The British Museum has removed translations from its new exhibition, China’s Hidden Century (until 8 October), after a translator alleged that their work had been used without permission, credit or payment.
In a series of tweets on 18 June, the Vancouver-based writer, poet and translator Yilin Wang shared images of the show and its accompanying catalogue, alongside her translations of Chinese poet Qiu Lin’s poems dating back to 2021, alleging that the exhibition included her translated English text. Wang said nobody from the British Museum contacted her for permission to use the translations, and that she was not credited in the exhibition nor compensated for their use.
China’s Hidden Century is the culmination of a four year-long research project that was awarded more than £700,000 in grant funding, led by two British academics. The exhibition features artefacts including art, fashion, everyday ephemera and more, dating to between 1796 and 1912—a tumultuous time of revolution, creativity and change in late imperial China.
A section of the exhibition is dedicated to Qiu Jin, who was a revolutionary Chinese anti-imperialist writer and activist. She was executed in 1907 at the age of 31—and has since been regarded and respected as a feminist hero, with a rich literary legacy.
Wang tells The Art Newspaper that they were “stunned” to discover the inclusion of their translations in the exhibition, calling the lack of credit “especially disappointing”. In May 2022, Wang was awarded a research grant to support preparation for a book-length translation of Qiu’s poetry. As part of this project, they have read through more than 200 poems by Qiu. They discovered the inclusion of their translations in the British Museum’s exhibition while writing an essay on translating Qiu’s poetry for their forthcoming book titled The Lantern and the Night Moths, due to be published in Spring 2024.
Wang says the British Museum initially told her it would be interested in obtaining permission for the translations to be used in the exhibition. “24 hours later, before I got a chance to reply (given the need for advice and eight-hour time difference), they told me they had removed them since they never heard back,” she tells The Art Newspaper. “I believe that they need to credit me as a translator either way, given that the translations have already been on display in the exhibit for so long without my permission.”
The exhibition’s catalogue states that “every effort has been made to contact the copyright owners of images and other print and digital media in the exhibition.”
On 21 June, the British Museum released a statement calling the lack of permissions and acknowledgment for Wang’s translations an “unintentional human error”, and stated that the museum has apologised to Wang. The statement also outlines that “in response to a request from Yilin Wang, we have taken down their translations in the exhibition,” and that the museum has offered Wang financial payment. The statement also says that “over the past few days our colleagues have been subjected to personal attacks on social media. This is unacceptable.”
In response to a request for comment on the statement, Wang told The Art Newspaper that she absolutely did not support harassment towards any individuals, but added: “The public statement does not feel sincerely apologetic in my opinion. It never said ‘we are sorry’ anywhere. An apology should include exactly what happened and acknowledge how they made such a grave oversight in not obtaining my permission or crediting me in the exhibit, especially given the exhibit has been supported by a well-funded four-year research project.”