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Workshop – Intralingual Translation, Diglossia, and the Rise of Vernaculars in East Asian Classical and Premodern Cultures

19 – 20 January, 2017

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Workshop – Intralingual Translation, Diglossia, and the Rise of Vernaculars in East Asian Classical and Premodern Cultures

19 – 20 January, 2017

Maison de l’Asie, 22 avenue du Président Wilson, 75016 Paris (France)

For more information, please check the website of the international program « Intralingual Translation, Diglossia and the Rise of Vernaculars in East Asian Classical and Premodern Cultures ».

To download the workshop’s program, please click here.

Organizing Committee

Barbara Bisetto – University of Milano-Bicocca

Rainier Lanselle – École Pratique des Hautes Études

In their different fields of research, scholars working in East Asian classical and premodern studies constantly come upon situations in which the very parameters of the language used in a given text are in themselves a key-feature of its meaning. Citation, commentary, rewriting, the genesis of textual traditions, the formation of narratives, and the circulation of themes across different genres routinely involve discursive strategies in which the semiotics of the text is achieved not only through the explicit level of its contents, but also through the implicit dimension of the linguistic choices that were made in order to carry it. This is true, in particular, where authors show a consciousness of the diglossic nature of the written language, a linguistic situation which is widespread throughout the so-called “Sinographosphere”. In China the coexistence of the two different registers of classical and vernacular Chinese has triggered a whole range of linguistic relocations that are relevant not simply to stylistics, but to true translation. Neighbouring countries of said Sinographosphere (China, Korea, Japan, Vietnam), while entertaining highly ambiguous relationships of linguistic familiarity and alienness to classical Chinese, (which in themselves did not necessarily call for translation into the local vernaculars), were paradoxically drawn into even more complex forms of intralingual translation, in the context of not only diglossic, but sometimes even pluriglossic situations.

While being fully aware of these linguistic realities, scholars all too often take them as a given fact and do not question them as a specific issue. They are simply part of the landscape. And yet we believe that here, more than elsewhere, lies the true, huge though forgotten continent of the translating tradition in East Asia : in this wealth of intralingual practices.

Our endeavour is part of an obvious surge in interest that has appeared in recent years in the field of East Asian studies, calling for a shift of paradigm in the approach of the crucial issue of vernacularization (Elman 2014). Our project, specifically centered on discursive questions seen from the point of view of linguistic strategies, intends to explore different instances of intralingual translation, with an emphasis on classical and premodern East Asia. It seeks to tease out elements of continuity and change in activities of intralingual translation and rewriting in Chinese culture and in the Sinographosphere.

The current common definition of intralingual translation goes back to Jakobson’s (1959) tripartite categorization of translation phenomena into intralingual, interlingual and intersemiotic processes. According to Jakobson, intralingual translation is a process of rewording : the interpretation of verbal signs by means of other signs of the same language.

So far, intralingual translation has received little attention within the discipline of Translation Studies as well as in historiographical researches on translation in East Asia. In the field of Translation Studies, theoretical and empirical investigations have mainly been confined to interlingual aspects and practices to the detriment of a more thorough description of translational phenomena and a more inclusive definition of “translation” itself. This narrow approach, though regularly criticized by specialists of Translation Studies [1], has left a theoretical void about the very concept of intralingual translation, and specialists of East Asian studies are even less aware of the interest of looking into that particular direction. The authors of this project believe that an in-depth research on this topic is well worth exploring and will contribute to the development of new research trajectories in both disciplinary fields.

The Jakobsonian definition cited above is rarely analyzed, as it should be, under the light of Jakobson’s own preliminary remark, stating that he himself relies on Charles S. Peirce’s theory of the linguistic sign. According to the latter, “a sign is not a sign”, in the linguistic sense, unless it “translates itself into another sign in which it is more fully developed.” [2] This view is directly echoed, for example, in Jacques Lacan’s language theories, according to which no language is ever capable to fully articulate itself, and always needs some other form of language to be translated into. The problematic raised by intralingual translation broadly understood further relates to the (Bakthinian) dialogic nature of language itself, whereby a (written) utterance always echoes, and reworks, a whole set of previous (written) utterances. Translation, here, far from corresponding to the narrow, interlingual definition referred to above, should be taken in its broadest semiotic meaning of any form of “rewording” (Jakobson 1959), or in the way André Lefevere (1992) considers translation as being essentially a deed of “rewriting”. Here, the “other language” in question can apply to a great variety of forms, like commentary, rewriting across different registers or genres in classical Chinese, or from any classical form (of any East Asian language) to any form of vernacular ; it can also be conveyed through stylistic rather than purely linguistic qualities, for example when a given theme or message is affected by a change of enunciative position or a switch in the subject of utterance. Contemporary “deconstructivists” of the Confucian tradition, for example, assert that parts of the Lunyu may be no more than chunks of preexisting formulae aggregated to the text under the tag “Zi yue” 子曰, whoever the “Master” in question may have been : this obviously is no translation, but it for sure is rewording. To make another example from the Chinese tradition of vernacular fiction, when historical episodes were narrated into a story, they may or may not have been translated into contemporary vernacular, but it was paramount that they should be put into the mouth of a fictional narrator who was either a storyteller or a schoolmaster. Rewriting here implied shifts in narratology which appear as even more important than the intralingual translation process itself, even as the presence of the vernacularization paradigm was manifest in the whole rewriting agenda.

We could multiply the instances that show how the intralingual translating activity, though largely indefinite as it was barely theorized (or even consciously pursued) in classical and premodern times, was actually a very active segment of the writing practices of these periods. Here the authors of this project, though speaking from a sinologists’s point of view, express their wish that this intralingual translating activity may be documented by data originating from other nations of the Sinographosphere. One could cite Zhu Xi’s repeated call for a proper reading of the Classics that should lead to their rewording into the contemporary, common vernacular, even going so far as to declare that this reformulation is the true condition of a thorough reading of the Masters. (Vetrov 2011) As this example proves, the traditional H/L (high/low) language distinction, which is routinely made in the analysis of diglossia since Ferguson’s seminal 1959 article, shows a far more complex structure, that departs from the received doctrine, since the vernacular appears as something that enhances the Classics, far from derogating from them as a “low” language would. This assessment is coherent with the practice witnessed in the context of the Buddhist scriptures, à propos of which J.-N. Robert has coined the valuable concepts of “hierogloss” and “laogloss”. (Robert 2006) Generally speaking, we should be aware that practices of vernacularization have given rise to many different forms in the course of centuries, calling for discerning though extensive approaches. For example, if vernacularization presided to the boom of oral genres characterized by a lively colloquial, such as the theatre of the Yuan, it was no less present in contemporaneous yet completely different textual products, like the yanyi 演義 which increasingly linked hermeneutical functions to processes of rewriting within and across language registers.

From this perspective, this project will contribute to fill a void, both empirical and theoretical, in the field of East Asian studies, as we believe it concerns a crucial segment of its history of textual and language practices. At the same times this project aims at playing a part in a growing interest expressed by Translation Studies specialists, among whom the recognition of the necessity to open the field of Translation Studies to non-Western worlds has gained general acceptance.

The narrow definition of translation cited above, i.e., limited to interlingual translation, has been predominant until now in historiographical accounts of translation histories in East Asia. This prevalent approach looks at the East Asian environment as “worlds without translations”, in consideration of the cosmopolitan role played by the Chinese writing system on the cultural formation of China, Japan, Korea and Vietnam. In this perspective, the intelligibility of the Chinese script throughout East Asia during centuries is assumed to have generated a broad cultural area in which translation is presented as something that was utterly unnecessary and non-relevant—to the extent that even Japanese kundoku 訓讀 reading, for example, should be denied any translational nature. Such views, which are possible only on the premise of a definition of translation limited to interlingual activity, do not account for its intralingual dimension. In the East Asian case, if it is true that the widespread use of classical Chinese in premodern East Asia produced a kind of “sinographic cosmopolis” that could to some extent bypass the urgency of translation between different languages in the written sphere, it cannot explain the various strategies developed within each culture to cope with the issue of Classical Chinese language, the rise of vernacular languages and the sharing of knowledge in diachronic and socio-cultural perspectives.

In conclusion, the workshop and book project presented here call for a profound shift in approaches towards translational phenomena in premodern East Asia. By highlighting issues and challenges emerging from a focus on intralingual translation as a fundamental paradigm and by gathering contributions coming from different areas within the Sinographospere, this workshop and book project will offer the opportunity to problematize established categories as the dichotomy between classical and vernacular languages and to further discuss the cultural policies that characterized issues of literacies and learning in premodern East Asia.

Cited references

Berk Albachten Özlem (2014). “Intralingual Translation : Discussion within Translation Studies and the Case of Turkey.” In S. Bermann, C. Porter (eds), A Companion to Translation Studies, Wiley-Blackwell, 573-585.

Dewey John (1946). “Peirce’s Theory of Linguistic Signs, Thought, and Meaning.” The Journal of Philosophy, 43(4), 85-95.

Elman Benjamin (2014). Rethinking East Asian Languages, Vernaculars, and Literacies, 1000-1919. Leiden-Boston ; Brill.

Ferguson Charles A. (1959). “Diglossia.” Word, 15 : 325-340.

Jakobson Roman (1959). “On Linguistic Aspects of Translation.” In R. A. Brower (ed.) On Translation. Harvard University Press, 232-239.

Lefevere André (1992). Translation, Rewriting and the Manipulation of Literary Fame. London  ; New York : Routledge.

Robert Jean-Noël (2006). “Hieroglossia : A Proposal.” Nanzan Institute for Religion & Culture Bulletin, (30), 25-48.

Tymoczko Maria (2007). Enlarging Translation, Empowering Translators, St. Jerome Publishing.

Vetrov Viatcheslav (2011). “Zhu Xi’s Sayings in search of an author : the vernacular as a philosophical lieu de mémoire.” Monumenta Serica, (59), 73-98.

Zethsen Karen Korning (2007). “Beyond Translation Proper – Extending the Field of Translation Studies.” TTR 20, 1, 281-308.

Zethsen Karen Korning (2009). “Intralingual Translation : An Attempt at Description.” Meta 54, 4, 795-812.


[1] For critical views, see Tymoczko 2007 ; Zethsen 2007, 2009 ; Berk Albachten 2014.

[2] Peirce quoted by Dewey 1946, p. 91.

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