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Max Tani
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ProPublica scrambles to check translation in COVID origin story

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ProPublica

In the days after ProPublica published a searing expose based on a close reading of Communist Party memoranda in Mandarin, it called in at least two translators, according to three people familiar with the exchanges.

That's right: In the days after.

Friday, ProPublica and Vanity Fair published a joint investigation about an upcoming report by a research team commissioned by Senate Republicans which found that the Covid-19 pandemic was “more likely than not, the result of a research-related incident.”

The allegations in the piece were explosive. The piece dubbed the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which has long been the subject of focus by lab leak theorists, a “laboratory institute in crisis” before the pandemic with a safety environment that was “far more troubled than previously known.”

The Pro Publica/Vanity Fair article relied on Toy Reid, a State Department China analyst whose close readings of Chinese Communist Party documents apparently unveiled revelations that all other observers had missed.

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“Party speak is ‘its own lexicon, Reid explained in the piece, cautioning that even native Mandarin speakers might not understand it. “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.”

But Reid’s “party speak” interpretations, quickly came under scrutiny from some journalists and experts on China, including many native Mandarin speakers, who said the story was based on a mistranslation.

“You got the tense wrong,” Jane Qiu, a China-based writer, wrote in a tweet that was echoed by other Mandarin speakers.

Now ProPublica seems to be having at least a few second thoughts, and is reviewing key details of the story. Three people with direct knowledge told Semafor that editors at the nonprofit news organization have been reaching out to Mandarin translators about whether the publication correctly quoted a communist party dispatch regarding safety in the Wuhan.

One of the Mandarin speakers they contacted, the policy analyst and former translator Matt Schrader, had tweeted that Reid "screwed up." He declined to comment further, saying his conversations with ProPublica were "in confidence."

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After Semafor's story was published on Monday, writer and translator Brendan O'Kane tweeted that he was also approached by ProPublica over the weekend for additional translation assistance.

"Now that the story's out, I also was contacted by one of the journalists on Saturday morning," he wrote. "I've admired ProPublica's work for a long time, and I hope they'll do whatever they can to make this right."

In a statement to Semafor on Monday, a ProPublica spokesperson defended the piece, saying that the article itself pointed out that the Communist Party postings were “often opaque and open to varying interpretations.”

“We are continuing to report on questions raised online about how the committee characterized those postings and will update our story as needed,” the spokesperson wrote.

undefined headshotMax's view

The lab leak theory has a way of immediately polarizing people who care about the origins of Covid-19, often along roughly — but by no means absolutely — partisan lines. And part of the initial criticism of the piece focused on the partisan nature of the Senate’s investigation: Vanity Fair and ProPublica seemed to downplay the fact that the investigation was led by Republican minority committee staff.

But the translation issues raised by some critics of the story get at a different question. There's a wide gap between the Washington, DC-based American coverage of what happens in China, and the coverage from Mandarin-speaking sources. Correspondents for U.S. publications were among those casting doubt on the article.

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