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  • Imagining History/Writing Late Imperial China
  • Carla Nappi (bio)

We can imagine them sitting in a room around a table, enjoying a lazy dinner. The translators, the movers of words, the anatomists of language, the architects of broken and breakable structures. The Siamese interpreter, Women La and his colleagues. Wang Zilong, the student of Mongolian language, and Qoninci, the author of his textbook. (They’ve come as a couple, though they lived more than two centuries apart.) The Jesuit missionary and grammarian Ferdinand Verbiest. The Manchu teacher and textbook author Uge, and his colleague Cheng Mingyuan. And the Qing poet and Manchu-Chinese translator, Bujilgen Jakdan, accompanied by his quiet collaborator Hai Yu.

Each of them has arrived here from a particular moment in a particular year in their lives. Each has brought a text, a document that represents a crucial point in the history of translation in early modern China; each embodies a means by which translation helped reconfigure, for Ming and Qing readers of various sorts, what a language was and what it was built of. Each work offers a glimpse into the art and craft of the translator: the music of his language, his skill as a cartographer of thoughts, his ability as a navigator weaving through dark waters and leaving landmarks in his wake. He is an illusionist who conjures phantoms into being: ghosts of his own multiple selves that whisper to one another in phrases half-understood, ghosts of the magicians who came before him, ghosts of flowers and beasts and cities and children and libraries full of pages that spin from the ink and the air. [End Page 7]

These men will share their stories by singing or gesturing them into being—in some cases—or perhaps by writing bits of them in Chinese script. Tonight, they are all students, and they are all teachers. They will teach one another how to speak and act like Manchu men, or how to pronounce Mongolian names. They will teach each other how to build structures out of verbs and nouns, how to move their mouths and tongues in particular ways, how to transform classic works of literature into contemporary poetry. At some point in their lives, most of them have called the city of Beijing home. But what is home, for a mover of and in language? And where is home, for a man who spends much of his life in transit? Their cities are not built with walls or streets, they have no rooftops or sitting rooms, no orchards or rivers: instead, these men live in cities of ink and paper, breathing out vowels made of air in round or sharp shapes. Their cities are carved into woodblocks or sounded into gardens and classrooms, inhabited by the artists and pirates of language who helped make them. Theirs are cities legible and illegible—to read them, hear them, speak them is to travel through them, or to find oneself lost within them, or both. Not all of them wanted this, as they will gradually reveal over the course of the meal. One of them had dreamt of a life in Central America before he was sent to work in China. Another had illusions of spending his middle age as a respected and well-known author, rather than earning what small fame he had by doing work that he considered unworthy of his talents. Three of them were still celebrating their collective luck in securing an adventure that took them to the Ming court, before they were effectively kidnapped by the Ming and told they would not, in fact, be returning home from that adventure.

The languages they worked in had ranged from Chinese to Mongolian to Latin to Manchu to French to Thai and beyond. Some were deeply interested in the work, and for others translation was merely a means to an end: a comfortable job in the civil service, an emperor converted to Christianity, a life spent working for a foreign court rather than a violent death at its hands. We are meeting each of them in their prime. (For some that finds them in early adulthood, and it finds others well into old age...


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pp. 7-15
Launched on MUSE
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