Lost and Found in Translation: Naming Sugar Water in China

Lost and Found in Translation: Naming Sugar Water in China

[Fun fact: Sugar is called cheeni – derived from the word China – in Hindi as jaggery was processed and imported from China in the past]

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Translation is an inevitable practice for any language that has a script of its own. Irrespective of the purpose of translation, it is essential for any language to stay in contact with other languages of the world for trade or literary purposes. In this regard, China has a rather unusual tradition of translation. Let’s consider the brand name ‘Coca-Cola’. This is a global brand that has its footprint almost all over the world. Perhaps, China is the only country that translated this brand’s name into something that meant ‘tasty and jolly’. Not only Coca-Cola, the Chinese have translated several other brand names into their language that seem displaced when compared to the original. Apart from trade and commerce, the news agencies also play a pivotal role in deciding the norms of translation as they act as the authorities of language. The largest Chinese news agency, The People’s Daily, lashed out that the Chinese literary tradition and culture are being diluted with the advent of English words and usages in daily life through social media and television. Let us see how the tradition of translation developed in such a country where resistance to translation is acute.

Translation as a practice began in China as an aid to diplomacy and commerce. The earliest known practice of translation is said to be started in the 9th century BC in the Zhou Dynasty where there were professional translators/interpreters who accompanied officials in meetings. The term for a government interpreter then was Sheren, which means ‘tongues man’. This particular word can be related with the Indian term dubashi, which means one who speaks two languages. The Han Dynasty used the terms yiguan & yishi, which have now transformed into yi meaning translation-official. Though there are a few literary translations (poetry) dating back to 4th century BC, their number is almost negligible. Apart from these developments, the Chinese tradition of translation is mainly recognized with the expansion of Buddhism as a religion and the translation of Buddhist scriptures that came from Sanskrit. These scriptures were translated over a period of time during the reign of different kingdoms namely Easter Han Dynasty, Northern and Southern Dynasties and Sui Dynasty, Tang & Northern Song Dynasty. The early translators were Buddhist monks who gained immense knowledge on Buddhism. As the early monks were not proficient in Chinese, they would take help from their disciples to translate.

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Most of the times, the monks did not translate from the original Indian source texts but from indirect translations which were written in the monks’ mother tongue. The translations that appeared during this period read awkwardly. Later, to produce better translations, translation forums have been set by the kingdoms with a revered Buddhist monk as the chief translator who would be known as yishu. During this era, the chief translator would be accompanied by a ‘recorder’ who would note down in Chinese the explanations of Buddhist sutras delivered by the chief translator. The strange practice is that though this ‘recorder’ is the actual person who is responsible for translating into Chinese, the chief monk is usually credited with the translation. In this context, we can observe that during this time, translation and interpretation has a thin differentiating line that was often invisible. Not only the recorder, the chief translator would be accompanied by many scholars and educated people who would note down just like the recorder. These people help the recorder in rendering the accurate Chinese meaning. Huang Zang, one of the highly revered monks who travelled across the Indian subcontinent is said to have translated nearly 1,300 texts into Chinese. By Zang’s period, the activity of translation, which previously involved hundreds of people, was restricted to a dozen scholars who gained proficiency in the source language. Eventually, a Sanskrit school was established in the Song Dynasty which recruited a dozen pupils from various monasteries, which slowly lost its prominence to the changing socio-political situations in both the regions.

Following the decline of Buddhism, the Christian missionaries from the west ventured into the east in the late sixteenth century. To spread the gospels, the missionaries tried to cultivate the educated class. In this process, various scientific texts have been translated into Chinese that made their way into the intellectual circles and the government started recognizing them. Following this, more scientific texts have been commissioned to be translated into Chinese including texts on astronomy, mathematics, physics and religion. During this time, several government officials and scholars have converted to christianity. Eventually, the government turned against the missionaries but the Jesuits who chose to stay back in China continued with their translations and missionary work. Several people and converts came to the Jesuits’ help during this adverse situation (this historical phenomenon can be observed more lucidly in the Martin Scorsese directorial English movie Silence (2016). Another interesting part of this era is that the Chinese translators did not only act as one-way translators but also contributed to translating Chinese texts into Latin. Of them, the well-known texts are on philosophy (Confucian, Analects, Mencius), Book of songs, Books of documents etc.

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After the weakening of Chinese empires, the European nations gained more power over trade with the Chinese. To recoup their power, Lin Zexu understood that the Chinese need to master the European arts. The translation based on Encyclopedia of Geography that appeared in the early nineteenth century was a result of this move by the Chinese. But their strategy failed, leading to the establishment of a school of languages in China that taught Russian, English, French and other European languages to students who would be enrolled for eight years. This school also had produced various translations on astronomy, physics, geography and geology. The problems of translation they faced during this time was regarding the Latin words for scientific terms like oxygen and hydrogen. The translators would use an existing word if any or create a new word/phrase that carries the same meaning. Along with translations of such scientific texts, various texts on Christianity and general interest were published in China by European publishers. Later, Japanese came to be recognized as a source of knowledge as translating from European languages
became difficult and the Japanese script used Chinese characters. Adding to this, the Japanese were said to be a generation ahead of the Chinese in assimilating the western thought. Following these developments, various English literary texts were widely translated into Chinese which also fetched prominence for English as a language. All these events together caused a cultural revolution in China that shaped the twentieth century.

With a great political upheaval, China has undergone a colossal reform in the early twentieth century. It was during this time that the western thought was assimilated into the Chinese with great ease. Various works from English, Russian, Spanish, French have been translated into Chinese. However, it is to be noted here that though China opened its gates for the west, it allowed only thought to enter, not language. This was when a target-oriented approach to translation, that facilitates appropriation of source text according to the target culture had been widely employed.

Throughout history, we can see that the Chinese have great respect for translation. The systematic way in which they have developed translation is astounding. For the Chinese, translation was a gateway for knowledge that helped them grow better. However, their language grew more and more rigid towards other languages of the world. The rendition of the name Coca-Cola also demands our attention towards the practice of appropriation that remained in their process of translation. Over centuries, they tried to build a world within a world.

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