The Pinkhams and their Chinese cause

Larry Pinkham (R) and Joan Pinkham Photo: Courtesy of Claire Pinkham

Compared with Israel Epstein and Norman Bethune, two big names who made indelible contributions to the Chinese resistance against Japanese invasion in the 1930-40s, Larry Pinkham and Joan Pinkham, who were among the foreign experts working in new China, seem to be lesser-known.

However, we should not forget about the American couple who dedicated themselves to the cause of journalism education and Chinese-English translation during their nearly eight-year stay.

Larry grew up in a working class family and was influenced by progressive political ideas when attending college in New York after retirement from the Navy, which might have helped him develop a socialist vision.

Due to his experience in teaching journalism at the Columbia University and the University of Massachusetts (Amherst), and serving as a reporter for the Wall Street Journal and the United Press, Larry earned the reputation of being an inspiring journalism professor in both the US and China and is remembered for his innovative and principled approach to journalism education.

Larry was in the newsroom at Columbia. Photo: Courtesy of Claire Pinkham

While teaching at the University of Massachusetts, Larry helped the International Program Office organize the first academic exchanges between the US and China following the latter's opening up in the late 1970s.

It was in 1979, shortly after the resumption of the US-China diplomatic relations, that Larry was invited to teach journalism as a visiting professor at the Graduate School of Journalism at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing.

Larry and his wife Joan, who had just finished translating a historical biography of Russian Empress Catherine the Great, which would prove to be one of her most commercially successful works, were both ready for a new challenge when first arriving in China where they were offered exactly what they were looking for. It was exciting, new and utterly foreign, and yet, in many ways, a little familiar.

Larry, who missed teaching at the University of Massachusetts where students were, by and large, better prepared and more motivated, was delighted to find that Chinese students were exceptionally bright and enthusiastic and gave him full respect and affection.

"Larry taught me the basic skills of interviewing people and writing news stories, which helped me build up the very foundation of my career. It is from Larry that I came to know the power of news reporting and the way how serious and professional journalism could help shape up a healthy society and change the mindset of people," said Gao Anming, who was one of Larry's Chinese students and is now deputy editor-in-chief at China Daily. Gao also praised Larry as a man of integrity, wisdom, perseverance and humor.

Larry and his Chinese students Photo: Courtesy of Claire Pinkham

After a short visit to the Graduate School of Journalism at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in 1979, Larry worked successively as an exchange professor at the Central Translation Bureau in Beijing, as a visiting professor and as a Fulbright lecturer at Beijing Foreign Studies University.

Joan, on her part, was very happy to connect with a few "old China hands", who had known her father, Harry Dexter White, an economist who worked at the United States Treasury in Washington DC in the 1940s. She also found that her work as a translation editor, first at the Foreign Languages Press and later at the Central Translation Bureau, brought back those happy feelings of intellectual satisfaction and productive cooperation she had had when working at the United Nations as a bilingual secretary.

In her 20s, Joan worked at the UN as bilingual secretary. Photo: Courtesy of Claire Pinkham

Huang Youyi, who was Joan's young colleague in the 1980s at the Foreign Languages Press, wrote in a letter in memory of the lady, "When Joan first came to work as a linguistic specialist in the English Department of the Foreign Languages Press in the early 1980s, I was a junior translator. One day, Joan polished my translation, which was a chapter from a book on scientific exploration studies of the Qomolangma Mountain written by Chinese scientists. There were places in the story that I did not fully understand. There were other places where I had no idea of the logic behind the scientific descriptions of the study. All these inadequacies showed in my translation. Joan called me to her office and in clear words and a very serious tone, she told me: 'If you do not understand it, go and find out first. Never start translating anything before you really understand it.' The words dawned on me and ever since became the standard and principle I stood by in my translation career. I was both glad and grateful that she was so straightforward with me."

Joan, in her 50s, was on a family visit to the New England coast. Photo: Courtesy of Claire Pinkham

Joan also wrote The Translator’s Guide to Chinglish, a book in which she systematically summarized, classified and examined the common errors in English articles written by Chinese people. This is a valuable reference book for Chinese learners and Chinese-English translators.

In China, Larry and Joan felt free to express their views about social justice and political economics. They did not always agree with what happened in China, but at least they believed that China was a place where people were looking for a better way. They both felt that the Chinese people had a sense of optimism that was hard to find in the West. China was also a place where they believed that they could make a tangible difference by working with people they admired and contributing to causes they believed in.

Larry died in 2010 at the age of 84 and Joan died in 2012 at 83.

Larry and Joan Photo: Courtesy of Claire Pinkham

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