Manifold Understandings

The term ‘translation’ is itself subject to constant discussions and revisions within many disciplines. At the same time, it also plays a vital and crucial role within the research that is undertaken at the URPP Asia and Europe. Against this background, the annual conference of the URPP, “Asia and Europe in Translation: Interdisciplinary Perspectives” (November 6–8, 2014), allowed participants to approach the different notions of translation within the framework of the entangled histories of Asia and Europe from an interdisciplinary and broad historical perspective.

Christoph Mittmann

The aim of the conference was to bring both differences and similarities of ‘translation’ into a fruitful dialogue. The theoretical starting point was to focus on specific contexts of translation as well as on the many questions about the terminology itself: Do we speak of translation literally or rather metaphorically? And what consequences do our answers have for the respective studies?

After the opening remarks of Katharina Maag Merki (Vice Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, University of Zurich) and Hans Bjarne Thomsen (University of Zurich), Wolfgang Behr (University of Zurich) opened the first panel, which was entitled “Discourses and Traditions of Translation.” Its focus was on discursive frameworks of translation within, across and beyond languages and cultures in Europe and East Asia. Bruno Rochette (Université de Liège) compared the different terminologies of ‘translation’ in Greek and Latin. Since Greece was a linguistically closed domain, translations found rather low interest and were produced mainly for utilitarian aims. This situation only changed with the beginning of Bible translations. In the Roman world, on the contrary, translations played a vital role in the functioning of the empire and also included the translations of speech between men and gods. Cicero’s theoretical issues on translation are the first known examinations of this subject. Marion Eggert’s (Ruhr-University Bochum) talk was dedicated to the translation of poetry in Korea during the Chosŏn-period. Korean scholars faced the challenge of translating Chinese regulated verse not only into their own language, but also adapting them to the poetic form common in Korea at the time. Considering this high adaptation effort, Eggert questioned the suitability of the term translation and suggested substituting another term for it, such as transfer or transmission. This theoretical notion was also addressed by Judy Wakabayashi (Kent State University), who analyzed the discussion of the import and adaption of Western translation-theories in Japan. Some of the intellectuals who engaged with this question advocated a wholesale adoption, while others favored a more selective approach, reflecting the Western theories in a critical way. However, these critical reflections have so far not found a way back into the Western discourse. According to Wakabayashi, this trend of excluding other voices is in a way characteristic of Western academia in general.

The second part of this panel revolved around Roman Jakobson’s theories on translation. In his talk, Tomáš Glanc (Humboldt University Berlin) highlighted the tension between Jakobson’s idea of the universality of natural languages as sign-systems and his skepticism towards the translatability of Slavic literature, which he considered as part of an autochthonous, “organic” Slavic culture. Jakobson’s concept of ‘transmutation’—i.e. the interpretation of verbal signs through the signs of nonverbal sign systems—was then taken up by Ralf Müller (University of Zurich), who offered an alternative to the term ‘translation’ and elaborated on the theoretical background in order to extend the discussion beyond the narrow confines of linguistics. Finally, Mark Gamsa (Tel Aviv University) concluded the panel with his comments on Jakobson.

Translating practical knowledge

Ulrich Rudolph and Sven Trakulhun (both University of Zurich) opened the second panel, which was entitled “Knowledge Transfers.” Hyunhee Park (John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York) presented the translation processes of geographical knowledge between the Chinese and the Muslim worlds. Translations from Indian languages into Persian were the focus of the talk by Eva Orthmann (University of Bonn). These translations of texts belonging to non-Muslim, Indian scholarly traditions made them accessible to Persian-speaking Muslims and initiated the production of texts on non-Muslim, Indian traditions directly written in Persian, both by Muslim and non-Muslim authors. The difficulties of translating practical knowledge into written text was the next issue, which Dagmar Schäfer (Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin) addressed in her talk on attempts to institutionalize certain manufacturing practices during the Qing dynasty. Schäfer demonstrated how, by being documented in writing, the practices themselves changed. The presentation by Mareile Flitsch (University of Zurich) and Nathalie Marseglia (University of Zurich) approached ‘translation’ by revealing some problematic sides of the textual representation of practical knowledge during the process of “heritagization.” Drawing on the concept of “contact zones,” their talk was aimed at grasping the multiple processes of translation and interpretation by the various actors involved in producing texts on craft knowledge, thereby shaping discourses about skilled practice.

Translation and transformation

The third panel was called “Buddhist Texts and Concepts Across Asia,” which Raji C. Steineck (University of Zurich) introduced. Two translation processes were examined by Ingo Strauch (Université de Lausanne) in his presentation on the Gandhāran Buddhist texts, which belong to the oldest scriptures of Buddhism. First, he noted the shift of transmission techniques from orality to script, since orally transmitted texts were being committed to writing for the first time. And secondly, he pointed to a language-shift from the so-called “Middle Gangetic“ language of the oral tradition to a Middle Indian language used for the written versions. Stefano Zacchetti (University of Oxford) looked at early Chinese commentaries on translated Indian Buddhist texts. The focus of his talk was on interlinear commentaries written during the Three Kingdoms period, which show how these texts were understood during the initial phase of Buddhist presence in China. In the case of the Blue Cliff Record, a collection of Chán Buddhist kōans first published in 1128 C.E., it is not a question of translation but rather one of hermeneutics, as Steven Heine (Florida International University) stated in his presentation, when the attempt is made to date its importation to Japan correctly since the original sources remain unknown. For Jörg Plassen (Ruhr University Bochum), a translated term is only the first step in the process of including it into the target language. While referring to the idea of ‘conceptual blending,’ he argued that the traditional meaning of a term used for translating a new concept in the target language may interact with its actual usage for a long time.

The fourth panel “Media Translations” was chaired by Andrea Riemenschnitter (University of Zurich) and was opened by Brett de Bary (Cornell University), who raised the question of how to ‘translate’ translation. She defined it as a process that will never produce the same rather than an endpoint. Elaborating on this idea from the perspective of translation theory and post-colonial theory, she turned to the Japanese film Death by Hanging (1968) by director Nagisa Oshima. Rainer Maria Rilke’s idea of transformation was the core of the talk by Pheng Cheah’s (University of California, Berkeley). He analysed the transformative use of Rilke’s Duino Elegies in Amitav Ghosh’s novel The Hungry Tide to revive the traditional world of the Sundarban islands, which is now a protected mangrove forest area in Bengal and threatened with destruction by global funds invested for environmental preservation and by the activities of Northern environmental movements. The term ‘jianghu,’ literally meaning ‘rivers and lakes,’ has many different connotations in Chinese literature, cinema and culture, standing for anarchic worlds beyond the reach of government, such the fantastical world of Chinese martial arts. The shift of connotation observable by each transmission of the term into another setting was the central theme of Helena Wu’s (University of Zurich) presentation. Sarah Fraser (Heidelberg University) concluded this panel with her study of photography in China, especially stressing the unintentional consequences of knowledge transfer in the fields of anthropology and ethnography when European-trained scholars adapted European models of photographic bodily representation.

Foreign influences beyond ‘reception’

The fifth and final panel chaired by Hans B. Thomsen (University of Zurich) was “Visual Translations.” Jeanne Egloff (University of Zurich) approached the topic from the perspective of Japanese sculpture and how entanglements with the West influenced both terminology and the art itself. Vera Wolff (ETH Zurich / IFK Wien) introduced a different notion of translation, namely the translation between line (signifying ideas) and color (signifying materiality) in the oeuvre of some European and Japanese artists and how they influenced each other. Taking style and iconography of Buddhist temple-paintings in India and Japan as an example, Dinah Zank (University of Zurich) addressed the issue of an appropriate term for foreign influences on art works. In the context of art history, the word ‘reception’ is widely used, supposing a rather passive role of the artist in adopting foreign themes or techniques. By calling this process ‘translation’ instead, a more active role is attributed to the artist. The conference was concluded by Paola von Wyss-Giacosa (University of Zurich) and her research on kris, the characteristic Javanese daggers, that were brought from Java to Europe and then reproduced in illustrated books. Finally, not the daggers themselves but the books were circulated and discussed, so that the daggers constantly received new interpretations not on the basis of the originals, but on the basis of visual translations into woodcuts or engravings.

Having represented a variety of approaches to concepts of translation, the conference provided a good opportunity for the participants to engage in lively discussions. While it became clear that it is worthwhile to pursue a proper definition both for the term and the various concepts of translation, it turned out to be even more important to adopt such definitions on a case by case basis, since all analyses cover a different setting which has to be considered instead of just following one textbook definition or another.

(Asia & Europe Bulletin, 4/2015, pp. 19–20)