In his passing, an educated man and father who labored in obscurity has spotlighted one injustice and a circumstance where neglect can be fatal
The suicide of a Chinese translator has ignited a public discourse over two subjects that are either ignored or swept under the rug by much of society.
One is the rights of literary purveyors, who usually pay even talented translators peanuts for expertise that can take many years to develop.
The other is depression, a serious mental illness that strikes at any level of society, but that is an uncomfortable subject for polite society.
On Aug 28, Sun Zhongxu killed himself in a Guangzhou hospital. He was not a literary celebrity, but the news went viral, partly because the 41-year-old was suffering from depression. It was only later the scope of his professional accomplishments came to light.
Sun had translated 37 books from English to Chinese, among which are The Catcher in the Rye, 1984 and Animal Farm, monumental works with profound influence among the reading public. Not many were aware of the translator, though. There are various Chinese versions available and each has its own merits.
However, many are surprised to learn that Sun did not make a living from his prolific translation. He was an employee with a Guangzhou-based shipping company and was often sent on prolonged assignments to Africa. Like all professional translators in China, he could not possibly feed his family by translating books alone.
While prices across the board have risen many times in China, the rate for translating books has been stagnant for the past three decades. The pay is reportedly 50-70 yuan ($8.14-$11.40; 6.20-8.68 euros) for every 1,000 Chinese characters, and it is taxed at the regular rate of 20 percent, as if the work were done within one month. Unlike simultaneous translators who work at international conferences and command very high hourly rates, translators of literature or other written materials do it not for the money, which is negligible, but as a passion.
Strange to say, the most widely read translators today are not those of books, but those of foreign films and television shows. Armies of anonymous volunteers, called "the subtitle groups", work in teams and deliver outstanding translations for the latest movies and shows. They may receive some token pay if they tackle licensed content, but the practice started as a free service for all because it was technically illegal when the content was unlicensed.
Most translators of literary materials are employees of academic organizations. Some of them may be able to count the work as credits for their professional advancement. But unless you can get a profit-sharing deal for a project like the Harry Potter series, which is extremely rare, you should not give up your day job if you expect to maintain a living standard commensurate with a college education.
Sun once joked to his teenage son that, with the massive output his son would inherit if he died, the youngster could possibly afford a small house in rural China, but "not even a toilet in Guangzhou".
The case put the plight of literary translators under a spotlight and amplified calls for revising the rates for their service. While more Chinese can read these foreign books in their original languages than ever before, the value of translation has not diminished as the majority of China's reading public does not have the proficiency to read English or other foreign languages. The ability to conduct a brief conversation in a foreign language, which many can manage, does not equal to an ability to do serious reading in that language.
While the financial sacrifices made by literary translators are very real, it is, however, premature to conclude that Sun ended his own life for that reason. From all reports, he was not rich, but not in poverty, either. But he was clearly a victim of depression as he was in and out of a psychiatric institution in the month prior to his death.
There is an insufficient understanding of this mental illness in China. It was not so long ago that people were struggling for survival and death at one's own hand often could be traced to a clear cause. As a result, many have difficulty grasping the nature of depression. The fact that people with accomplished careers and happy families would even think of killing themselves is beyond their comprehension.
The acute lack of awareness of mental health in general has caused members of the public, including a victim's circle of family and friends, to assume an unsympathetic attitude, often categorizing the motives as "pretentious" or "posturing". This is especially true when there is no clear cause such as a financial disaster or medical diagnosis of life-threatening illness.
As befits Chinese culture, people tend to brush the issue under the rug by not talking about it.
Another tendency is to cite some life-changing event or exaggerate some minor problem to establish a cause. This makes Cui Yongyuan such an extraordinary case. The television host known for his sharp wit had to withdraw from his popular talk show in 2002, and people did not know what to make of it. Fortunately, he recovered from his depression two years later and showed a surprising amount of candor by talking about it in public, which served to enlighten a broad section of the Chinese society on the danger of the illness.
Since then, people have noticed that depression sometimes seems to hit those seemingly most immune to it. A 50-year-old Guangzhou-based newspaper editor had written a series of articles on the prevention of suicide and had served as the director of a suicide prevention program. But he later hanged himself reportedly because of failing to receive a promotion. A 34-year-old radio call-in show host had dissuaded many from taking their own lives, but she ended up poisoning herself with a deliberate overdose.
We as outsiders may never know whether there was a life event that precipitated it or whether it was mostly psychological. But when we as caring members of a community fail to reach out and provide what is necessary to prevent the tragedies, we should not hesitate to request the service of professionals, who have much better knowledge than we do about the various types of depression and methods of treating them.
Sun's failed battle with depression, to a certain extent, served to humanize the condition. Even though he was not a big celebrity, he had been blogging profusely about his son, from whom he had to be separated for long stretches of time. He used the public platform as a record for his dialogue with his now 14-year-old son. And that gives people a peek into his private life.
In one cryptic exchange, Sun asked his son Mickey: "Do not give up on me." To which the youngster replied: "No, I won't, just as you have never given up on me."
When the son learned of his father's death, he said, according to a family friend who made it public: "Dad is finally relieved."
From these fragments, we can only surmise what the family had to go through. Depression is often used as a catchall - when officials commit suicide during investigations of corruption they are invariably described as suffering from the disorder. Given that the white-collar class is now the biggest target of the affliction, it is time society as a whole stopped turning away from it and started to grapple with it by first dispelling the myths and acquiring some fundamental knowledge about it.
The writer is editor-at-large of China Daily. Contact him at email@example.com
(China Daily European Weekly 09/05/2014 page30)