therefore Yeeyan has to temporarily shut off its server, and adjust the relevant content.

As for closing the website without giving notice, and for causing inconvenience, we are deeply sorry.

Please don’t worry too much, we have saved all users’ data. We will solve the problem we face as quickly as possible, and recover the articles and personal information treasured by everyone.

In other words, Yeeyan ran afoul of one or another group of Chinese internet censors and was told they’d have to stop publishing until they ensured tighter control over their content. The fact that the site hasn’t come back quickly suggests this was more than a couple of controversial stories that were translated – it suggests that Yeeyan may need to review translations to ensure they don’t cross any red lines.

(Censorship on the Chinese internet happens in multiple places – it’s not just a firewall that makes it difficult to access certain web content. Chinese web 2.0 companies maintain internal teams that monitor content and prevent certain sensitive content from being published. These teams have a great deal of discretion in their decisionmaking, and often come to very different conclusions, as this paper from Rebecca MacKinnon, experimenting with the censorship of blog content on 15 Chinese-hosted blogging providers demonstrates.)

I’ve been catching up on my China censorship news from friends who follow that space more closely than I do. It’s been a tough winter for free speech on the Chinese internet. Rebecca MacKinnon has an excellent overview of four troubling developments that have recently unfolded in the Chinese internet:

– A crackdown on pornography on mobile devices
– A focus on eliminating “obscenity” from search engines
– A shutdown of file-sharing websites
– Restrictions on .cn domain names, which can now only be registered by companies, not by individuals

Some of these steps are defensible – Rebecca reports that CNNIC put restrictions on domain name sales because so many domains were being used for phishing and other criminal activities. But as friends at Open Net Initiative have documented for years, a crackdown on pornography almost invariably turns into restrictions on political speech.

It’s hard to see how any of these crackdowns would affect Yeeyan directly – the site made it possible to read The Guardian, Time Magazine, the New York Times and ReadWriteWeb in Chinese, and none of those publication routinely print much pornography. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that at least one of the authorities that control the Chinese internet – which include the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television and the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology – found the prospect of frequent, high-quality translation of US and European media threatening. This is consistent with the history of internet censorship in China – the BBC’s Chinese-language service is blocked far more often than the English-language version, for instance, suggesting that blocking focuses on content that can be easily read by large audiences, and less on potentially sensitive English language content. (That previous sentence is a massive oversimplification – ONI’s most recent country study on China is helpful in understanding some of the nuances of this complex situation.)

So what’s next for Yeeyan? A post on the site today announces that translation will begin again on January 8th. Reading an automatic translation of the most recent post, I believe there’s a new system announced that will audit all translations, holding some up as long as 24 hours before they go live. It sounds like the Yeeyan team has been working hard to review all previously translated content and will launch with about 70% of it, and will work to bring the rest of it online. The post also made clear that Yeeyan’s community had rallied around the founders and that there is a great deal of community support for bringing the project back to life.

Obviously, I’m no fan of censorship – much of my work focuses on testing, improving and disseminating tools that allow unfettered access to the internet and the ability to publish despite firewalls. But there’s something that I find particularly galling in seeing a project like Yeeyan censored. Yeeyan’s not an activist site – they’re not pushing a particular political agenda. They’re trying to open a window on another set of perspectives, to help people in China understand US and UK perspectives on the world. They’ve got a mission analagous to what we’re trying to do at Global Voices… a site that also gets censored fairly often.

So, as sad as I was to see Yeeyan go down, I’m at least as happy to see their community and founders rally around and bring the site back up. I’ll be interested to see if Yeeyan can sustain the energy of volunteer translators now that they won’t be able to see their hard work on screen immediately. It will be interesting to see what stories the community is and isn’t willing to translate, and what scrutiny the site will face from regulators. And I continue to wonder whether we could rally a parallel effort in the US or Europe to translate key Chinese media into English, building on the critical work done by Danwei and by the indefatigable Roland Soong.

So welcome back, Yeeyan – we missed you, even those of us who didn’t know we were missing you.

10 thoughts on “Welcome back, Yeeyan”

  1. Thanks for writing this post Ethan. I share your warm feelings for what Yeeyan is doing. I hope one day there will be a Yeeyan in reverse…a community translation site from Chinese to English. I guess GVO, Roland, Danwei, chinaSMACK, and others are doing this already, but it would great to even do more to help us all gain a much more global perspective. Thanks.

  2. hmmm. We deliberately keep our content a-political, the idea being that (if one day we are big enough to get on the radar, publish in Chinese etc) we won’t face problems with blocking and censorship in China or other countries with similar policies.

    Obviously that restricts how far we can go in terms of coverage (and I guess usefulness), but we thought the trade off was worth it to provide a non-activist (and therefore hopefully more widely available) alternative. This kind of shoots down that hypothesis…

    Agree that a reverse Yeeyan would be extremely useful.

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  9. I think Guardian is a great publication and am all for yeeyan’s partnership with it. But Chinese authorities being who they are, are likely to be very sensitive about this. One way around this might be to translate politically less sensitive articles, which is what is happening now.

    Another thing that could be done would be to tie up with a personal finance magazine like Moneywise that talks about personal finance issues of Britons. The magazine would more likely be griping about the British government than the Chinese government. Most importantly, this would let Mandarin readers have a window into a lot of the day-to-day concerns of ordinary Brits and actually promote cross-cultural understanding and appreciation.

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