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Aside: A supposedly important thing that nobody ever read.

A brief aside, so that I don’t forget it.

This is a story that involves a translation, but it isn’t a story about that translation.

It is about a widely circulated, often nonsensical, machine translation; but it isn’t a critique of the translation or an argument against machine translation generally.

It doesn’t flag misunderstandings or other consequences that resulted from the mistranslation. On the contrary, it would have been very difficult for anyone to have been led astray by the translation because nobody seems to have read it.

Instead, the story is just one more anecdote about the pervasive, arguably willful, sloppiness in discussions of China, despite China being regularly framed as one of the day’s biggest challenges. It is also a humbling reminder of the limited reach and impact of data and arguments in shifting that discussion.

The Story

On March 26, 2019, a seemingly machine-generated translation of the National Intelligence Law was uploaded as a PDF as background material for a Cybersecurity and International Relations course. The translation is formatted as a cached screen capture from the website of the National People’s Congress, which may have led to people thinking it was an official translation, but for whatever reason, it became very widely cited.

Newsweek, Time, the New York Times, Forbes, the Council on Foreign Relations, and many others all cite it.  Some, like the UK parliament, link to the translation despite quoting a different translation entirely. Here’s a spreadsheet of some of the backlinks, which I’ll update periodically.

Machine translation is pretty good these days, so many parts of the law are coherent, particularly if you squint a little when you read it or selectively quote for coherence.

Other bits make no sense at all:

Article 11: The state intelligence work institutions shall collect and handle the acts or acts of foreign institutions, organizations and individuals that are implemented or instructed or funded by others, or colluded by domestic and foreign institutions, organizations and individuals to endanger the national security and interests of the People’s Republic of China. Relevant information provides information or reference for preventing, stopping and punishing the above actions.

第十一条 国家情报工作机构应当依法搜集和处理境外机构、组织、个人实施或者指使、资助他人实施的,或者境内外机构、组织、个人相勾结实施的危害中华人民共和国国家安全和利益行为的相关情报,为防范、制止和惩治上述行为提供情报依据或者参考。

Anyone who casually skimmed the translation would quickly know that something was wrong and that this was not a source to be relied on.

Does it Matter?  Probably not, and maybe that’s why I care.

My main issue with the translation is not that it led anyone astray, but that nobody cared enough to even look. I’ve always believed that better informing decision-makers would lead to better decisions. It’s clear, however, that the citation was used to bolster pre-existing conclusions rather than to link readers to the data that informed those conclusions. Nothing anyone saw in the law (or elsewhere) could change their assessment, because they didn’t see the law at all. And it didn’t matter

You can’t understand a law by only reading a single line of it, but you certainly can’t understand it if you don’t read any of it.

The National Intelligence Law is most frequently noted for Article 7’s requirement that Chinese citizens and organizations cooperate with intelligence efforts- which is raised as evidence that Chinese-affiliated companies and Chinese national students will be compelled to spy for the PRC and should thus be denied access to the US or other nations This has put the Law (and this machine translation) at the heart of many serious security discussions by ostensibly serious people who haven’t read the law. [I’ve written about the substantive issues too].

You may think this is all a bit harsh. Maybe people checked article 7, saw something close enough to what they expected, put in a link, and called it a day. Embarrassingly sloppy and uncritical, but forgivable. (I should be used to this, after all, having translated and published heaps of information explaining the social credit system, only to be told I’ve got it all wrong, because someone heard it’s just like Black Mirror.)

What jars me though is the unwillingness of anyone to correct the problem:

I’ve tweeted and emailed to the computer science department that hosts the translation, and to the professors who run the class asking that the translation be labeled as unofficial and machine-generated. I’ve reached out to some of the media and government offices that relied on the translation. Nothing.

And it doesn’t matter!

【end rant】

Citing Pages

https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1lkX0zefu7CtxzOTsdcLLdQhPyTY_eiaJsEvHbUrjFZI/edit?usp=sharing

 

 

 

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