Diglossia and the Paradigm of Intralingual Translation in Premodern China (Keynote speech)

Résumé : It is of common knowledge that the timeline of the history of translation in imperial China is marked by three particularly significant moments, namely: the period of assimilation of Buddhism from the late Han to the Tang ; the time of the Jesuits’ missionary and scientific endeavor, between the late Ming and the reign of Qianlong ; the new era opened by the continuous contacts between China and the West, starting around the mid-nineteenth century. Beside these three notable moments, one should add the general activity of interpretation implied by the countinuous relationships between the imperial state and the neighbouring states and alien peoples. In this classical frame, which is concerned only by translating processes implying foreign languages, one issue is never taken into consideration as being part of the translation field : the relationship that existed between classical and vernacular forms of written texts within the same Chinese language. It is a well kown fact that the writing activity in China was marked by a continuous state of diglossia between the two registers, that lasted no less than a whole millenium, spanning from the Tang period to the very end of the empire. Although this is hard fact, it is suffering today from a lack of analysis and even of appreciation, which is extremely surprising when we remember how deep-rooted and wide-ranging it was, but the absence of reflexion on this topic can be explained to some extent by the heritage of the contempt in which the literati class traditionally affected to hold the vernacular literary production such as the novel and other imaginary works. At the most it will be agreed that there existed, in the vernacular literary creation, a certain relationship between sources in classical Chinese and texts in vernacular, which implied a certain amount of transposition and amplification. But this relationship—and this may be due to the prevalence, in China of the commentarial tradition—has never been assessed in terms of translation, not even in language-related terms: but rather (and often rather vaguely, for that matter) in terms of “inspiration” or “influence”, whatever these words may mean. This being said we have to admit that, if translation is implied here, it will be of the intralingual kind, a field that, as we know, has always been the poor cousin of the theoretical elaboration in matter of translation studies since the classical distinction made by Roman Jakobson decades ago (1959). And yet, a close examination of the relationship between source texts and target texts, whenever classical and vernacular registers of writing are involved, shows how the writing strategies of the Chinese authors were relevant not only to the domain of discourse, with the transmission of ideas, but to the domain of language as well, in its own right, and how rich and complex were the procedures of intralingual translation they put into practice. Plain translation, quotation, amplification, commentary, and adaptation, combined into a multifaceted rewriting activity that showed a keen awareness of the fundamentally linguistic aspects of the classical vs./ vernacular differentiation. One should add that these strategies were not uniform but changed deeply according to periods. Our knowledge of the phenomena at stake improves as more and more research is dedicated to the exploration of the true landscape of the vernacular cultures in the second millenium of imperial China. What could be deemed a “translational literacy” in classical and premodern China, which emerged from the diglossic, or even pluriglossic, relationship between classical and vernacular languages, was not only a fact that concerned creation in the well known field of literature of fiction, like theater and novel: it is actually possible to demonstrate how it was involved in such varied domains as religion, philosophy and the Classics, and even within classical literature like poetry. Additionally these language-related facts could not occur without their particular social backgrounds, with the the evolution of the public sphere and the emergence of new audiences. My paper presents itself as a form of manifesto for a change of paradigm in the analysis of the longlasting coexistence of the two regimes—classical and vernacular—that were constituent of the rich experience of diglossia in imperial China. The study of this dual situation shows how the apparently monolingual culture of China was actually filled with questions that were translational in nature. Through this example one could argue that the practice of translation is the experience of an “other of the language” which is not necessarily an experience of the foreign, to paraphrase Antoine Berman, but may also something that can occur within the boundaries of a single language.
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Contributor : Rainier Lanselle <>
Submitted on : Thursday, March 23, 2017 - 10:52:14 AM
Last modification on : Wednesday, July 17, 2019 - 2:41:08 AM


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Rainier Lanselle. Diglossia and the Paradigm of Intralingual Translation in Premodern China (Keynote speech). Middle and Mixed Arabic in the History of the Arabic Language and Today (Fifth International Symposium of the International Association for the Study of Middle and Mixed Arabic AIMA 5), Université de Strasbourg; International Association for the Study of Middle and Mixed Arabic; Association internationale pour l’étude du Moyen Arabe et des variétés mixtes de l’arabe, Mar 2017, Strasbourg, France. ⟨hal-01494309⟩



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