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Inspiring change
An Ohio University student translates professor's book about AIDS into Chinese.

March 8, 2006
By Erin Dorr

Ohio University student Li Wang sat in front of thousands of people gathered for the Shanghai World AIDS Day event in the central square of China's booming metropolis. Large, brightly colored posters of a newly translated book boldly declared: "Confronting AIDS in the Face: Communication and Media Strategies and the Total Mobilization of Condoms." It was an audacious statement in a country where AIDS is not a preferred subject to discuss in public.

photos courtesy of Li WangThe new book was the reason Wang was in Shanghai, sitting behind two famous Chinese movie and TV stars, also AIDS ambassadors. She had translated "Combating AIDS: Communication Strategies in Action" into Chinese after reading it in a class taught by one of the authors, Ohio University Communication Studies Professor Arvind Singhal, in fall 2004. The book, co-written by the late communications guru Everett Rogers, outlines how to use communication as a way to tackle AIDS issues such as stigma, care and prevention. It treats AIDS as not just a biomedical problem, but as a social and cultural issue. The authors argue that creative communication strategies - such as soap operas with HIV-related storylines - can educate and change people's views of AIDS. First released at the prestigious National Press Club in Washington D.C., the book won the distinguished book award from the National Communication Association in 2004 and has influenced many heads of state, United Nations agencies and public health NGOs.

"The book is compelling and really urges you to do something," says Wang, a doctoral student in the School of Communication Studies. "I thought, 'What can I do?' and the translation was the best choice I had."

After Wang proposed the idea to Singhal, he contacted former Ohio University student Min Wang, now a successful and well-connected entrepreneur in Shanghai, who was excited about the idea. Li Wang and Singhal started on the early stages of the translation process while Min Wang searched for a Chinese publisher, initiating contracts and working to secure copyright release. By late spring of 2005, Min Wang found publishers passionate about the book - Shanghai Scientific and Technical Publishers, a highly respected publisher in China.

The publisher, however, wanted the book to launch on World AIDS Day, Dec. 1, 2005. The deadline gave Li Wang only six months to finish translating the book, while collaborating with Singhal to customize the book for a Chinese audience.

Photos courtesy of Li WangTo provide the precious time that was needed to translate the book, the School of Communication Studies turned her teaching assistantship into a research assistantship. She translated the book in a mere five months, "probably the fastest translation for an academic book," Singhal says. But Li Wang faced certain challenges in translating the book to fit Chinese culture.

The English language is more open and direct than Chinese about expressing emotions, she says. She had to think creatively to overcome that breach. "I would think of what Arvind meant and then I would think of how I would say that in China," she says. "It makes you sit back and reflect, 'how would a common person say this in Chinese?'"

To make the Chinese version more accessible to a broader audience, 30 to 40 percent of the original book was cut. Singhal wrote an introduction concerning the current HIV/AIDS status in China, and content relevant to Chinese readers was added in every chapter. The book also was made more user-friendly. The bright packaging resembles a comic book or a field guide. And because Singhal signed off on all royalties, the book retails for the equivalent of $2.50, one-twelfth the retail price in the United States.

Min Wang and the publishers finally decided on a title the day before the book was sent to press on Nov. 21. They chose "Confronting AIDS in the Face: Communication and Media Strategies and the Total Mobilization of Condoms," intending it to be an eye-catcher.

It worked. On the day of the press briefing for World AIDS Day, Li Wang was walking down the street holding the book. A man in his 40s briefly looked at the cover. "His eyes got really wide open, and he turned around and looked at me in a shocked face," Wang says. "AIDS is not an open subject in China."

photos courtesy of Li WangHer translation of Singhal's book was well received, however, in a country that has recently recognized its growing AIDS problem. Top government officials, including the Vice Mayor of Shanghai, attended the World AIDS Day event. China's top newspapers covered the press briefing, where the newly translated book was one of the highlights. Those events, however, are just the beginning for the book's influence on AIDS awareness in China.

A medical doctor in Shanghai, Yifang Fang, who also collaborated on the translation project, launched a new "Combating AIDS" restaurant on World AIDS Day. The idea was inspired by a restaurant in Thailand called "Cabbages and Condoms" that Singhal and Rogers describe in the book. The largest national newspaper in China, People's Daily, covered the launch of the nation's first AIDS-themed restaurant.

But the book's impact doesn't stop there. Min Wang, Li Wang and Fang are planning more AIDS awareness campaigns, including an international conference, a comic book with prevention and transmission information about AIDS, television public service announcements and Loving Cabin - a safe space for HIV/AIDS patients to receive care and information. They also are currently raising funds to put up the largest billboard in Shanghai.

"It's very exciting to be doing something that's meaningful, and making a contribution to society, to the country that I love," says Li Wang, whose translation work has motivated her to change her dissertation from a business angle to a public health one. "I hope it will make some contribution in improving conditions of people with AIDS."

Photos courtesy of Li WangHer translation also has inspired other students at Ohio University. Toru Hanaki, a 2005 alumnus from the communication studies doctoral program, is working on a Japanese translation of Singhal's book. A Spanish translation is also underway.

"The book now has wings of its own," Singhal says. "The distance between Shanghai and Athens is not a small one. We were able to bridge language and cultural barriers."

Erin Dorr is a writing intern in the Office of Research Communications.

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Published: Mar 8, 2006 12:00:00 AM
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