Sam Leith Sam Leith

The unedifying Yilin Wang vs British Museum row 

The British Museum, London (Credit: Getty images)

If you visited the British Museum’s new exhibition China’s Hidden Century a fortnight ago, you’d have seen a substantial section on the revolutionary woman poet Qiu Jin, with substantial extracts from her poems in Chinese and English displayed in a giant projection. What you might not have noticed was that the translator was not credited anywhere in the physical exhibition. But Yilin Wang, whose translations of those poems appeared in the exhibition, did. 

Indeed, Ms Wang, who has won awards for her poetry and has an extensive record as a translator, was more dismayed than that. Not only was she not credited: she hadn’t even been consulted by the British Museum about their use of her work. She was rightly angry.  

Social media howl-rounds can move organisations to action, but they tend to have their own momentum

Not for nothing is #namethetranslator a popular hashtag on social media. Translators often go uncredited in book reviews and even on book covers. Their work is often undervalued, and it is sometimes ignorantly imagined that a literary translation is not a creative work in its own right. 

It’s a major oversight that an exhibition of this kind could use a translator’s copyrighted work without approaching them for permission. Translations of Chinese poetry do not sprout spontaneously from the ground, like dandelions, to be picked ad lib by passers-by. So it is hard to understand how, unless mounting the physical exhibition was left in charge of a teenager on work experience, Ms Wang’s translations can have been acquired and exhibited without it crossing a single person’s mind that they were a professional writer’s copyright material. 

The British Museum has blamed ‘human error’ and claimed, slightly bromidically, that ‘every effort’ was made to secure proper permissions. We know, though, that they knew the translation was Ms Wang’s because credit is given for her translations in the exhibition catalogue. We also know she’s not all that hard to ‘reach out to’ because her personal website is the second hit for her name in Google. So this

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