From texts and traditions

Translations as the key to understanding China

March 27, 2024

Despite regular reporting on political and economic developments in China, a deeper understanding of the country's culture, history and current intellectual debates falls by the wayside. A research project at mpilhlt is translating contemporary Chinese texts into German and aims to build linguistic and cultural bridges. Previously unheard voices from Chinese academia are thus becoming accessible to a wider audience and a more differentiated picture of China is emerging.

We spoke to Sandra Michelle Röseler, the researcher responsible for coordinating the project, about the importance of Chinese works for Germany and the challenges associated with the translations.

Ms Röseler, why is it important to translate and publish contemporary Chinese texts in German?

The image of China in Germany, but also elsewhere in Europe and the USA, tends in part to oversimplify the historical circumstances and path dependencies of China's unprecedented transformation over the past 75 years – this also applies in particular to the development of its legal system. However, our focus is usually on significant political decisions rather than on the broad landscape of intellectual debates, the cultivation of Chinese academic traditions and their connection to discourses within Chinese society.

What perspective should we take if we want to understand China better?

 If we really want to understand China better, then current events can only be placed in a broad historical context in which local strands of development are brought together in a global narrative. Such a historical approach should focus in particular on the intellectual structure of evolved traditions of self-interpretation. Current questions such as the Chinese understanding of sovereignty are just as much a part of this as historicising observations of changing structures of order, such as the clash between the tribute system practised in dynastic China and the traditional orientalist-colonialist idea of the nation state in the 19th century.

Those who watched the New Year's Gala on 9 February 2024 will have noticed the clear message of strengthening national identity behind the rich performance of dance and song by the various ethnic groups. But what do we know about the cultural self-awareness and self-interpretation traditions of the Chinese nation and its society? As a result of language barriers, the broader public in Germany –academic and non-academic alike– is usually unable to gain a deeper insight into the prevailing intellectual debates on this subject.

With our cooperation project ‘China - Norms, Ideas, Practices’, we would like to make the previously unknown voices from Chinese academia and society more audible. This is because there is no comparable forum in Germany for making these intellectual debates on the history of law, contemporary law, philosophy and politics in China accessible to a broad audience.

What texts have you read to gain a better understanding of China?

Prof Bu Yuanshi's classic ‘Introduction to the Law of China’ is a good introduction to law. My first literary foray into China was the novel《活着》’Life’ by Yu Hua – a farewell gift from a Chinese colleague after my year abroad in Nanjing. The novel paints an impressive picture of the changing history of modern China.

For a more in-depth understanding of contemporary Chinese history (especially since the reform and opening since 1978), I prefer the anniversary volumes that combine personal recollections with historical narratives and provide an overview of important materials. Such books are a first step in approaching, in terms of source material, the understanding of legal history as a history of the production of normative knowledge carried out by those of us in Duve’s Department. I have found it equally helpful to look at collected works or biographical accounts of individual legal scholars in order to gain an in-depth overview of these knowledge actors.

In this context, the texts selected as part of our cooperation project offer helpful support in making even linguistically very demanding texts accessible. These books represent intellectual keys to gaining a better internal understanding of China.

How were the monographs selected for translation, and why are they relevant to the current discussion on law and politics in China?

The selection of the Chinese works and the translators is the responsibility of an independent jury of experts (editor's note: Sabine Dabringhaus, Thomas Duve, Hans van Ess, Albrecht Graf von Kalnein and Zhiyi Yang). The jury primarily chooses texts by those Chinese intellectuals who represent an important voice in current debates from a Chinese domestic perspective. A further selection criterion is that these texts address fundamental questions of law and politics in China, preferably from a historical perspective. Ultimately, the aim is to represent the rich intellectual spectrum of Chinese academic tradition and social discourse as diversely as possible, and to give voice to perspectives on the periphery between official statements, on the one hand, and critical positions, especially from the West, on the other. Coming back to your first question, this is an important first step towards cultivating a profound and enduring understanding of Chinese traditions of self-interpretation and the implications for past, present and future issues in Germany. This is where the development of profound understanding of China can begin.

What are the challenges involved in translating texts from Chinese into German, especially when it comes to complex legal and political concepts?

 When translating such intellectually demanding texts, a balance must always be struck between readability and comprehensibility, on the one hand, and maintaining the authenticity and contextual comprehensibility of the text, on the other. To a certain extent, the selection of one of several possible German terms always involves an interpretation of the text to be translated. The responsibility that each translator bears regarding the choice of terms should therefore not be underestimated. This makes it all the more important, when translating complex (legal) historical and political texts, such as those in our series, to embed the translation of central concepts, intellectual currents, etc in a supportive academic discourse, to enable the translators to exchange ideas with the sinological advisors and the respective authors, and to reflect this discourse in the explanatory footnotes.

How could the wider availability and reception of these translated texts contribute to shaping and giving nuance to the image of China in the German public sphere?

Nuance is an important term when it comes to the oversimplified image of China prevalent in German media and beyond. In light of the globalised world we live in today, we must be aware that our future is also decided to a certain extent in Beijing. The categorisation of China as a systematic rival etc signals to the German public from the outset a lack of interest and a mentality of isolation towards China, which intellectually catapults us back into the orientalist modernity discourses of the imperial powers towards China in the 19th century. I hope that as many German citizens as possible will read our translations and marvel at the many faces and facets of China. Perhaps our books will even reach our foreign policy strategists and be able to offer them a starting point for anchoring a more enduring, differentiated image of China in Germany. Ultimately, however, it is above all up to us academics to consciously seek academic exchange with our Chinese colleagues, especially in these times, and – to the extent possible – to gain important new perspectives on the diversity and variety of China, free from the limiting view of our own interpretative traditions. This is perhaps particularly true for legal studies and, following on from this, legal history: there is hardly any other discipline in which there have been so many encounters between China and Germany as in the world of law. In this respect, I am already looking forward to book three of our series ‘Rechtsherrschaft und Tugendherrschaft. Observations on Chinese Legal Modernisation’ (论法治与德治:对中国法律现代化运动的内在观察) by Liang Zhiping. In his book, Prof Liang examines the Chinese legal system from an internal perspective, on the one hand, with a view to the historically developed legal culture, and on the other, with a view to the rule of law and virtue as an important element of party ideology and the corresponding jurisprudential opinions.


Read more: China – Normen, Ideen, Praktiken (Campus Verlag) 

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