The sun has set on my 5 month stay in Taiwan, which was supported by a generous research grant from the Centre for Chinese Studies in Taipei. During my time here I have been filtering through the vast array of documents generated by the daily grinding of the Qing state’s bureaucratic gears. Last week I came across a memorial from Li Hongzhang, the then governor of Jiangsu province, which highlights the overlooked role of the translator in diplomatic encounters. Scholars in recent years have begun to closely examine the place of translation in history, but the role of the interpreter is far more difficult to study. Verbal translation in face-to-face encounters by its nature leaves very little in the way of a written record. Li’s comments offer a glimpse of the impact of this vital but often obscured process.
Li’s memorial was making the case for a language school to be established in Shanghai to provide the government with its own English translators and interpreters. The most striking thing about this was not the proposal itself, very much in line with the zeitgeist of the first years of the “self-strengthening” movement, but Li’s arguments for it. Li lamented that his current interpreters were either lower class compradors who had trading connections with foreign merchants, or paupers taken in by Christian missionaries in Shanghai. He complained that “both types are by their nature stupid, and their intentions despicable. They know nothing other than profit and sensual pleasure”. For Li, these interpreters were truly “beyond the pale” as they had relied on a profession which lay outside of the four trades of China (士農工商, lit. scholars, farmers, engineers and merchants). A new language school would, he argued, remove his need to rely on such people. They could be replaced by educated officials who had passed the imperial examinations. This evident disdain from Li, himself an erudite scholar, provokes new questions.
How did Li’s attitude towards his interpreters affect his ability to control and communicate with the foreign mercenaries in his employ? Li’s complaints came in early 1863, a year after he had taken up his position in Jiangsu and took on responsibility for directing the foreign “Ever Victorious” Army. Some of the turbulent disputes with which the army’s history was littered might have been avoided if Li had had mediators of whom he approved. Throughout 1863 he grappled with this problem, repeatedly asking British consular officials to lend him their interpreters. This complicates the narrative that the foreign powers used translation as a form of imperial domination in nineteenth-century China. In this instance at least, Li was happier employing foreigners, and conferring on them the power inherent in the role of the mediator, than relying on uneducated Chinese compradors. I hope to be able to look more closely at the important issue of translation, and the power dynamics associated with it, over the next few months.