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Carla Nappi

"Full. Empty. Stop. Go.:

Translating Miscellany in Early Modern China"

Carla Nappi, University of British Columbia



Translation was a powerful linguistic and textual technology that shaped diplomatic and epistemic exchange across the imperial borderlands of early modern China. The Translators’ College (Siyi guan) attempted to standardize and control translation efforts at the Ming and Qing courts from its founding in 1407 to its dissolution in 1748. My paper uses the College as a case study through which to explore the institutional, textual, and social history of translation in Ming and Qing China. I will briefly introduce the production, readership, and history of the bilingual texts produced at the College, paying particular attention to the topically-arranged dictionaries and translation manuals created by students and translators at the College in mediating knowledge exchange across imperial borderlands. I will then move to the heart of the talk, focusing in on the emergence of a notion of miscellany in the course of multilingual translation at the College.


Each of the College glossaries concluded with a section for commonly used terms that didn’t comfortably fit into another category. Depending on what the translators had chosen to include under the previous headings in the text, the contents of the miscellany could vary considerably, from basic terms like Yes and No or True and False, to a set of basic verbs: to have and have not, to listen and look, to laugh and cry. Rather than representing commonly used terms in Chinese or in the foreign language, this translingual miscellany actually created a pidgin language rooted in the unclassifiable, and a supra-lingual conceptual space inhabited by the translators themselves. My paper will use this phenomenon as a means to explore the technologies of translation and the transformation of the miscellaneous in early modern China.


Carla Nappi is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of British Columbia. She is currently working on two book projects germane to this conference: Illegible Cities: Translating Early Modern China is devoted to understanding the institutional, textual, social, and epistemic history of official translation bureaus in China from the fifteenth through mid-eighteenth centuries; Recipes for Exchange: Drugs and Empire in Chinese Early Modernity explores translations among Chinese, Manchu, Mongolian, Uyghur, and Tibetan medical and scientific cultures in the Qing dynasty.


Her published work of interest to this conference include:

The Monkey and the Inkpot: Natural History and its Transformations in Early Modern China. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, October 2009.)


“Bolatu’s Pharmacy: Theriac in Early Modern China.” Early Science and Medicine 14.6 (2009): 737-764.


“Winter Worm, Summer Grass: Cordyceps, Colonial Chinese Medicine, and the Formation of Historical Objects.” In Anne Digby, Waltraud Ernst and Projit Bihari Mukharji, eds., Crossing Colonial Historiographies (Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars, 2010), 21-36.

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