Metamorphosis of a Diplomatic Interpreting Event in Ancient China

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One recent trend in translation studies is to examine the concepts and terminologies of ‘translation’ or ‘interpreting’ in different languages. These epistemological studies broaden our understanding of what ‘translate’ could possibly mean in unfamiliar language-cultures. This paper does not, however, concern itself with identifying the literal meanings of translation in a specific context or quantifying textual references to interpreting. Instead, this paper presents data culled from classical writings about ‘interpreting’ in political treatises and literary pieces of early imperial China. Based on textual analyses, I discuss how an interpreting event, initiated by a China-bound southern tribe, was chronicled and transmuted in political and literary writings for centuries. This event was succinctly recapped as a household story, across dynasties, not for its literal contents but for its more abstract figurative and symbolic meanings. Of interest to the interpreting historians is that this interpreting episode has been unusually elevated to an ideology or a rhetoric as a way to serve purposes entirely detached from inter-lingual communication. For millennia, this interpreting image was used to connote auspiciousness, to trumpet China’s benevolent governance and superior civilization, and to champion specific political philosophies.


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