“In his Web blog entry dated October 7, 2010, Neil Gaiman, author of the Newbery-winning title The Graveyard Book (2008), quoted a passage from a Chinese reader’s message to him:
[O]ne sentence in Graveyard Book said “mass graves is a good place for munching a meal”. [I]t is insulting to Chinese!I know you are just for fun, but I cannot bear it!
Gaiman quoted further communications between him and the reader, and showed the process of how both reached the revelation that the source of “insult,” or offense, came not from Gaiman’s original English text, but from a word choice in the Chinese translation of his book, published as Fen Chang Zhi Shu [坟场之书] in China in 2010. The last quote, written seemingly in a beginner’s English, from that reader says, By now I know it is translator’s fault, not of yours…. “Plague pits is good eating” in Chinese that I translate means “鼠疫坑很好吃” is not insulting. [A]nd the translation in the book that the translator wrote “万人坑很好吃” is insulting (as cited in Gaiman, 2010) Most Westerners will require some explanation of Chinese language, history, and culture to fully understand what caused this peacefully resolved conflict. From Gaiman’s book, the word “plague-pits” in “ ‘Plague-pits is good eatin’,’ said the Emperor of China” (2008, p. 84) is translated into “wan ren keng [万人坑]”, literally meaning “ten-thousand people’s pit.” The lure and danger of adopting this translation are both strong. “Ten-thousand people’s pit” is a colloquial term in Chinese and semantically a good match for “Plague-pits.” The term has been found in an ancient text “Jiashen Zaji” [甲申雜記], written by WANG Gong in the Song Dynasty (A.D. 960-1127), to refer to massive graves for people who die in a famine, thus “ten-thousand people’s pit” makes a more colloquial choice than “shu yi keng” [鼠疫坑, or plague-pit], a made-up word combination in Chinese. However, 900 years after Wang’s time, “ten-thousand people’s pit” is no longer a neutral noun, but in certain contexts can be a politically and emotionally charged term, thanks to the history of Japanese colonization and military aggression during the first half of the 20th century in China. Though not its only usage in contemporary China, the term is frequently used to refer to the massive pits, discovered in various parts of China, prepared by the Japanese colonizers and army for Chinese forced labor (coal miners, in particular) and victims of massacres, including those who were buried alive. Any ghoulish humor in “ten-thousand people’s pits is good eatin’ ” can be lost to a Chinese audience. In the case of the anonymous Chinese reader who took the trouble to send an electronic message to Neil Gaiman and exchange information and opinions with him back and forth, he or she was greatly offended—imagine how a Western audience would feel about a ghostly joke like “Auschwitz is perfect for partying.”