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A tale of two translators, caught between civilisations (historytoday.com)
43 points by drdee 14 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 12 comments

The linked article is about “the 1793 meeting of Lord George Macartney and the Qianlong emperor, an infamous embassy in the history of East-West relations.”

If anyone is interested in learning more about that diplomatic mission, the official two-volume account, published in 1797, is fascinating [1, 2]. The full title is An authentic account of an embassy from the King of Great Britain to the Emperor of China: including cursory observations made, and information obtained in travelling through that ancient empire, and a small part of Chinese Tartary; together with a relation of the voyage undertaken on the occasion of His Majesty's ship the Lion, and the ship Hindostan, in the East India company's service, to the Yellow Sea and Gulf of Pekin, as well as of their return to Europe; taken chiefly from the papers of His Excellency the Earl of Macartney, Sir Erasmus Gower, and of other gentlemen in the several departments of the embassy. The accompanying volume of plates is at [3].

Thank you again, Internet Archive.

[1] https://archive.org/details/authenticaccount01stau/page/n5/m...

[2] https://archive.org/details/authenticaccount02stau/page/n7/m...

[3] https://archive.org/details/gri_33125008481562/page/n9/mode/...

Wow. With a title like that, why bother reading the whole book! :)

Thanks for the links. Reading the books is riveting, as they give a good account of the way of thinking in Britain at the time, and also the daily life in China. If you want an escape from Programming, these are highly recommended.

I’m glad you like them. I came across the books by accident a few years ago when searching for old travel books at the Internet Archive. I wrote about that on the IA’s blog:


TFA confuses the senior George Leonard Staunton [0], the lieutenant of George Macartney, with his son, George Thomas Staunton [1], the 12-year-old interpreter who is apparently one of two primary subjects of the book under review.

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sir_George_Staunton,_1st_Baron... [1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sir_George_Staunton,_2nd_Baron...

"....it also deftly reveals the critical importance of translation and of interpreters – for without them neither cross-cultural interactions nor cross-cultural understanding can even begin."

Sometimes it can be humorous. Read a label on a package of potpourri in a dollar store: "Scented Kitchen Odors".

I'm reminded of the mandatory "cultural awareness" training for UN Military Observers about to be deployed to some warzone. While it seems like the most boring thing ever, it was a lot of fun. Even for cultures that are seemingly not very far apart like the English and the Dutch, it is so easy to make a mistake about the intended meaning vs the actual meaning. In some way it is even more pernicious than interacting with cultures that are "obviously" different, because it will lull you into thinking you don't have to be on your guard.

Example: When an Englishman calls an idea "interesting", he thinks it is horrible. A Dutch person hearing "interesting" will interpret as the other person indeed being interested and will follow up on it later.

“Great Britain and the USA: two countries separated by a common language” (or similar) comes to mind.

So many examples come to mind. On a seasonal theme: mince pies in the U.K., which are filled with mincemeat. Mince pies are a sweet vegetarian snack, because “mincemeat” isn’t “minced meat”.

Conversely, “biscuits in gravy”…

USA: https://daisysworld.net/2012/01/25/buttermilk-biscuits-and-g...

U.K.: https://old.reddit.com/r/pics/comments/65dg0d/americans_i_ha...

I found Creole in the Caribbean to be a similar situation.

If you speak English, know a little French, and can understand most accents, dialects, and localisms in the US (especially the many Southern ones), then understanding Creole can be pretty easy.

At least I unexpectedly understood it somewhere between 80-100% the first time I heard it in person.

British, Irish, SA, Aus, and NZ versions of English actuality sound more "funny" to my American ear, even if Creole requires more focus to listen and comprehend.

Creole to me sounds more like an extreme slang and accent more than a different dialect, in an "uncanny valley" sort of way.

I count English among the 4 I speak, and I rarely have trouble dealing with accents, be they strong French, Arab, Indian, Spanish. But Chinese is often quite difficult for me to follow. Plus British dialects! So I'm sorry to say to you Britons that you're lousy English speakers, as far as I'm concerned ;)

Also, fun fact: Belgians have the same accents in English, no matter if they speak Dutch or French first!

> So I'm sorry to say to you Britons that you're lousy English speakers, as far as I'm concerned ;)

Fair. As a teen cycling along Portsdown Hill, a white van driver stopped to ask me for directions. I didn’t recognise the name of the place they said they were looking for until I cycled on to the next signpost and realised their accent had just confused me and that the place itself was a local village I knew perfectly well.

As an English-native speaker living in a German-speaking state, I can assure you that the need for translation and interpretation can often be matter of daily survival.

But it is always delightful to see the 'fringe of language' right on the edge, where the other side collide with our nonsense, too.

It is especially beautiful to see this feathery discord, where borrowed words are lobbed like thieved apples and think "ach, du, ge' ma' hin, mir ist wurscht"..

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