On That ProPublica ‘Chinese Lab Leak’ Story.
A talk with a longtime translator, on why Mandarin does not include a 'super-secret version' for discussing government plans.
This post is about China, and language, and how the press responds to criticism and handles its mistakes. It centers on a big story from ProPublica and Vanity Fair six weeks ago, which I thought was fishy from the start and only looks worse on further exposure.
—Last October 28, ProPublica and Vanity Fair co-released an investigative report about the origins of the Covid pandemic. It was a splashy, major presentation, which opened with a dramatic, full-screen, black-and-white photo of one of the key figures, his face in shadows as befits the deep mysteries that were being explored.
—As the story disclosed, the project started with leads from a team of Republican staffers in the U.S. Senate. The VF/PP reporters were “given advance access to hundreds of pages of the Senate researchers’ findings and analysis” and then did their own, broader work. (I’ll refer mainly to ProPublica from here on, because of its long and otherwise-sterling reputation, and because it has taken the lead in followups to the story.) In the article, ProPublica refers to the Congressional group as “the Senate researchers” or “the minority staff,” rather than as “the Republican staff.”
—The central figure in the story is a man named Toy Reid, the one shown in that dramatic black-and-white photo. He is an American who speaks Mandarin and claims to have unique insight into the nuance and meaning of official Chinese documents. He is introduced thus:
[Communist] Party speak is “its own lexicon,” explains Reid, now 44 years old. Even a native Mandarin speaker “can’t really follow it,” he says. “It’s not meant to be easily understood. It’s almost like a secret language of Chinese officialdom. When they’re talking about anything potentially embarrassing, they speak of it in innuendo and hushed tones, and there’s a certain acceptable way to allude to something.”
For 15 months, Reid loaned this unusual skill to a nine-person team [the “minority oversight” staffers] dedicated to investigating the mystery of COVID-19’s origins.
My BS-detectors all switched on when I first read this. I know only a little about Mandarin. But enough to doubt that properly reading official documents is some extremely rare “unusual skill.” I know a little more about editing investigative stories, and about the moments when you’d ask a reporter, “Wait a minute, does this make any sense?”
—Almost as soon as the story appeared, it was met with questions, criticism, and derision from the very large group of people accustomed to reading Chinese documents, including Party statements. You can see a summary of the pushback in a Semafor piece by Max Tani, and some line-by-line critique in this widely circulated Twitter thread by Jane Qiu. People I’d known and worked with in the Chinese-translator community, both Chinese and international, were all critics.
Here is a crucial point: Skepticism about the story was entirely separate from views on the “lab leak” hypothesis itself (which the story supported, as had the Republican staff report). I have no idea where the pandemic virus came from and have never joined arguments about its origin. I don’t know enough. This post is explicitly not about the “lab leak” idea. The same is true for most people questioning the ProPublica story. The controversy involves language, evidence, and journalistic transparency and accountability.
—ProPublica declined further statements on the topic until it finished its own internal review. The results appeared last week and amounted to “we stand by our story.” I requested an interview with Stephen Engelberg, editor in chief of ProPublica, to discuss the story, the controversy, and the statement. His PR person said that he wasn’t available this week. OK.
Instead I talked with Brendan O’Kane, who for many years has made his living as a translator of Chinese material of all sorts — novels, news reports, party documents, everything. We had mutual friends in the Beijing community during the years when my wife, Deb, and I were living there. He is now based back in the U.S.
I spoke with O’Kane on December 6. The account below is slightly condensed —but because details matter in this instance, I’m quoting him at length. If there is any further clarification from ProPublica (or Vanity Fair), I will quote that as well. I do think that ProPublica needs to say more.
Interview with Brendan O’Kane.
[I phone Brendan O’Kane, from a number he doesn’t recognize.]
Brendan O’Kane My generation accepting incoming phone calls is pretty much like being drafted.
James Fallows Kids these days.
O’Kane Yes, exactly. I actually had been avoiding the ProPublica response, because I knew it was going to make me angry. And it has made me angry.
Fallows I’m not an expert in Chinese language. Or in virology. So I don't know about the lab leak hypothesis. But about this article: the idea that you’re going to find the one guy on Earth, who’s an American, and who understands official Chinese Communist language better than anyone else – shouldn’t that have been a red flag from the start?
O’Kane Everything about it stank.
Fallows Let me start at the beginning. What did you think when you read the article in the first place?
O’Kane I first read the article after seeing the response to it online. In fact, I was contacted by one of the ProPublica journalists before I ever read the piece.
So I knew that there was going to be some controversy. I had, you know, my opinions about the lab leak, but I was assuming that the reporting would be based on at least defensible engagement with documents.
Instead I just started seeing red flags from the beginning. Lots of puffery. Starting with the description of this one lone expert — a white guy who speaks Mandarin, if you can imagine such a thing! [O’Kane is being sarcastic.] This is not some special language — it’s spoken by one fifth of our species.
And the claims, “he used a virtual private network, or VPN, to access dispatches archived on the website of the Wuhan Institute of Virology.” [JF note: the original story made much of the wizardry and “hard-earned expertise” of its source, for using a VPN to access sites in China. Where do I begin… ] Which means, he opened a web browser. This kind of resume-padding, taking ordinary things and claiming that they’re uncommon, should always be grounds for suspicion.
And then reading through the translations, even without looking at the original there were just a couple of things that set off my spidey sense. Things that were idiomatically wrong, that were signs of somebody who is not confident, or is relying on dictionaries.
Fallows Could you give an illustration?
There's this one really clunky turn of phrase towards the start of the document.
The quote in English is, “once you have opened the stored test tubes, it is just as if having opened Pandora's box.” It's not English. It's not Chinese either. But it's actually quite consequential for the claims they're making.
The first part is “once you have opened,” that sounds pretty unambiguous. In Chinese the word is 一旦 yídàn. It means “if (…then),” “as soon as this condition is fulfilled,” “in such an event.” It’s the “you break it” side of “you break it, you bought it.” Without any context, it could be “once you’ve opened a test tube” or it could be “if a test tube should ever be opened.”
But Reid isn’t coming at this without any context: he’s approaching his sources with the assumption that there was a lab leak in Wuhan in November 2019, and he’s processing everything through that assumption and translating accordingly, and ending up in places that I think are not very defensible. One of the bigger problems is that he takes things that are pretty clearly hypotheticals and translates them as if they were descriptions of things that had occurred, as in this case.
Fallows If you were “objectively” translating that line from Chinese, what would you have said?
O’Kane I’ll start at the beginning of the Chinese sentence, because a lot of the translations are selective in problematic ways. I would say. “Additionally, because the P4 lab’s object of research is highly pathogenic microorganisms, opening a test tube containing viruses inside the lab is like opening Pandora's box. These viruses are undetectable and untraceable. Yadda, yadda, yadda.”
Fallows Was there anything else that struck you about translation?
O’Kane There's one thing that got less attention than the “Pandora’s Box” line but strikes me as smoking-gun evidence of deliberate bad intent.
The ProPublica article quotes part of another sentence as evidence that the lab wasn’t capable of handling infectious materials. In the original report, it said “Even at the BSL-4 lab, they repeatedly lamented the problem of ‘the three ‘nos’: no equipment and technology standards, no design and construction teams, and no experience operating or maintaining [a lab of this caliber].’” Which sounds pretty bad!
Until you click on the link the ProPublica article supplies to the original document, and see that there's another half of that sentence. And my translation of the whole sentence would be:
“At the outset of construction, the Wuhan P4 lab faced the dilemma of the “three ‘nos’”: no equipment or technical standards, no design and construction teams, and no operations or maintenance experience — but with Party members from the Zhengdian Lab [BSL4]’s Party branch leading the charge and bravely pushing forward, [the lab] achieved the 'Three 'Yes'es': a well-developed set of standards, a seasoned operations and maintenance team, and invaluable construction experience.”
Fallows So this would be like a sentence in English saying “we used to be so terrible, but now we're great.”
That's the import of the document itself. Reid is approaching it as if it's sinister. To me, it looks like boilerplate. It's a minor Party office, celebrating its own existence. (The supposedly damning passage about test tubes and Pandora’s Box doesn’t even come from November 2019; almost the exact same text appears in a document from August 30, 2019. [JF note: this link is to the original document in Chinese.]
And unfortunately, the nature of the quote that appears in the ProPublica article is…if it’s a mistake, it's an incredibly strange mistake to make. There's no line break in the original. There's no sentence break. To arrive at the interpretation that Reid did, you’d really have to just stop halfway through the sentence for no good reason and not read all the way to the end in order to get the reading given in the article.
Fallows To be entirely clear here : You’re saying that the ProPublica quote broke off before the part of the sentence saying “that was before, but now we've improved.”
O’Kane Yeah, exactly…
My understanding of that document is that it's essentially an office newsletter. It's the party branch office, writing about its own accomplishments. That’s totally normal…
If you view it outside that context, if you view it instead as a document that was written several months later, you know, in a much scarier context, you still cannot arrive at that reading of the sentence without engaging in dishonesty.
Fallows What was the reaction within the Chinese-translator community to this article?
O’Kane I've been translating as a freelancer for about 18 years now. I've worked on a whole range of stuff. I have done party documents. I have done trashy 17th-century fiction. I've kind of done everything in between.
That's the case for most of the freelance translators, and even people who are working in government or industry. We’ve had experience with a lot of things, including [Communist] party language.
Party language is, you know, it's no fun to translate. It is dense, it is full of jargon. But it's not some special version of Chinese. Anybody who translates novels can also translate Party documents. They're going to have a bad time doing it and they may not do the best job of it, but you know, reading these documents is not some superhuman task — the hardest part is staying awake. Interpreting them, contextualizing them, that takes special skills. But any fluent reader of Chinese can look at these documents and check the claims that are being made…
Fallows The premise from ProPublica and Vanity Fair was that their translator had a unique insight into leadership language from China. How did that come across among people who make their living as translators?
O’Kane It was universally mocked. Absolutely. I mean, that particular claim was getting the big Razoo on Twitter….
People who translate language for living are not sentimental. I mean, we can be sentimental about language, but when it gets down to it language is language. And so the claims that [ProPublica’s expert] is a one in 1.5 billion genius is laughable on its face, and it was received that way.
Fallows So let me now skip ahead to the response from ProPublica, after six weeks of investigation. How did you read and receive their response?
O’Kane I would have liked to see much more information. Now granted, that's because as a translator I'm interested in that sort of thing. Whereas ProPublica is interested in clearing its reputation.
So without seeing more details, including the alternative translations that the translators came up with, it's sort of hard for me to tell what the translators actually said in their reviews, as opposed to what ProPublica spun their reviews as saying. I’m very curious about the one translator who apparently produced a translation that was “in line with Reid’s” — what is ProPublica’s threshold for similarity here?
Fallows In my experience as a non-language expert, 0% of my China-world comrades thought the ProPublica article was well argued. Within the translator world, what was the proportion?
O’Kane Oh, it's 0%. …
Fallows And what's the main message you would like to impart to readers who are not experienced with Chinese language or Chinese realities, how they should view this article?
O’Kane I think the most important thing is to demystify. Chinese has its difficulties, but ultimately this is not a rare language. It is not impossible to fact check things in Chinese, and if anybody makes any kind of claim to the contrary, that should be an immediate red flag…
I think there’s a species of intellectual vanity that is also very susceptible to claims that, like, there’s this one random gringo who’s the world's only Mandarin speaker. (It’s worth pointing out that I was relatively late to the criticism of the ProPublica article on Twitter: people like Jane Qiu and Zhihua Chen were pointing out problems with the piece before I was, but some people apparently needed to hear it from a white guy before they could believe it.) This was sort of a multisystem failure of the editors’ intellectual immune systems.
And part of it had to do with the sources being in Chinese. I mean, nobody would ever believe that there was some super-secret version of French. Right? Nobody ever tries this with Romance languages.
But people can somehow get away with these claims about Chinese; it apparently isn't as obviously ridiculous. And the more that can be done to demystify the language, the better, I think, for defending against that sort of thing in future.
From O’Kane: “Here’s my translation of the full paragraph for reference, with the relevant text in bold. I think it illustrates the degree to which Reid is cherrypicking as well as mistranslating":
”Chasing your dreams takes passion and ideals — and achieving your dreams takes struggle and dedication.” For years, the Party members of the Zhengdian Lab [BSL4] Party branch have maintained a hard-working, path-breaking esprit de corps, demonstrating through their deeds the utility of Party members’ exemplary, innovative leadership.
Due to the safety requirements of P4 labs, lab personnel must work in spacesuit-like positive-pressure suits and spend half an hour changing out of their clothes, attaching communications equipment, going through chemical showers, and other steps of the disinfection process. Inside the lab, they often work for four hours or sometimes as long as six hours on end, with no breaks for eating, drinking, or using the bathroom — extreme tests of human will and strength.
It’s not enough for lab personnel to be experienced and good at their jobs; they must also be capable of responding to unforeseen circumstances. Additionally, because the P4 lab’s research is on highly pathogenic microorganisms, opening a test tube containing viruses inside the lab is like opening Pandora’s Box: these viruses are undetectable and untraceable, requiring utmost caution on the part of lab personnel, despite all of the safeguards and preventative measures, to avoid dangerous accidents. In any such event, Zhengdian Lab Party branch personnel will rush to the frontlines and take practical actions to lead and motivate other lab personnel. They are also researching the development of cellular and animal infection models and model animals for a wide range of pathogens