Image of Photo of Prof Henrietta Harrison and cover of her book The Perils of Interpreting

The Perils of Interpreting: The Extraordinary Story of Two Translators Between Qing China and the British Empire

The China Centre lecture on Thursday 19 May 2022 was delivered by Professor Henrietta Harrison, Professor of Modern Chinese Studies, University of Oxford China Centre, and Stanley Ho Tutorial Fellow, Pembroke College, Oxford.

Professor Harrison's lecture examined the role of interpreters in international relations through an analysis of the interpreters involved in the Macartney Embassy to China in 1793. The two interpreters were George Thomas Staunton and Li Zibiao. Staunton was a twelve year old boy, who in fact translated only a few sentences in the exchange between Lord Macartney and the Chinese Emperor. Staunton's father was the secretary to the British Embassy to China. He believed in the cultivation of his son as a 'new man fit for the Age of Enlightenment'. At the age of five his son received three hours of instruction daily in the Chinese language. He continued his study of Chinese throughout his childhood. After the Macartney Mission, he became famous for his translation of the Qing Legal Code, which represented a tremendous scholarly achievement. In fact, the main burden of translation during the Macartney Embassy was the responsibility of Li Zibiao. At the age of twelve he was sent from China to study at the Catholic training college in Naples. He lived for twenty years in Europe and had a high level of proficiency in Latin, as well as Italian and other European languages. Professor Harrison explored the difficulties facing Li Zibiao in interpreting the exchanges between the two sides. To what extent does the interpreter choose a literal translation of complex phrases, as opposed to one that departs from the literal meaning, but helps to smooth the encounter between the two sides? Professor Harrison explained the challenges that confront an interpreter such as Li Zibiao, who may be perceived as 'knowing too much about the other side' and be considered as 'too sympathetic to them'.

The Q&A discussion included the following issues: the heavy responsibility placed upon the interpreter as the only person involved in diplomatic exchanges who knows both languages; the challenges facing interpreters in diplomatic negotiations between China and the West today; the challenges facing scholars who are deeply knowledgeable of the other side during the current tensions between China and the West; the transformation in Western attitudes towards China in the years between the Macartney Embassy and the Opium Wars; the degree to which Li Zibiao continued to have roots in Chinese culture following his twenty years living in Italy; the impact upon Chinese views of the West as a result of Britain's increasing control over South Asia during the nineteenth century; the role of written sources versus non-written sources in shaping the views that different national cultures hold of each other; the transformation in British perceptions of the rest of the world following the Industrial Revolution; the extent of knowledge of each other's language and culture in Britain and China today; and the role of misunderstandings due to language as opposed to differences of ideology in today's tense Sino-Western relations.

Henrietta Harrison is Professor of Modern Chinese Studies at the University of Oxford and a fellow of Pembroke College. Before Oxford she taught at the University of Leeds and then at Harvard. Her books include The Man Awakened from Dreams: One Man’s Life in a North China Village 1857-1942 (Stanford University Press, 2005), The Missionary’s Curse and Other Tales from a Chinese Catholic Village (University of California Press, 2013) and The Perils of Interpreting: The Extraordinary Lives of Two Translators between Qing China and the British Empire (Princeton University Press, 2021).