Translating Early Modern China:
Illegible Cities

By Carla Nappi

Reviewed by Lucas Klein

MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright December, 2021)

Carla Nappi, Translating Early Modern China: Illegible Cities Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021. 256 pp. ISBN: 978-0-19-886639-8 (Cloth)

“This is a history book” (vii), Carla Nappi writes at the beginning of Translating Early Modern China: Illegible Cities. Then: “this isn’t a history book” (viii). She’s right.

I find it a sad irony as a partisan of my discipline that historians are so often better than literary scholars at incorporating daring literary techniques into their scholarly writings—or into their conceptualizations of what it means to write scholarship. Nappi, for instance, has lectured and has a forthcoming book on the art of history as the art of the disc jockey (I think of David Bowie: “I am a DJ, I am what I play”). Even so, this history book is not only not a standard history book, it is also much more than a history book: it is a work of translation studies; it is an appeal to understand China beyond its obvious yet limiting relationship to the Chinese language; and it is a work of literature. In the medium of its mixture of these various aspects and more is its message about early modern China and translation.

Literature functions via the tight relationship between what language is saying and how it says it, and translation must find a way to represent that same what in another language while also representing a similar linguistic how. As a work of history, the what of Illegible Cities is the practice of translation within the mechanics of empire in China from 1389 to 1848. This history is the vehicle by which Nappi appeals for a conceptualization of China not limited to the Chinese language, but it is also the basis for her contribution to translation studies: “Translation,” she says, “turns language into something that we identify and individuate, it makes language into a language, it makes a language into itself” (2). And in its how, its narrative experimentation, Nappi explains, Illegible Cities plays with and is

a play on [Italo] Calvino’s Invisible Cities, an imagined account of a conversation between Marco Polo and Qubilai Khan about the regions of Qubilai’s empire … The cities that Polo describes are strange and foreign, yet are all ultimately reflections—are prismatic images—of his home, Venice.

“Likewise,” she continues, “the scripts, texts, and descriptions of foreign areas and peoples” she has compiled of

the Translators’ College … collectively formed a kind of mirror of the empire. And the momentary glimpses of a history of power that emerge … offer a kind of reflection of the Ming Dynasty … And the portraits of Manchu sounds and nouns and verbs and adjectives in a particular Jesuit grammar collectively reflect an image of Latin and the imperial ambitions of its users. And so on, and so on. (2)

Such is the way Illegible Cities fuses form and content to make an argument about translation’s fusing of form and content.

The chapters are arranged by year; each one offers a glimpse at the circumstances alluded to in the above block quote, imagining a gathering of translators where each presents “a text, a document that represents a crucial point in the history of translation in early modern China” (11). In “Glossary (1578),” three Siamese interpreters, Women La 握悶辣, Wowen Tie 握文貼, and Wowen Tie 握文鉄, present their “bilingual glossary full of the scripts and terms of Siam and China they had collectively created some time after they became translators for their new Ming home” (15). “Documents (1389/1608)” presents a back-and-forth between two translators who work “across Mongolian and Chinese,” Qoninci, who in 1389 “has just finished compiling and translating … his Hua Yi yiyu 華夷譯語,” and Wang Zilong 王子龍, who in 1608 was “working at the Translators’ College, an institution that has used Qoninci’s text as a model for its own pedagogical materials” (55; italics Nappi’s). In “Grammar (1678),” Jesuit missionary Ferdinand Verbiest tells a story “of the transformations of language” by way of his text “the Elementa Linguae Tartaricae, the first grammar of Manchu in a European language” (107). In “Primer (1730)” Uge 舞格 and Cheng Mingyuan 程明遠 give a performance to “focus … attention on the power and nature of speech and its centrality to producing and performing male homosocial identity in Manchu society” (134). And in “Poems (1848),” Manchu–Chinese translator Bujilgen Jakdan sings of his twenty-three “original poems—mostly in Manchu with two mixed-verse Chinese-Manchu poems at the end—that he has collectively dubbed ‘Joking Around in Manchu’ (Manju gisun i yobo maktara sarkiyan)” (173). As the book has been structured around the conceit of a gathering, it ends in a “Dispersal”:

The translators fade as a memory fades.

As we forget them, we make room for other stories of language and its histories, of China and its translations, of the movements through script and sound and gesture that have created means of moving in space and time. (223)

So Illegible Cities is not just a history book, but a work of literature in which its way of telling is as important as, and integrated into, what it tells. In the presentation of history and the narrativization of her facts Nappi is more innovative than Jonathan Spence is in The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci. What I call the “back-and-forth” between Qoninci in 1389 and Wang Zilong in 1608 in “Documents” takes place in two columns on the page. The conceit of the atemporal gathering allows for a fictionalization that lays bare the extent to which the device of imagination is requisite for translation and historiography. Yet “you will not find some of the [novelistic] conventions … in which you might lose yourself,” Nappi writes. “I didn’t want the fiction to be transporting in that way: I wanted it instead to … bring into storytelling-life documents that might not otherwise seem to have stories living in them” (ix), but which readers of historical documents know do indeed house such stories.

Another example of this book’s scholarly literariness is in the endnotes to the chapters: the endnotes, she explains, “are a crucial part of the text of each chapter, and in each chapter they do a somewhat different kind of work … I’ve used the endnote space in late chapters to offer another kind of voice and another way to think about what’s happening in the main text” (6). The notes are self-aware. In “Documents (1389/1608),” she writes, “Consider the notes in this chapter … as quiet background music supporting the duet of the text” (98 n.1), whereas her first note to “Grammar (1678)” remarks that

at this point, the notes begin to take a somewhat different tone than they have thus far. Much of this chapter is about the architecture and forms of writing that shape the work of translation, and about the voices (human and otherwise) that can emerge from even seemingly dry texts such as books of grammar. And so, this chapter will pay special attention to both of these qualities in its notes: form and voice. (119 n.1)

And the notes to “Poems (1848)” chronicle Nappi’s thoughts on how she is “not just writing about translation but also practicing it” (206 n.4). Interestingly, the endnotes, rather than coming at the end of the book, come at the end of each chapter—as if Oxford University Press wanted to be sure that readers downloading individual chapters would have them. But in that case, why not keep them as footnotes? The dialogue between main text and commentary would, I think, present itself better if we didn’t have to flip to later in the book to see that dialogue unfold.

And what of the “room for other stories of language and its histories, of China and its translations,” with which the book ends? Although the book is titled Translating Early Modern China, other than in the notes for the last chapter Nappi has not in fact written about questions of translating early modern China into English (or other contemporary languages), but rather has written about translation in early modern China. This is good—there are other books, even in Oxford UP’s Global Asias catalogue and by its series editors (Eric Hayot, Sowon Park, Haun Saussy) that offer excellent takes on the problematics of China-in-translation—but the title could be more accurate (“Translation in Early Modern China”?). The subtitle could be more accurate, too, for that matter: it serves as a marker of dialogue with Calvino, not as a hint about the topic, since the book is “not concerned with built places, nor the places dwelling within them” (1). Granted any story about “language that functions as a crucible of sociality, selfhood, and exchange” is “a story about cities, if we are interested in thinking capaciously about what it is we’re talking about when we talk about cities” (1), but regardless, this isn’t a book about illegible cities, it’s about the process of translation through which these “cities” have been made readable. So again, strange title (too bad Visible Cities was taken, by Dung Kai-cheung 董啟章 as the English title of his Faansing luk 繁勝錄).

But these are, as we book reviewers like to say, mere quibbles. Illegible Cities is an important work of history, arguing against the temptation in Sinology to reduce pre-twentieth-century China to what occurred in one language alone (“Sinology means the study of Chinese civilization as a coherent whole,” wrote Frederick Mote in 1964, and “language study is the only pass leading through the Great Wall and into the chung-yuan”); more than that, it is an experimental joy of a read, a fun, challenging, exciting, only occasionally frustrating, book that not only makes a point, but constructs it. Illegible Cities “attempts to use translation,” Nappi writes, “as a way to reconsider what language is, what languages are, and to begin to historically contextualize what we think of constituting a ‘language.’ Languages, here, are forms of practice that are constantly being invented and enacted.” (2). And so is this book: a form of practice in constant process of being invented and enacted.

Lucas Klein
Arizona State University