Through Contact to Construct: Translation of Texts, Images, and, Objects in Pre-Modern Asia

Title: 1071 | Through Contact to Construct: Translation of Texts, Images, and, Objects in Pre-Modern Asia
Area: Border Crossing and Inter-Area
Stream: History
Presentation Type: Panel Presentation
Qi Lu, Beijing Film Academy, China (organizer, presenter)
Qingquan Li, Shandong University, China (chair, discussant)
Hong Wu, University of Vienna, Austria (presenter)
Ruifeng Chen, McMaster University, Canada (presenter)
Yin Wu, University of Chicago, United States (presenter)


Derived from the Latin word translatio meaning “to carry across,” “translation” evokes the act of people or things moving from one place or position to another, but this process of “moving” is never linear or teleological. Rather, as Homi K. Bhabha suggests, translation is a way of imitating but in a mischievous, displacing sense, opening up the possibility of articulating different, even incommensurable cultural practices and priorities. Translation thus is the way not only to contact, but also to construct culture(s). Augmenting this style of understanding, this panel brings together four case studies that involve translation in an array of forms— linguistic, visual, material and philosophical— to investigate the diverse conditions and patterns of cultural translation, and how meanings metamorphosed through a synthetic interplay of agency, power and local spheres. In particular, this panel asks: How were texts, images, and objects encoded and decoded in the various pre-modern contexts of circulation and communication? What factors influenced the choice of translation? And in what ways did these translations act in, and help us reassess, the cultural constructions of the premodern Asia? The notion that there exist no static, monolithic cultural blocks, but only fluid, constantly evolving ones that adapt and grow from interactions with new sources is in its increasing recognition in recent scholarship. By foregrounding translation, the activity that defines the precise moment of contact and dictates subsequent acts such as reception and assimilation, this panel hopes to bring more nuanced understanding to the cultural construction process.

Panel Abstracts:
A Basin with Arabic Inscriptions in the Tomb of a Liao Princess: Its Encoded Messages, Travel, and Mistranslation
This paper focuses on a bronze deep basin with inscriptions in Arabic, excavated from the tomb (c.1018) of the Liao-Empire (907-1125) Princess of Chen and her husband in today's Inner Mongolia. Two main decorations of the basin recognize it as an import from the Islamic World, most likely today's western Iran: one is a row of Arabic inscriptions, repeating the word al-mulk (sovereignty) to form a band along the interior of the rim; the other is the six-pointed star, composed of two overlapping triangles, at the bottom of the basin. Focusing on the geographical displacement of this ware from the Islamic World to the Liao in the tenth and early eleventh centuries, this paper examines its symbol-forming activities in the two distinct contexts. Considered as the bearer of messages, the bronze basin's circulation illuminates the process of encoding and decoding the textual and visual elements of the object. In the original context of the Islamic World, the basin underscores a message of both heavenly and earthly sovereignty. When the ware was brought to the Liao Empire as a diplomatic gift, the "exotic" inscriptions and geometric pattern were mistranslated and involved in a new system of symbols, making the ware a protector of the dead. The basin tells the failure of message transmission. Meanwhile, it also illuminates a particular pattern of cultural translation--a "spill-over" of the imported source "language" into the target one under a new structure of authority--in the cross-cultural interactions during the tenth- and eleventh-century Asia.

The Development of Chinese Donative Formulae from the 3rd to the 5th Century: through an Indic Looking Glass
Image making was among the most popular Buddhist activities of the Northern and Southern Dynasties and has produced a rich corpus of donative inscriptions alongside Buddhist images. These epigraphic materials have been extensively studied for their syntactic structures, linguistic characteristics and the religious and social historical information embedded in their writing. However, existing literature tends to investigate these donative inscriptions within the Chinese context and neglects the Indic root of this practice. The underlying concept of merit accumulation and transfer had no cultural equivalence in China and was entirely an India import. Which provokes an important question: How was this foreign idea translated and explained to Chinese receptors? This current study examines Chinese donative inscriptions from the earliest extant ones in the 3rd century through the end of the 5th century when the donative formulae became codified in China. Adopting a comparative perspective, this study analyzes the similarities and differences between Chinese inscriptions and their Indic versions to understand how foreign ideas and literary expressions were translated and cultural differences negotiated at different moments in history. Through a dynamic understanding of the development of Chinese donative formulae, we observe the arrival at equilibrium of Indic spirit and local character in Chinese donative formulae and the historical process through which an entirely foreign concept became localized through cultural translation. Eventually, this study contributes to the understanding of the early dissemination of Buddhism in China, as well as opens up a new avenue for the study of Chinese donative inscriptions.

Six Chinese Translations of "Snare" in the Scripture on Upāsaka Precepts
Diverse translations of a same Indic term in different Chinese Buddhist texts has been a popular topic for scholars of Buddhist studies. From the viewpoint of philology, my study engages in detailed textual research and interpretation of six Chinese translations of a term that earlier scholars have not examined, which probably is from India, and could be identified as a device like a snare. These six translations are collected from various versions of the Youposai jie jing 優婆塞戒經 (Scripture on Upāsaka Precepts) from the Dunhuang corpus (4th–10th century C.E.) and different block-printed Chinese Buddhist canons. By glossing these translations and depicting the relationships between them, my study shows the process of how a plain term of a daily device from the Indian background has been received and transformed in the Chinese context under the influences of graphical changes and phonetic loans of Chinese characters as well as the endeavors to sustain the accurate meaning of this term in the text against these influences. As such, this case study fulfills a threefold mission: contributes to the research on, and the accurate interpretation and explanation of the Chinese Buddhist texts in Dunhuang manuscripts; facilitates the understanding of the relationship between Dunhuang Buddhist corpus and the block-printed canons thereafter, and of the evolution of Chinese Buddhist canons; sheds light on transformations that occurred on imported concepts after the Sino-Indian contact.

Translation of a Biblical Image: A Chinese Export Porcelain in the Early Eighteenth Century
During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Chinese ceramic craftsmen began producing porcelain specifically for export to the West, as it was highly prized in European markets. The research of these export porcelain in recent years have been mainly concerned with iconographical and technical view, but the artistic creation and translation of European images need further exploration. This paper focuses on a series of plates with the depiction of the Baptism of Christ produced in the early eighteenth century, examining how the European image was 'translated' into the medium of a plate. Comparing these images with their probable European models, differences between the Chinese version and the European one not only account for the technical issues in the making of export porcelain but also indicate ways of translating visual design in an intercultural context. This paper tries to consider the production of export porcelain in a more nuanced manner, in which they are considered not as just objects copying European designs, but as a localized visual translation and recreation. The plate reveals that the craftsman in China reinvented the Baptism of Christ into a new image. This paper also offers a picture of a larger historical context of the local society of Jingdezhen, suggesting a dynamic relationship between producer, merchant, local religions, and the missions in the early eighteenth-century China

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