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Translation and the Power of Language

 I am not sure whether it is a true story that long long time ago, we all spoke the same language or it is just one of the myths that humans fabricated to make sense out of the phenomena that they have no idea how to explain. But it provides a good demonstration that language is a symbol of power; through it, the ancient people intended to claim their hegemony over the whole universe; through destroying the unified language, God inflicted a disaster on them to display His almightiness. For either God or humans, the control over language is the exercise of power.

Sometimes I think, if the story is a true story, then in this era of post-Babel, translators are the soldiers armed with a dictionary plus all kinds of language tools, fighting at the frontlines to repair the fractures left by God’s anger in the used-to-be-united language landscape. For example, the translators of the Bible for centuries. The Bible was initially written in Hebrew and gradually translated into different languages. These different versions of the Bible spread the Christian faith all over the world, producing a far-reaching influence on human history and human society. Today, people around the world, no matter they say “”, “God”, “Dios” or “하나님”, they have the same value and belief rooted in the same God. The translation, overcoming the various differences among different peoples, united them as a whole in some way. So does Buddhism, which originated from India but thrived in China because of the massive translation works of Buddhistic scriptures done by Chinese Buddhists, generation after generation. Apart from religions, translation works in other fields also play a role of “ambassadors”, exporting a language community’s culture to other communities as well as importing other’s to theirs. The translations of the Chinese classic literature, such as “Dream of the Red Chamber”, “Water Margin”, “Journey to the West”, “Romance of the Three Kingdoms”, “The Art of War” etc, and that of the masterpieces of the contemporary Chinese literature by authors like Eileen Cheng (張愛玲), Bai Xiangyong(白先勇), Jinyong(金庸) open a door for westerners to enter this eastern culture, savouring the culture’s unique wisdom, history, romance, imagination and its transform in the recent decades. Moreover, the Chinese philosophy used to be regarded by the western society as being mysterious or even backward. In the western society where science is almost always the only way to truth, things that cannot be scientifically proved do not exist, because in their view, to see is to believe. But the translations of Chinese classics such as “Tao Te Ching”, “Zhuangzi (Chuang-tzu)”, “The Analects” or “Doctrine of the Mean” provide an access for the western culture to know the core of the Chinese culture.

Translation can also have a revolutionary effect on a given community. For instance, at the end of Qing Dynasty, group after group of Chinese students went overseas and learned Western culture, knowledge and technology. Quite a few of them, after back to China, devoted themselves into translating what they had learned into Chinese, bringing Chinese people a brand new perspective. Their commitments are the onset of China’s dramatic changes in the last century, bridging the developmental gap between the Chinese and the western society.

From this viewpoint, translation is the convergence of the world various cultures, offering different language speakers a common ground to understand and learn from each other. However, in spite of the benefits resulting from translation, translation can, at the same time, be highly dangerous because it is also very often an indicator of and a contributor to the imbalanced cultural power relationship between different countries.

In the Han and Tang Dynasties when China was one of the greatest countries in the world, many people from other countries went to China to learn Chinese culture; many Chinese classics and literatures were translated into other languages, having fundamentally influences on these countries, among which Japan and Korea are two most obvious examples. In the late eighteen century and the nineteen century, with the rising western powers and the aggravated political corruption in China at the end of the Qing dynasty, the western culture, in particular English culture, gradually becomes the main culture of the world. More and more western values, concepts, traditions, and costumes are, through the efforts made by these “soldiers at the front lines committing themselves into saving China by translation,” incorporated into Chinese culture so well (and so naturally) that up to now, some of them have become an indispensible part in our life, and some of them are even surpassing or replacing the traditional Chinese culture (e.g., no one in Taiwan cares about what is Double Ninth Festival but has to attend a Halloween party to enjoy a crazy and fun time). The western culture, to a great extend, dominates the Chinese communities, displaying its absolute superiority. The strong and rapid economic growth in China in the past two decades, nonetheless, put Chinese culture under the spotlight of the world stage again. The increasing number of the Confucius Institutions worldwide demonstrates the Chinese government’s ambition to regain the past glory – the centre of the world – that China used to enjoy. It can be anticipated that with the growing number of Chinese learners, the demand for the translation of Chinese into English will also rise. And the rising demand will in return become one of the driving forces behind the Chinese culture export. But what may be different in this time is that translation will not be a contributor to an imbalanced cultural relationship, but an adjuster that lessens the imbalance. As in my viewpoint, English language has been a global lingua franca for such a long time and cannot be replaced or become “outdated” because of the emergence of Chinese language.

Certainly, things other than language transition like attires, music, art or food are also essential factors in the “cultural competition”, but language is the foundation of all human activities. It is the most significant mode of expressing ideas and communicating. Without common language or translation, people from different cultural backgrounds would be deprived of the chances to know each other and the human civilization would not move forward, not mentioning the occurrence of such a competition.

In the human history, there were some highly developed ancient cultures. They were once strong and prosperous civilizations but failed to maintain their position when their countries collapsed, and then lost their history when their people cannot speak and read their languages. In comparison with them, one of the reasons that Chinese culture can last for the past five thousand years and is still growing is the consistency of the language system. The consistent system enables Chinese keep the wisdom of the ancestors while moving forward. However, as proved by history, a culture refusing or having no inputs from other cultures will usually face the destination of death. The development of Chinese culture had once experienced a stage of stagnancy, but through the violent conflicts with western culture in the last two centuries, the ancient culture is being refreshed and is becoming more and more vibrant. During the course of the transformation, translators are always the forerunners, working at the front lines, introducing western culture to Chinese people.

China is just one of the numerous examples of a culture’s struggle and revival. But it is an excellent illustration that how profoundly the impact of the power of language is on a culture’s life, and how important translation, or say, the communication between different cultures is for the advance of a culture.


I still remember clearly that how inspired I was when I sat in a classroom at the campus of Sydney University, listening to a sociolinguistic professor’s lecture about what is language. The lecture began with a brief, simple introduction of the function of language designed for students like me who had no previous knowledge in the field of linguistics. But, even though simple and short it was, it struck me anyway as I was able to connect the introduction of language to the Bible verses I read just the day before and then suddenly realized that why the Bible keeps saying that God is the Word, and His words have power.

In the first chapter of the Book of John, it goes “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.” In Christian belief, everything is done by the Word, who is God. Through the completion of everything, He shows his power, the power of His words, which have the power to make everything done. The belief reflects the fact that words, or say, languages, just like the sociolinguistic professor said, have the power to complete things, an essential function of languages – to get things done.

It may seem wired to mention my personal belief in this final section, but it is the belief that I start to appreciate the irreplaceable role of languages and later on, to change my attitude towards translation. I used to think translation as a tool to improve English ability, or a tool to make a living. In a realistic way, it is. But the more I learn about Christianity and the longer I study translation, the more I understand that how important the role of translators is (and how difficult translation is). They are the facilitator in cross-cultural actions; they had shaped human history and are shaping our everyday life. They are just as important as the authors of the source languages they translate for (even though very often they do not draw the public’s attention as much as the authors do and sometimes are ignored, completely).

In this one-and-half-year study of translation, what I learn is not just more vocabularies and translation skills but also an attitude of humbleness, a respect towards this work and the languages I deal with, because it is by every word, every character that the power of language is revealed.


Derrida, J. (1985) Des Tours de Babel, in: J. Graham (ed.), Difference in Translation  (Ithaca, NY,Cornell University Press), pp. 13–30.

New International Version (NIV) Bible

Ricoeur, P. (2006) On Translation (London, Routledge).