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Opinion I translated ‘Wuhan Diary’ to amplify the author’s voice of courage

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Michael Berry, the translator of “Wuhan Diary” by Fang Fang, is a professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, where he is director of the Center for Chinese Studies.

“Stupid dog!” “Go F--- yourself, shame on u.” “How does the steamed bun soaked in human blood taste? You white-skinned pig!” Those were among the first messages I received on April 8 on the Chinese social media platform Weibo. Over the next few hours, more than 600 similar messages would be posted. I was accused of being a CIA agent. There were death threats. For the next several weeks, the insults and threats multiplied, and the message board that housed them would be viewed more than 3 million times.

What terrible offense had I committed to elicit this deluge of hate? I had translated “Wuhan Diary,” an account by Chinese author Fang Fang of covid-19’s spread in her hometown.

Fang, 65, is one of China’s most celebrated contemporary novelists; since publishing her first novel in 1982, she has written more than 100 texts and other books. Having spent almost her entire life in Wuhan, Fang has, perhaps more than any other Chinese writer, been closely associated with the city. On Jan. 25, Fang started a blog that documented the covid-19 outbreak there in real time, chronicling her fellow residents’ fears, struggles, hopes and sacrifices. As the coronavirus spread and people were desperate for not just information but also a human connection, Fang Fang’s diary was viewed online by more than 50 million people in China. It became a place for Chinese readers to visit for solace, comfort and emotional release.

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But then something started to change. As the outbreak came under control, Fang began to call on individuals in power whose missteps early on contributed to the catastrophe to stand up and take responsibility for their actions. As those appeals grew stronger, Fang found herself targeted by a group of fiercely nationalist online groups, and detractors launched a massive cyber-campaign against the writer and her diary. Some of the attacks stemmed from a perceived “lack of patriotism” on Fang’s part — instead of lauding the “victory over the virus” and expressing her “gratitude” to the party, as they demanded, she was raising questions and demanding answers. They launched a sophisticated multipronged campaign that included personal attacks and misogynistic threats; a torrent of articles, posts and reports aimed at disseminating lies and disinformation; and the systematic removal of online articles supporting her. The assault not only deflected attention from her calls for accountability, but also turned Fang into the villain in the eyes of many Chinese readers.

All of this came to a head on April 8, when news of the forthcoming North American edition of “Wuhan Diary” hit the Chinese Internet. Suddenly, new accusations began to fly: The book was a CIA-backed publication undertaken by a team of translators meant to smear China; the United States would use it as a weapon against China; Fang was a “traitor to China" who was just trying to gain fame and profit abroad. Alongside the false accusations came a new firestorm of brutal, personal threats against the author — and now also against me, the translator. And there were surreal moments when “Wuhan Diary” began to show up in pop culture — such as in the release of several professionally produced anti-Fang Fang “diss tracks," and from a famous Chinese tai chi master who put out a public call for martial artists to track the writer down and “punish” her.

“Wuhan Diary” has erupted into a global storm; but the real story is much less juicy. There is no CIA plot. There was no “team of translators” — just me, working 10 hours a day, seven days a week, while under quarantine in Los Angeles. As for the charges of profiteering, Fang Fang has long committed to using all proceeds from the diary to support the families of deceased Wuhan medical workers. And there was certainly no intention of “weaponizing” the book; in fact, the translation was undertaken in order for the world to learn from China’s experience in Wuhan.

I began translating “Wuhan Diary” in late February, when most of the world had yet to take covid-19 seriously. I felt a pressing need to get the word out, to sound the alarm, so that people everywhere could get a better understanding of this horrific virus. One message I did hope the world would hear was what a true voice of courage sounds like. And now, in the face of the continued threats and online violence, Fang Fang’s voice rings out even more powerfully.

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