Broadly Speaking: A Companion Interview

Lisa Hellman & Birgit Tremml-Werner on Translation in Early Modern Diplomacy

by contributing editor David Kretz

Lisa K. Hellman works in the intersection between social, cultural, maritime, and global history, with a special interest in gender. Her first project focused on the everyday life of Europeans in the ports of Canton and Macau. In her second project, she compared their experiences with those in other Asian ports, primarily Nagasaki. In her current project, she follows 18th-century prisoners of war in Siberia and North Asia. The core question driving her is how intercultural interaction changed the lives of the men and women involved.

Birgit Tremml-Werner is a researcher at the Centre for Concurrences at Linnaeus University, Sweden, where she teaches in the Master programme in Colonial and Postcolonial Studies and works on a project entitled “Encountering Diplomacy in Early Modern Southeast Asia”. She received her PhD in History from the University of Vienna in 2012 and worked as postdoctoral fellow at the University of Tokyo and the University of Zurich. Her research includes Tokugawa Japan’s foreign relations, the social history of colonial contact zones in maritime South East Asia and global intellectual history.

Hellman and Tremml-Werner spoke with contributing editor David Kretz about “Translation in Action: Global Intellectual History and Early Modern Diplomacy,” the introduction to the cluster of articles on translation and diplomacy in the current issue of the JHI (82.3). 


David Kretz: For the special issue of JHI 82.3, you have assembled a series of articles on the role of translation in Early Modern diplomacy, combining New Diplomatic History’s focus on actors outside the official diplomatic corps in foreign relations with an intellectual history focus on the cross-cultural migration of concepts. You emphasize three findings in particular. First, that a number of go-betweens—missionaries, merchants, scholars, prisoners of war, etc.—functioned as translators in an expanded sense, that includes inter-lingual, inter-medial, and inter-cultural translations. Secondly, that power differentials between actors, languages, and media everywhere need to be taken into account when considering translations. Thirdly, that mutual understanding was only one goal and often not the primary one. The careful management of vagueness and misunderstanding was often just as crucial, if not more important both to the actors themselves and for our historical understanding.

My first question concerns the importance of trust, which you also stress. Could you tell us a bit more about how trust was established, both between official and non-official actors and between different polities? How did the translators you look at gain trust; how did they themselves further it? Do we know of interesting cases when trust was lost, or lost and then restored?

Lisa Hellman: Trust is really an exciting issue when it comes to both translation and diplomacy, and one which I think will have to be considered in terms of its emotional and political layers when translation and diplomacy are combined. A basic understanding of practices of translation is that someone wants to be comprehended by someone else. If you do not manage to present your translation as credible, the translation fails and the interaction will falter. But this is just one part of the story of trust building. What attention to the on-the-ground processes shows, is not only that there could be a rather big acceptance of distrust: cases when the two parties openly distrusted one another and, for example, the wording of a document but still managed to establish a working relationship. Even more interestingly, there are times when friendship and trust were evoked, but on what one might call a superficial level, as part of a diplomatic ceremonial.

Rather than reflecting an emotional trust of the involved actors, phrases evoking “trust” could be called upon to show the earnestness of the intentions. In fact, the involved parties might have felt nothing of the kind, nor did the other party expect it. Translators naturally combined these different types of, and expectations placed on, trust. It is not uncommon to find lamentations of the doubtful nature of a translation (that a traduttore was a traditore was a trope even outside diplomatic relations) coexisting with a reliance on the fact that this person who produced it could find the right words.

Birgit Tremml-Werner: I agree on the point that the importance of trust can hardly be overestimated for processes of translation, when unfamiliar parties interacted with each other. Trust had a material dimension and was thus often created on a non-verbal level, for instance through gestures, bodily comportment, sign language or ritual practices involving the support of objects. Trust building in cross-cultural settings often benefited from repetition of acts proving the good intention of negotiation partners, as these intentions were hard to assess otherwise. The Dutch East India Company merchants who submitted to the rigid foreign policies of the Tokugawa shogunate in exchange for long-term trading privileges are a good example in this regard.

In many cases intermediaries were also essential: Early Modern actors gathered information to evaluate and test the available knowledge of a translation or a translator by interrogating someone they trusted more because of a common language, religion or experience. In other words, the element of personal relations was key in the translation business. This point also calls to mind the example of Jesuit translator João Rodrigues, who is also mentioned in one of the articles in this special issue. Rodrigues became the trusted translator and interpreter of the Japanese ruler Toyotomi Hideyoshi after several years in exile and despite Hideyoshi’s anti-Catholic sentiments. It is believed that Hideyoshi was deeply impressed by Rodrigues’s command of several languages and scripts. Once the Jesuit had gained the despot’s trust, his multilingual expertise made him a powerful broker in many diplomatic incidents on the Japanese archipelago.  

DK: My second question concerns the relation between translation and empire. We hear a lot about how empires impose linguistic, metrical, chronological, legal, etc. standards with the aim of assuring translatability broadly speaking: the unimpeded flow of goods material and immaterial between different parts of the empire, particularly between center and periphery (e.g. Wintroub 2015). In contrast, you stress that “practices of translation … are incompletely understood if translation is seen only as a one-way tool of power through which the metropole reaches and creates the periphery” (457). Translation, by creating and maintaining spaces of ambiguity, just as often protects particular identities and polities from forced homogenization. Could you tell us more about how you see the relation between translation and empire? Are most of the cases you looked at either distinctly serving empire or counteracting it, or is it almost always something in-between? What factors pull it towards either end of the spectrum?

BTW: Indeed, for no empire in history did imperial language policies result in the intended homogenization. Imperial language was often only used for bureaucratic and educational purposes; enforcement of the use of the metropolitan language or prohibitions of not using native languages ended where the private space began. And yet, the loss and extinction of thousands of languages and linguistic practices over the past two hundred years are an undeniable proof for epistemic violence caused by both empires and modern nation-states. However, indigenous language revival campaigns (which often started as grassroots movements) in the Philippines, Taiwan, and many other countries are a reassuring sign for a new trend.

New imperial history and indigenous studies have moreover shown that in many aboriginal societies and first nations, knowledge was disseminated through oral and/or ritual practices rather than in a written form. This very fact needs to be taken into consideration when we want to understand the linguistic, material, and legal impact of language policies of empires. As non-written practices were of an ambiguous nature in the eye of the colonizers, they were better fit to escape the destructive impact of hegemonic language politics.

Lastly, we should also recall the importance of migration in relation to the imperial worlds of translation and language policies. An integration of mobile actors helps us to get away from a binary thinking of translation processes exchanged between a sending metropolitan center and a receiving colonial periphery and instead develop an understanding how ambiguity was a by-product of multi-linguistic and polyvocal encounters and how it contributed to the ever-changing nature of languages.

LH: You are quite right—translation was also a struggle for empires, and the way it unfolded helps us follow the way empires themselves evolved. Eighteenth-century Russia, despite its reputation for ‘looking west’, had more translators for Asian than European languages. I do not think one can see translation as strictly either in the service of empire or subversive, partly because not all empires used unity as a strategy. Consider, for example, the concept of diglossia, used in historical studies to analyze and explain the language strategies of the Habsburg empire: the conscious separation between different languages while keeping a centralized power over translation. What we wanted to emphasize is rather that translation inherently has the potential for both. It certainly can and has been used to create an imperial norm, either for spoken or written language, or both. Another example would be the Qing empire and its application of a written norm. That norm came with a power dimension in the sense that it determined whose language, whose script, and whose words were used, read, and heard.

As we expand the view of who was a diplomatic actor, we also find those who are making use of imperial frameworks in their own way, perhaps in completely different ways than envisioned by the metropole. Looking broadly at practices of translating such foreign relations, we see how power is fractured. A final example would be the Central Asian go-betweens and informants used in negotiations between the Russian and the Qing empire. This is not to say imperial domination did not happen or was not the aim, but that it was not a straightforward and linear process. For us as researchers, looking at the twists and turns translation took within and for empires is also to reveal other actors of translation and diplomacy than those normally given center stage. That, I think, could also be very fruitful going forward. Then we can find those times when translation was a key cogwheel for imperial homogenization or separation, as well as the times when it worked to undermine political processes. I think they are all equally fascinating.

DK: My own research tries to make the concept of translation useful beyond the confines of comparative literature (for philosophy of history and political theory). I am very enthusiastic about your efforts to make use of the concept in diplomatic and intellectual history and similar efforts for example in anthropology (Severi & Hanks 2014). One thing I often worry about with such attempts to translate—in the literal sense of ‘carrying-over’—the concept of translation itself, is conceptual inflation. ‘Translation’ sometimes seems to be expanded until it includes, in the end, virtually every act of communication and creation in any medium. Are you ever worried about over-expanding the concept in a way that makes it, ultimately, a rather thin notion that explains everything and nothing? If so, how do you think one might go about ‘thickening’ the concept?

LH: I very much sympathize with your worry that the widening of a concept—albeit one that is absolutely necessary, such as here in the inclusion of visual and verbal diplomatic communication alongside written treaties—certainly carries with it the danger of inflating the concept until it implodes and starts being used for everything and nothing. There are, of course, many ways in which one could go about thickening such a concept. One aspect of that thickening, I think, could be through considering comprehensibility. Here I do not mean in the sense of something being a translation only when it has become comprehensible; in the field of diplomacy, commensurability (or incommensurability) has been discussed for decades, but we have seen far too many cases of conscious or unconscious mistranslations, misunderstandings, and silences to evaluate something on the basis of whether it became truly comprehensible to another party or not. I would, however suggest that translation is the intentional act of passing from one form of understanding to another. That passing can be incomplete, it can be faulty, it can be near seamless, but it would be an intentional change. That notion excludes any creation that does not have one (or many) perceived source(s), but rather starts fully new, and such communication that keeps within one form or frame. But this is an issue where there is much that historians can and should learn from anthropologists, and not the least also translation studies, when theorizing past practices.

BTW: I would add that the risk of over-extension of the concept and potential conflation exists not only for ‘translation’ but has also widely been discussed for the concept of ‘diplomacy.’ Using diplomacy to describe nearly any type of negotiation between any two parties, regardless of the characteristics of the entities, the means of interaction or the agenda of the encounter, is highly problematic. At the same time, I am not too worried that scholars interested in nuancing our understanding of past relations would subscribe to such an approach, as it will not produce meaningful results. Popular history, political propaganda, and public opinion present a very different story. Just think of the numerous terms and phrases including the word ‘diplomacy’ that have been coined in relation to the global coronavirus crisis, rendering the use of the label meaningless. To thicken the concept for historical studies, I would suggest strong theoretical underpinnings and clear definitions based on a given historical context. To get a better grip on ‘translation’ and ‘diplomacy’ of the past, it is moreover useful to consider the language of the sources and their original authors.

David Kretz is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Germanic Studies and the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. His current project contrasts poets and translators as complementary paradigms of historical agency in times of crisis.

Featured Image: Map of Zungharia by Johan Gustav Renat. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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