Translation, disinformation and a Guggenheim Fellowship

Published: May 10, 2023
UCLA professor Michael Berry, shown here with the cover of the English-language version of Han Song’s “Hospital,” which was published in March of this year. (Photo: Peggy McInerny/ UCLA.)

Michael Berry has received a 2023 Guggenheim Fellowship in translation. The award follows a tumultuous, but very productive, last three years.

UCLA International Institute, May 8, 2024 — Michael Berry, director of the Center for Chinese Studies and professor of contemporary Chinese cultural studies at UCLA, has been awarded a 2023 Guggenheim Fellowship to translate “Dead Souls,” the third novel of the dystopian “Hospital” trilogy by Chinese science fiction author and journalist Han Song.

A veteran translator of ten works by modern Chinese and Taiwanese authors, Berry has already translated the first two books of Han’s trilogy, “Hospital” and “Exorcism.” The first was published in March of this year; the second will be released in November.

His ability to translate two such long novels inside of two years is astounding, given the difficulty of Han’s experimental fiction, which Berry describes as “a mash-up between James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses,’ Kafka and David Cronenberg at a Chinese Politburo meeting.

“‘Hospital’ is about as weird as you can get, and as the novel progresses, it gets stranger and stranger,” he says.

“In the beginning, a man starts to get sick and goes to a hospital. Doctors perform test after test, procedure after procedure on the protagonist. He can’t get an answer. He can’t find an end to this suffering.

“Many people talk about ‘Hospital’ as a metaphor for COVID-19, but it was actually written before the pandemic. It’s really a metaphor for the human condition. In Buddhism, all life is suffering, and this novel is a deep, twisted, dark meditation on what that means.

“It’s not just about China, but what’s happening in the world with medical systems and governmental systems — systems of power versus the individual — and the alienation of individuals in societies in which all kinds of intrusive forms of technology are arising, including AI.

“For readers, it’s a process of decoding in order to figure out what Han Song is really saying about society and our contemporary condition.”

A tsunami of publications during challenging times

Berry’s published works span translations, literary and film criticism and oral histories. He has done prodigious work in all three categories over the last three years.

In early 2020, he translated and saw into print “Wuhan Diary” (Harper Collins, 2020), Chinese author Fang Fang’s daily online account of the early days of the pandemic in Wuhan and the initial lockdown there. Publication of the book in the U.S. sparked a vicious disinformation campaign against the author in China, in which Berry became a prominent ancillary target.

In response, he published “Translation, Disinformation and Wuhan Diary: Anatomy of a Transpacific Cyber Campaign” (Palgrave, 2022). “I felt like I needed to take a lesson from Fang Fang’s playbook, which is to document what I was seeing and to write a book about it,” he shares.

In a further act of solidarity with the author, Berry translated two additional novels by Fang Fang: “The Running Flame” and “A Soft Burial.” It was for the latter project that he received his second National Endowment of the Arts Fellowship in 2021.

In the same period, Berry and Bishnupriya Ghosh of UC Santa Barbara launched “First Looks,” an online outlet of the academic journal Positions that publishes pieces about the experience of the pandemic in Asia.

Finally, the scholar recently published an edited volume on a 1930 conflict between an indigenous community in Taiwan and their Japanese colonizers entitled “The Musha Incident: A Read on the Indigenous Uprising in Colonial Taiwan” (Rye Field, 2020; Columbia, 2022) and two works of oral history: “Jia Zhangke on Jia Zhangke” (Duke, 2022; following an initial edition about the filmmaker in Chinese) and “Enter the Clowns: The Queer Cinema of Cui Zi’en” (Showwe, 2022; in Chinese).

“Cui Zi’en’s voice is so important to the queer rights movement in China and to contemporary literature, experimental literature and experimental film. Yet he, like so many others, is being kind of erased from the cultural scene in China due to political shifts,” notes Berry.

Asked about the remarkable pace of his translation work, he replies, “I think it’s the importance of perseverance, sticking to a schedule and self-discipline. I’ve always tried to cut out the fat in life and replace it with meaningful action. I don’t always succeed — sometimes I fall down the rabbit hole!” he laughs.

The twin traumas of the pandemic and disinformation

“When I first started translating ‘Wuhan Diary,’ I didn’t think of it as a work of ‘trauma’ or as a ‘traumatic narrative’. But as I got into it and had a little more distance, I realized that it was exactly the type of narrative that I’ve been working with throughout my career,” reflects Berry, whose first monograph addressed trauma in modern Chinese culture.

“Han Song’s ‘Hospital’ trilogy, in which the entire society, the entire universe, is a massive hospital and everyone is suffering — is also an extension of that.”

The firestorm that followed the publication of Fang Fang’s diary abroad saw the beloved author attacked by armies of trolls, social influencers and even academics in a massive campaign. The attacks and accusations (e.g., being part of CIA plot together with Berry) appeared in social media, major newspapers, books, political cartoons — even rap songs. Ugly misogynist threats of sexual violence figured prominently in the disinformation campaign, which sought to reshape the public narrative in China about the outbreak of the virus and the state’s response.

“I cannot think of any other human being that could have withstood the kind of hurricane of attacks that Fang Fang has been subjected to on a daily basis for more than three years and still stand her ground,” says Berry.

The irony of simultaneously living through a concerted campaign of disinformation in the U.S. about COVID-19 (e.g., about the severity of the virus, purported dangers of the vaccines, arguments against masks) was not lost on the UCLA scholar.

“If you look at Wuhan, more than half a dozen high-ranking officials were held accountable and either purged from office or punished for failures during the early outbreak,” he comments.

“Here in the U.S., where we have had well over a million deaths, we have yet to see a single government official utter a word of apology, resign or assume any form of responsibility for failed federal policies vis-à-vis COVID-19. None of the Covid deniers or people who took clear steps and decisions that impeded [protective] policies, or that did real harm to people, has been held accountable.”

Although the campaign against Fang Fang (and by extension, Berry) has now mostly abated, he says it tends to spike again at moments of acute tension between the U.S. and China.

Draconian lockdowns and pervasive testing to contain COVID-19 were abandoned by the Chinese state in December 2022, when it ended its “Zero Covid” policy. Yet the trauma of the lockdowns and the widespread Covid infections and deaths that followed in China, especially among the elderly, remain.