Banned Books in Australia A Special Collections-Art in the Library Exhibition

Censorship and Translation

Jenny Lee

It was a mistake for translators to be faithful to their originals when translating works that dealt with sexual matters. Twentieth-century censors’ views were often at odds with the less inhibited approach of classical writers, let alone translations of 20th-century novels. Among the conspicuous casualties among older works were Ovid’s poems on the arts of love, banned in translation by Customs in 1926, Petronius’s first-century satirical novel Satyricon, Casanova’s memoirs and the 17th-century Chinese novel Jin Ping Mei, translated into English as The Golden Lotus.

It took until 1937 for the censors to find a translation of Satyricon tame enough to be let into Australia. At that point, four other translations (including one by Oscar Wilde) had been banned or restricted to universities and public libraries. The expurgated translation was sent to the Censorship Board with a note from the NSW collector of customs observing that it avoided ‘the outrageous detail about sexual orgies and perversions which is contained in the original’ by leaving sections untranslated or glossing over them ‘to such an extent that no objectionable features remain’. The censors unanimously passed the new translation.

Similarly, in 1935 the censors passed three volumes that it described as ‘heavily bowdlerized’ extracts from Casanova’s memoirs, and three years later they ‘unhesitatingly’ passed a new translation of the full volume, noting with approval that it had been expurgated. The earlier, unexpurgated translations remained on the banned list until 1953, when the Literature Censorship Board released them.

Twentieth-century novels in translation, and sometimes the originals, were notable censorship targets. Those banned include Alexandr Kuprin’s Yama: The Pit, prohibited by Customs in 1930 and only released in 1953, Alberto Moravia’s The Woman of Rome, which was banned in 1950 and only released in 1958 and numerous novels by Jean Genet as well as his complete works.

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