“Striving for Clarity and Truth: On the Nature and Function of Translations in the Knowledge Transfer between Europa and China from the 16th to 18th century”

Lecture in German at the Missionary Seminary in Sankt Augustin, 22 June 2023

At the invitation of the Monumenta Serica Institute, Prof. Dr. Thomas Zimmer (Zentrum für Chinesisch-Deutschen Gesellschaftlich-Kulturellen Austausch, Tongji University, Shanghai) analyzed translation processes in the knowledge transfer between China and the West in the 16th to 18th centuries.

Taking current Chinese government projects of translating and promoting Chinese research in English as his point of departure, Zimmer pointed out that there already was a keen interest on knowledge about things Chinese in Enlightenment Europe as testified, among others by Étienne Fourmont’s Linguae Sinarum Mandarinicae Hieroglyphicae Grammatica Duplex (1742) or Michał Boym’s S.J. (1612–1659) treatise on Chinese pulse diagnosis and medicine – Clavis medica ad Chinarum doctrinam de pulsibus (1686).

The focus of Zimmer’s lecture was on the translation activities and cultural mediation of Jesuit missionaries in China. The first part was devoted to Chinese reactions to the influx of Western knowledge. These ranged from outright rejection on the basis of national security and identity, to acceptance on the basis of a transcultural, common humanity, to a pragmatic adoption of the new knowledge, to the effort to attribute Chinese origins to these foreign concepts. 

The lecture’s second part treated three approaches of translation into Chinese used by Jesuit missionaries. At first these missionaries wrote and proofread translations all by themselves. However, rather soon other methods became more common. These were based on a cooperation between missionaries and Chinese scholars: The second approach had Western missionaries lecturing about a certain topic in Chinese while Chinese converts took notes and then refined these notes. This method was adopted by Matteo Ricci and Xu Guangqi for composing a Chinese translation of Euclid’s Elements (Jihe yuanben 几何原本, 1607). In the third approach a missionary composed a Chinese text that was proofread by a Chinese scholar, such as François Furtado’s Huanyou quan 寰有诠 (Explanation on the Universal Being, 1628). 

A noticeable marker of these dialogic translations was the gradual transformation of phonetic transcriptions of Western terms into Chinese to meaningful Chinese neologisms, e.g. Balaiyisuo 巴喇以所 to tiantang 天堂 for “Paradise.”