The History and Cultural Significance of Chinese Translation

14th Apr 2020

China is a land rich in history and culture. This history dates back more than 4,000 years ago at the time of the Xia Dynasty. However, there are no records of any significant Chinese translation activities until much later in the 11th Century BC. After that, however, China experienced four great waves of cultural exchange and knowledge sharing with the rest of the world.

The First Wave: Buddhism

In the days of the Zhou Dynasty, (around 1122 to 256 BC), the people of China primarily used“上古汉语” (Archaic Chinese) to communicate with each other. However, China was (and still is) a very vast land, incorporating many different people. To bring the classic works of Central Asian Buddhists to more people, Chinese monks that were fluent in Sanskrit began to translate them into Archaic Chinese. Thus, you can consider them the first Chinese translation services of the planet.

Religion continued to demand much of the translation requirements in China well into the Tang Dynasty (around 618 to 907 AD). In this era of Chinese history, the language of choice was “中古汉语” (Middle Chinese).

This is also when the most significant of all translators of ancient China, Xuanzang, was born. Studying to become a monk, Xuanzang had concerns about the authenticity of the translations of Buddhist scriptures in China. At the age of 20, he set out to India to learn about the original texts. When he returned 17 years later, he set up a school and began translating volumes of holy Indian books. This school might as well be the oldest Chinese translation company of the world.

The Second Wave: European Contact

The second wave of translation owed its existence to religion as well, albeit a different one. Europe had begun to trade with the Far East by the 13th Century, and European adventurers and businesspersons often stayed in China for extended periods.

One such person was the Spanish priest, Saint Francis Xavier. When he died in China in 1552, the Church decided to carry out a mission in China. Portuguese Jesuits settled on the mainland, but soon realized that they could not deliver their message without any professional Chinese translations. They set up St. Paul Jesuit College of Macau in 1578, where many Chinese scholars translated Jesuit books to Chinese. At the same time, other scholars translated scientific works, such as math, hydraulics, and astronomy.

The Third Wave: Treaty of Nanking

The third wave of translation owed its existence to British domination. After Great Britain and Ireland defeated the Qing Dynasty in 1842, China signed a treaty agreeing to open its markets for international trade. This resulted in a surge in translation requirements. Local traders wanted to communicate with their newfound business partners. This spurred the exchange of knowledge and culture between China and the West.

Chinese scholars who learned English in England brought about ideas of the likes of Charles Darwin, Thomas Huxley, and Herbert Spencer to the mainland through their translations.

Fourth Wave:  Modern Times

The fourth wave is the one we are currently experiencing. In 1952, China started to take measures to simplify the language challenges it faces. A movement arose that undertook efforts to standardize written Chinese characters. This resulted in the birth of Simplified Chinese that we see today.

Translation to and from Chinese continues to flourish to this day. Unlike the older days, where religion fueled translations needs, much of the Chinese translation needs arise due to much different reasons. Modern music, books, and movies from around the world undergo translation into Chinese to cater to the Chinese demographic.

However, the translation needs arising due to these reasons pales in comparison to the translation requirements of the Chinese trade industry. China is of the biggest international manufacturers and a key player in global trade. Therefore, the demand for Chinese translation services is on the rise.

Final Word

Although the times have changed drastically from the time of the Zhou Dynasty to today, China’s requirements for translation have only increased in number. However, you should be careful with your choice of Chinese translation service. If you want accurate and reliable Mandarin translation services, choose a professional Chinese translation agency such as Waterstone Translations. We offer the best affordable English to Chinese translation services, all without compromising on the quality of translation.