Sherlock Holmes and the adventure of the stolen annotations

The Complete Sherlock Holmes, Illustrated and Annotated (via Douban)

New Star Press has released a new edition of the complete Sherlock Holmes stories. Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective made his first appearance in Chinese in 1896 (the year after John Fryer’s fiction contest), and the first complete translation was published in 1916.

This new edition, published in nine hardcover volumes with a list price of 580 RMB, boasts more than 2,000 annotations and an array of essays introducing Holmes and his world. But according to a devastating review of the collection in the Shanghai Review of Books, the vast majority of those annotations were copied without attribution from other sources, largely from Leslie S. Klinger’s The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, but also from The Annotated Sherlock HolmesEncyclopaedia Sherlockiana, and Canonical Compendium.

The author of the piece, Chen Yibai (陈一白)[1], accuses Liu Zhen (刘臻) of plagiarism and proceeds to mock him throughout the article, beginning with his identification in the publisher’s promotional copy as “the country’s foremost Holmes scholar.” Chen quotes this title several times in the piece, and notes dismissively that Holmes studies has never been a particularly hot field in China.

As for the text itself, Chen’s approach is simple: he pairs Liu’s annotations to “A Scandal in Bohemia” (which he says are representative of the quality of the work as a whole) with nearly identical notes from English-language editions. In a few especially damning examples, Liu has apparently reproduced mistakes made by the original annotators. Nor is Chen pleased with Liu’s original annotations; he calls him out for exaggerating the extent of his research. In one note, Liu asserts, “This sentence was not in the author’s earliest manuscript, but was added later to the proof copy.” Chen retorts,


Conan Doyle’s manuscript for “A Scandal in Bohemia” is held by the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin, but a facsimile edition has been published. Mr. Liu Zhen may have read the “earliest manuscript” in that facsimile edition, but how would he have read the “proof copy”? Does the reader believe that a proof copy of an English magazine from over a hundred years ago was read by a modern-day Chinese? Whether you believe it or not, at any rate I don’t believe it.[2]

Chen’s article rocked the mystery community, sparking a spirited debate on Douban that resulted in a rash of thread deletions by a New Star Press editor who moderated a mystery discussion group.

According to a follow-up report that ran in this week’s SRB, one Douban commenter asked whether New Star Press had obtained translation rights from Leslie S. Klinger, and Chu Meng (褚盟), deputy editor in charge of the Midnight Library series that includes the Holmes collection, replied, “Definitely not….I was never aware that this edition would have this kind of connection to something else!”

Then Chu struck out at the annotator:


An article in the contract…roughly states, “The annotator must possess all rights to the annotations; in any dispute, the annotator assumes responsibility.” –Just like millions of author contracts out there! I and the editor in charge have not seen the foreign edition, and have not attempted to establish any “relationship” with that edition.

Liu Zhen (known online as ellry or 老埃) shot back:


First, the manuscript contained a preface and a reference list. The preface clearly explained that the annotations were based upon four annotated editions: (1) Baring-Gould’s annotated edition; (2) The Oxford annotated edition; (3) Klinger’s annotated edition; (4) Klinger’s Sherlock Holmes Reference Library. The reference list contained many more reference works. However, neither piece was included at publication time. Second, in regards to “The annotator must possess all rights to the annotations; in any dispute, the annotator assumes responsibility,” the contract does not contain that article.

Chu Meng then deleted the discussion threads and eventually shut down his account.

From the limited information available, it is hard to say who is at fault. Surely the publisher should have been aware of the existing English-language annotated editions, particularly if the annotator provided a reference list, and ought to have checked for any infringement. Still, it strikes me as foolhardy for an annotator to rely so heavily upon translated material, trusting that the publisher will be able to work out the rights issues prior to publication.

  1. [1]This is apparently a pseudonym for translator Li Jihong (李继宏), of The Kite Runner fame. The Chen Yibai byline has appeared on other articles that pick at nits in translations, including a take-down of Yu Guangzhong’s revised translation of Old Man and the Sea and a critical review of Zhang Hua and Zou Ya’s translation of Stephen King’s Lisey’s Story (that article drew a strong response here).
  2. [2]This meme is quickly approaching geilivable levels of annoyance. In this same issue, Xiao Bao’s column runs under the title “At any rate, I believe it,” although the offense is mitigated somewhat by the fact that the column’s content actually involves belief, in the context of a discussion of Micheal Shermer and the Skeptics Society.

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