Corps de l’article


Unlike translation, which bears a written record, interpreting is relatively intangible. Research on interpreting and its history is therefore rare. This is somewhat ironic, since interpreters are always connected to history, politics and cross-cultural communication, and traces of interpreters or interpreting are constantly found in the historical records of a nation. Interpreters may be anonymous in history, but their presence as witnesses of history is well documented.

Apparently, the primary method for researching the history of interpreting is to study historical data. Whereas Western documentation of the history of interpreting is based on interpreters’ work as cited in diplomatic activities, the evidence culled from Chinese history offers the speech used in the multilingual exchanges.[1] This historical evidence is consistently found in the form of direct quotations or dialogues, which were possibly the results of interpreters’ work, and could provide a sound logical basis for concluding that interpreters were present in historical events and contributed to historical records.

Although these are worthwhile observations, the use of direct quotations, however, is not found exclusively in historical records detailing interpreting events. It is also found frequently in general historical records. Qian Zhongshu (1986) and Wu Huihua (1994) point out that the dialogues in Chinese historical records are the creative work of historians. They both agree that the insertion of dialogues in historical records enhances the readability and authenticity of the text. According to the Book of Rites, in China, two historians chaperoned the king on public occasions, one helps to record his activities and the other, his words. The historical record Zuo Zhuan pioneered the recording of actually spoken words in Chinese history. Li Zhouliang (2001) claims that Zuo Zhuan gives a historic narration through poetic and literary techniques. Another prominent Chinese historian, Sima Qian, was also well-known for his “creativity” in writing authentic and lively dialogues for historical figures with reference to their personalities, identities and contexts.

Despite the possible “literary intervention” of some historians in the Chinese tradition, the examination of historical texts concerning interpreting events where inter-lingual exchanges occurred does suggest the presence of interpreters in the diplomatic exchanges, the possible use of interpreters’ notes in writing out a version of history, and possibly the role of interpreters as consultants to Chinese historians. Such a textual analysis will give us new perspectives on the history of interpreting in China, and the results might be highly relevant to the comparative examination of interpreting activities as developed historically in different cultures.

Literature Review

According to Franz Pöchhacker (2004), Edmond Cary pioneered in studying the history of interpreting in the mid-1950s. Cary’s focus was on official translation and interpreting activities. More specifically, Alfred Hermann (2002) tried to trace interpreting work in Ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome in the areas of internal central administration, military expeditions, religion and external diplomacy. Hermann gathered isolated documentation on the presence and inferior status of interpreters in the ancient histories of these countries. What he says about the ancient Egyptian’s view of foreign races[2] as “wretched barbarians” and “inferior people” (2002: 15) is particularly noteworthy. He says,

The inscriptions, which record the speeches delivered when foreigners were received at court, are not their actual words, translated from their own languages. Rather, words were literally put in the mouths of the foreigners, words of entreaty for mercy, as thought out and put into stereotypical forms by the Egyptians. Thus, basically, any expression was always that of the Egyptians themselves.

Hermann 2002: 15-6

Such a condescending attitude towards an alien race is similar to that of China in ancient times. The way in which alien speech was distorted to make it conform to the superiority complex of the host culture also finds expression in the records of interpreting events in Chinese history.

More recent pioneers in the area include Ingrid Kurz (1985), who documented the traces of interpreters in historical and classical texts; and Margareta Bowen et al. (1995) who labored through historical documents in different Western countries, to cite the presence and influence of interpreters. Bowen and his colleagues documented the development of interpreting from piecemeal records in ancient Greece and Egypt to the sophisticated profession of today by studying diplomatic archives, with special reference to a few prominent interpreters in Western history. As a seminal paper on interpreting history, their work spells out unresolved obstacles to this kind of research. As a political analyst, Ruth Roland (1999) adopted an interdisciplinary approach in order to explore the diplomatic roles of interpreters both East and West. She is one of the first Western researchers to have shown interest in Chinese interpreting history. The evidence put forward consists of personal diaries and anecdotes in histories, and they are not easily located or organized. Although the information presented in the aforementioned literature is somewhat fragmented and scattered, it does reflect the increasingly focused efforts of researchers. The interest generated amid hard work reveals the allure and obstacles in researching into the history of interpreting.

The history of interpreting in China has recently received much attention, with the publication of Ma Zuyi’s (1998; 1999) works on Chinese translation history. Inevitably, interpreting, as the more primitive form of communication between speakers of different languages along the Chinese borders, is dealt with in an important chapter in one of his works. Ma’s inclusion of the history of interpreting in his discussion also inspired Li Nanqiu (2002), whose work offers rich information about interpreting in China. The design of Li’s publication is schematic and chronological in nature. Li discusses interpreting in relation to diplomacy, commerce, military, science-technology translation, literary translation and Buddhist scriptural translation. His materials are then profiled chronologically within each category. In fact, the presentation of his book is similar to that of a history textbook, and the way the author handles his materials is also history-based, rather than interpreting based. That is, the materials are not analyzed from the perspective of interpreting studies.

Li’s claim that dialogues were typically used in historical records involving interpreters is supported by ample excerpts from various historical documents, though unfortunately most of them are not placed in the context of history, linguistic analysis, or cited sources. To examine the topic further, therefore, it is necessary that more historical records be located to examine the validity of Li’s claim. This article aims at testing Li’s claim and documenting the possible roles of interpreters as historians in recording Chinese history, in relation to their interaction with foreign envoys. Evidence will be drawn from primary Chinese historical sources, with close attention paid to the linguistic features used in these exchanges.

Interpreters as Historians

In ancient China, many small tribes and foreign states were found along its frontiers. Most tribes were either satellite or tributary states of imperial China. They would send official delegations to pay tribute and present gifts to the Chinese emperor from time to time. The foreign representatives were normally chaperoned by official Chinese interpreters throughout their visit, to ensure that Chinese etiquette was observed.

In the Chinese historiographical tradition, the standard histories (zhengshi)[3] for each dynasty contain specific chapters (liezhuan) devoted to the biographies of prominent Chinese and foreign peoples of each age, as well as profiles of individual “barbaric tribes” and foreign kingdoms adjacent to China. With respect to the documentation of activities between China and foreign tribes, due to the communication barriers between language groups, interpreters were often utilized to help understanding. Interestingly, the exchanges between Chinese courts and foreign envoys were often recorded in the form of quotations and dialogues. In this article, relevant historical texts were examined in an attempt to identify consistent discourse features, if any, associated with texts depicting interpreters’ activities with foreign envoys.

Li Nanqiu (2002) reiterates that the use of dialogues to record the exchanges involving interpreters suggests the use of interpreters’ notes in the writing of historical records. For example, Li (2002: 29) asserts, after presenting a text regarding an interpreting event that includes dialogues, “there must be an interpreter around in the exchange between the emperor and the Turkish envoy. The foregoing dialogue should be the written record of the interpreting event.” In many parts of his work, Li (2002: 17, 18, 20, 22, 23) makes many similar remarks such as, “… the dialogues here are obviously written records of interpreters’ words.”

Unfortunately, Li did not pursue this claim further by exploring how and when the interpreters’ notes were incorporated into the historical records. Furthermore, who recorded the interpreters’ words or the exchange? It might be the interpreter himself, or the official historians accompanying the emperor. Due to the special -nature of interpreting, it is likely that most interpreters dealing with foreign envoys would have to interpret on the spot, with or without notes. Back in ancient times, ink, brushes and paper or silk scrolls were used in writing. The need to grind an ink stick and use a writing brush were perhaps too much of a chore for note taking during interpreting, in the present day sense of the word. In addition, the so called “left and right historians” (zuoshi and youshi) possibly could not understand foreign languages. So they had no choice but to copy the renditions from interpreters.

It would be reasonable to assume, therefore, that relevant historical records were written with the help of interpreters through various possible means at the time. To take this assumption further, we can imagine four possibilities: first, interpreters were consulted so as to pin down details shortly after the inter-lingual exchanges; second, interpreters made a record of their work after the interpreting events (creating the interpreters’ notes, of course); third – a remote possibility though – interpreters made the historical records themselves, as part of their duties; and finally, since the Chinese emperor was habitually chaperoned in public functions by zuoshi and youshi, who were responsible for recording the emperor’s activities and speech respectively, these officials could have made reference to the interpreters’ renditions on the spot, or consulted the interpreters while compiling and finalizing their records afterwards in their court diaries (qiju zhu) or veritable records, which served as raw materials for the standard histories written usually in the dynasty to follow. After all, these officials were witnesses of the bilingual and multilingual exchanges and would be quite capable of giving an accurate rendition of historical events. Whatever the case may be, the interpreters’ edge was their knowledge of foreign languages, and only interpreters could give an exact and accurate rendition of the exchanges. In this sense, the interpreters’ role was very much like that of a historian.

Interpreting Events and Their Records in History

There are various kinds of historical records which contain traces of interpreting events and information on interpreters in China. While most diplomatic exchanges were recorded as if interpreters were invisible or left out, we can safely assume that interpreters must have been present to mediate between the Chinese and foreign people. More interestingly, interpreting events were featured in the dialogues or -interpreters’ quotations in historical records. Apparently, as shown in Example 1, the nature of interpreting events indicates that the exchange can most naturally, if not faithfully, be recorded in dialogue or direct speech.

There is no mention of the presence of interpreter(s) in the document. We could, however, deduce that the one interrupting Ju’s entrance to the tent must either be an associate of Bilgä, or his interpreter. The act of interrupting Ju’s movement suggests that the interpreter, or an associate of Bilgä speaking through the interpreter, was not affiliated with the Chinese court. The interpreter was more likely to have been working for Bilgä. Since Chinese is not an inflectional language, the subject of a sentence does not have to be present in a sentence when the speaker believes it should be understood from the linguistic context. For example, all the subjects omitted in the Chinese original text have been inserted (placed within parentheses) in the translated text above in order to facilitate English readers’ comprehension. Notwithstanding that the identity of the interpreter is not definitively established, the linguistic evidence in the exchange does indicate that an interpreter from Bilgä’s side was used. The use of two different terms in referring to the Tang emperor, namely, “Tang emperor” or “Son of the Heaven” and “Tang Khan” in the source text, suggests that there might have been two interpreters in the exchange, one from Bilgä, and the other from the Chinese court. Only foreign tributary or satellite states would address the Tang emperor as “Tang Khan,” as in “May I ask what your relationship is to the Tang Khan?” The interpreter from the Chinese court would have to observe the Chinese conventions by addressing the ruler of Tang as “Tianzi [Son of Heaven],” as seen in this example.

The different terms of address indicate the presence of two interpreters in the interpreting event. The fact that the exchange was recorded in direct speech may be related to the way the Chinese interpreter reconstructed the event, either in his mind, or in his notes. Apparently, these records denote the presence of interpreters in diplomatic exchanges, and the likelihood that interpreters’ notes were used to prepare the final historical record.

In Example 2, Lun Misa’s words were put down with great precision twice, both times as direct quotations, whereas the empress Wu’s responses were recorded in a straightforward summary on three different occasions in the source text. This contrast is worth noting because it seems to make more sense for Chinese official historical records to give more space to the empress Wu’s words in detail, rather than the other way around, especially since it is the Tibetan envoy that is involved. For Tibet had not only been regarded as “barbarian” throughout China’s imperial history, but it had also just been defeated by Tang China (Liu 945: 5225-6). The situation is far more complex than it appears to be, and it deserves further exploration in another article. Although there is no textual evidence documenting the involvement and identity of interpreters, it is nonetheless only logical that the interpreter’s actual words during the bilingual exchange might have served as the source of this part of the historical record. The example again strongly supports the argument that the interpreter’s mediating role can somehow be traced in the historical record.

As in Example 2, the words of the Chinese court in Example 3 were recorded in summary form as well, while the interpreter’s words were recorded at length in direct quotations. Besides, the fact that the emperor summoned the envoy (who is not the interpreter) and that the reply was given by an interpreter are explicitly stated in “Taizong zhaojian qishi, xunyi dili fengsu, yi duiyue” [literally “Taizong summoned them to court and made enquiries about their geographical location and local customs. In reply, the interpreter said…”]. As to the identity of the interpreter, the mere reference to “In reply, the interpreter said” does not really give us any clues. The content of his speech, however, suggests that the translation is placed in the context of a comparison with Chinese customs of the time.[15] This suggests that the interpreter must have been familiar with Chinese customs. However, he used an incorrect term for a geographical division in his translation. Zhou (there are around 2500 households per zhou in ancient China) is used for a much smaller administrative unit consisting of 200 to 300 households. For if the interpreter were Chinese, it would make more sense to have the word zhou translated as xian [county] instead. Therefore, it is most likely that the interpreter was a foreigner who came with the envoy, not one working for the Chinese court.

It should be noted that the Khotan translator or the King himself (the latter a relatively remote possibility, though) translated the heading of the letter into Chinese first and then submitted it to the Chinese official. Because it was poorly translated, as shown in the improper use of the term of address for the Chinese emperor and in the juxtaposition of words – which makes no grammatical sense in the Khotan’s original Chinese translation – it certainly was not presentable to the Emperor. So Dong Zhan had it translated again by Chinese translators.[17]

In line with the linguistic pattern displayed in Examples 2 and 3, Example 4 again shows the use of direct quotations for words/statements uttered by the foreign envoys, whereas indirect reporting was often reserved for words from the Chinese court. Such consistency itself may carry some significance, and one cannot help but wonder who would be behind the use of this rhetorical convention. If interpreters’ notes were referred to in the compilation of relevant historical records, it seems that editorial decisions were made in favor of incorporating interpreters’ notes in the standard histories of China.


Li Nanqiu’s work was the impetus for the present article. His claim that interpreters’ words were put down in writing and formed part of historical records was both stimulating and intriguing. The process of exploring and testing Li’s claim by textual and linguistic analyses gives rise to exciting observations regarding historical descriptions of interpreting events. The examination of these historical texts certainly -suggests the presence of interpreters in diplomatic exchanges. However, it must be noted that the “linguistic” presence of interpreters is not equally conspicuous in all the texts examined; it is more obvious in some than in others. Linguistic analysis proves to be a useful tool in studying these historical texts. Some examples analyzed in this article even provide linguistic clues pertaining to the identities and affiliations of interpreters.

Li is probably right in claiming that interpreters’ words might well have been used as part of historical records. His claim, however, could be further refined by identifying possible ways in which interpreters’ words relate to the historical recording of inter-lingual encounters. In this article, different scenarios are put forward concerning how interpreters contributed to the making of historical records. These include: interpreters being consulted for details after the inter-lingual exchanges, interpreters’ notes being used as a reference, and historians’ references to interpreters’ renditions on the spot. Whatever the case, interpreters were closely associated with the creation of these historical records. They were either approached for details of the exchange they engaged in, or directly quoted by historians in order to give more accurate documentation for China’s encounters with foreign envoys. No doubt, interpreters either actively or passively provided linguistic information to be used when recording these historical encounters. It is therefore possible that interpreters’ notes were used to produce a version of history, and interpreters acted as consultants to Chinese historians at some points.

Most importantly, the textual and linguistic analyses of four texts drawn from different periods in Chinese history also confirms that the words of foreign envoys were interpreted in great detail and found in direct quotations, while words from the Chinese court were summarized in the description or narration. Apparently, the interpreters’ words were selectively used in the historical record. From the viewpoint of a host culture, a detailed record of the words of foreign envoys seemed more important since interpreters were the only ones who could understand the foreign tongue. The more elaborate quotations from foreign envoys may also show us how interpreters or historians reconstructed the exchange in their minds or in their notes, given that greater caution would be taken in recording utterances made in foreign and unfamiliar tongues. The present attempt to research into China’s interpreting history has taken Li’s claim further and has trod on a path different from those taken in the West. The availability of textual records concerning interpreting events in ancient China makes textual analyses a worthwhile research method in exploring the interpreting history of China. The observations made in this project also point to the need for research on the problem of the asymmetry of power in interpreting, which has yet to be studied. It is clear from this study that such an endeavor holds forth much promise.