The Political Power of Translation.

Bathrobe sent me this piece by Chenxin Jiang, saying “This is a slight article but it’s wonderful to see someone moved to translation by the chance to contribute something to the world”:

It goes without saying that literary translation, too, is a deeply political act, one that makes particular texts accessible to particular readers by transporting them across linguistic boundaries. Translators often advocate for the authors and books they translate, but we don’t always think of translation as a form of political advocacy per se. Nor should we, necessarily: it’s true that giving sustained attention to an intricate or challenging narrative makes a political statement about what we value, but we don’t read or translate good books only or even chiefly because of the political import of that gesture—we read them because they’re so good, we simply can’t help it.

That said, some books particularly foreground the political dimension of the translator’s task because of their immediate political relevance—and once I thought about it, I realized that I’ve often been drawn to them in the past. The very first book I translated was a memoir of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, a deeply traumatic episode that’s glossed over in Chinese schools and barely addressed in Hong Kong, where I grew up. Ji Xianlin’s The Cowshed was, by all accounts, the most widely read memoir of the Cultural Revolution in China itself; I thought it should also be made available to readers of English. But that, of course, would only happen if someone translated it.

And that, of course, is what translation does: it makes the perspective of an Italian doctor on Lampedusa—a story in which much of the dialogue is itself translated from Arabic and Sicilian—accessible to a reader in Newcastle or New Mexico.

A noble goal, and it’s impressive that she translates from Italian, German, and Chinese. Thanks, Bathrobe!


  1. The specific book that she translated was Tears of Salt:

    “I received an email from an editor: would I like to translate a book written by an Italian doctor running a clinic on the island of Lampedusa, on the frontline of the humanitarian effort to rescue refugees on the dangerous sea route to Europe? Before I’d even had time to read the whole book, I said yes. And when I did read Tears of Salt, I was even more excited by the prospect of translating it. Together with co-author Lidia Tilotta, the Lampedusan doctor Pietro Bartolo recounts the stories of the refugees he’s rescued: families separated and reunited, women pregnant from rape, tragic accidents at sea.”

    As background: “I moved to Berlin, keen to do whatever I could in the volunteer effort to welcome refugees… There were tens of thousands of refugees in Berlin alone, so what could any one person do? It never occurred to me that my work as a literary translator—from Italian, among other languages, into English—might have anything to do with the political causes about which I cared so deeply.”

  2. Incidentally, Ji Xianlin, the author of The Cowshed is the sort of person who could easily be given his own post at LanguageHat. From Wikipedia:

    “In 1935, he went to University of Göttingen as an exchange student, choosing in 1936 to major in Sanskrit and less well known ancient languages, such as Pali, under Professor Ernst Waldschmidt.

    “Ji received his Ph.D. in 1941, and then studied Tocharian under Emil Sieg. In 1946, he returned to China, becoming a professor at Peking University under the recommendation of Chen Yinke, and began a long career as one of China’s most well-known scholars of ancient Indian languages and culture.

    “During his career, Ji made discoveries about Buddhism’s migration from India to China, and mundane cultural changes such as the spread of paper and silk-making from China to India.

    “Soon after his arrival, Ji founded the Department of Eastern Languages at Peking University and was helped with working on and developing it by Jin Kemu. He became dean of the department and pioneered the field of Eastern studies in China, authoring 40 articles and 13 academic papers in the next three years…

    “During the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), he secretly translated the Ramayana from Sanskrit into Chinese retaining the poetic format, risking the punishment which befell those convicted as “intellectuals”.

    “In 1998, he published a translation and analysis of fragments of a Tocharian Maitreyasamiti-Nataka discovered in 1974 in Yanqi.”

  3. Great finds and comments, Bathrobe.

  4. Department of Eastern Languages at Peking University

    If they study Indic languages, shouldn’t it be called the Department of Western Languages, as in the western barbarian with no beard?

  5. I assume the term the Chinese had in mind was Department of Oriental languages.

    They weren’t apparently informed that the term is racist now.

  6. Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold,
    And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
    Round many western islands have I been
    Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
    Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
    That deep-brow’d Homer ruled as his demesne;
    Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
    Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
    Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
    When a new planet swims into his ken;
    Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
    He star’d at the Pacific—and all his men
    Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—
    Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

    John Keats, On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer

  7. Trond Engen says

    The Chinese could add significantly to the understanding of Indo-European. There’s no nation in the world with more monosyllabians.

  8. David Marjanović says

    They weren’t apparently informed that the term is racist now.

    It is specifically in English. In German, the investigation of the Ancient Near East is still called Altorientalistik.

  9. January First-of-May says

    Neither did anyone change the name of Russian vostokovedeniye.

    (I originally wrote this word in Cyrillic, but apparently that was too much Cyrillic for such a short comment, and it didn’t go through.)

  10. Well, the Russian isn’t (as far as I know) problematic, since it simply means ‘knowledge of the east’: it’s specifically the word “Oriental” that is now considered racist in English.

  11. Oriental

    In French I don’t think that the word carries any negative connotations, any more than Eastern in English. If anything, the word sounds rather old-fashioned to me. It refers to l’Orient, ‘the East’ in relation to Europe, with further specifications such as le Proche-Orient ‘the Near East’ (e.g. Turkey, Lebanon), le Moyen-Orient ‘the Middle East’ (e.g. Iran, Arabia), and l’Extrême-Orient ‘the Far East’ (especially China and Japan) (the intermediate geographical area being practically unknown to the French public in previous centuries, did not have a specific ‘Orient’ name). In older times India was officially les Indes orientales (= ‘East India’, as opposed to the ‘West Indies’ in the Caribbean). The French university system includes Inalco, the short form for l’Institut National des Langues et Civilisations Orientales, which studies and teaches 90 languages.

    Un(e) Oriental(e) referring to a person calls to my mind someone from the Near or Middle East rather than from China or Japan, but again I don’t think of the word as having negative connotations. People from India are increasingly referred to as ‘Indiens de l’Est’, obviously a literal translation of English ‘East Indians’. Otherwise, les pays de l’Est are pretty much the same as l’Europe de l’Est ‘Eastern Europe’.

  12. Lars (the original one) says

    There is no racist connotations to orientalsk in Danish either, though it’s starting to feel a bit Altmodisch — a term covering all cultures from Iran to Japan is not really useful except as a covering term for museum departments.

    But the euphemism treadmill is globalizing, so if somebody wants to make the effort to inform Danes that they shouldn’t use the word, we’ll probably just use asiatisk instead.

    (Denmark isn’t racist in any significant way, though there is a regrettable amount of cultural and religious discrimination — but to a very large extent the people we don’t like look exactly like us, modulo clothes).

  13. @m-l: The scope of “Near East” and “Middle East” always puzzles me. I’ve seen it claimed that the current fashion in English – to define the Middle East as being all of Southwest Asia (at least) and to abandon the Near East altogether – is the doing of the upstart US State Departmenters who found themselves newly in charge of the world in the 50s, for whom all these lands were less “near” than in the British perspsective. Myself, if only for simplicity’s sake, I just prefer to speak of the relevant large regions of Asia.

  14. “Middle East” still carries on the old paradigm that anything east of Europe is “the East”, that is, “the Orient”. The word “Orient” has fallen out of fashion (or perhaps been stigmatised), but the paradigm is still there.

  15. I personally am (a bit guiltily) fond of the old term Levant.

  16. David Marjanović says

    I once read that the prewar British tradition was to apply “Near East” to the Balkans, “Middle East” to the Fertile Crescent and “Far East” to China & Japan. In German, “Near East” is the Fertile Crescent, and “Middle East” exists only as translationese… as which it’s pretty common nowadays, though.

  17. January First-of-May says

    I personally am (a bit guiltily) fond of the old term Levant.

    Today probably best known as a (mostly former) part of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

  18. “Levant” still seems pretty useful as a translation of aš-Šām – “Greater Syria”, or the area that speaks (or used to speak) Levantine Arabic.

  19. My father, who had been in the Pacific War (interesting phrase), habitually used “Near East” to mean East Asia.

  20. What a strange usage! Don’t think I’ve seen that one before.

  21. Well, it was nearer to him …

  22. Was it a sort of dad joke, that he’d use knowing that people would be confused and then he’d explain about his Pacific service?

  23. No, one day I said something about the Far East, and he asked me what I meant, and I explained, and he was like, “But that’s the Near East!”

  24. “Levant” still seems pretty useful as a translation of aš-Šām – “Greater Syria”, or the area that speaks (or used to speak) Levantine Arabic”

    Why not just borrow the name directly considering its association to terms already in the language and call the area “the Sham” since “the Sem” is too homophonous with terms like “semiotics” and so on.

    My father, who had been in the Pacific War (interesting phrase)

    I think that’s the Japanese term for that war. It makes sense to have a separate term for that war since the European and Pacific theaters were so separate – separate wars really.

  25. It makes sense to have a separate term for that war since the European and Pacific theaters were so separate – separate wars really.

    Indeed, and the American fixation on the Pacific theater causes (or used to cause, back when people still cared about WWII) confusion in trans-Atlantic discussion, since to Europeans the war was almost entirely a European one (of course, for the Brits it was also a Levantine and Indian one, but those theaters in turn were pretty vague in the minds of Americans).

  26. J.W. Brewer says

    Sam the Sham, of and-the-Pharaohs fame, was in truth a Mexican-American rather than a Levantine- or Egyptian-American. E pluribus unum!

  27. David Marjanović says

    Are scam and sham one of those Norse and Old English doublets?

    I think that’s the Japanese term for that war.

    Etymologically is how the phrase, in English, is interesting…

  28. Too good to be true, it seems. According to the usual sources they’re both of uncertain origin, scam in the 20th century and sham in the 17th.

  29. David Marjanović says

    Too bad.

    (Edit: too bad it’s too good to be true. Compare Donald Duck: “I’ll beat you up bad, but good!”

  30. I once read that the prewar British tradition was to apply “Near East” to the Balkans

    Well, the Orient Express didn’t go very far, did it.

  31. David Marjanović says

    But it did go into the capital of the Middle Eastern empire, so “into the Orient”…


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