[Review] 刘瑾玉《翻译、概念与经济:严复译〈国富论〉研究》(Liu Jinyu: Translation, Concepts and Economy: A Study on Yan Fu Translating ‘The Wealth of Nations’)

Liu Jinyu 刘瑾玉, Fanyi, gainian yu jingji: Yan Fu yi ‘Guofu lun’ yanjiu 翻译、概念与经济:严复译《国富论》研究 (Translation, Concepts and Economy: A Study on Yan Fu Translating The Wealth of Nations). Beijing: Shehui Kexue Wenxian Chubanshe 社会科学文献出版社, 2021. ISBN: 978-7-5201-7846-4; 634 pages, 198 RMB.

Reviewed by Stefan Christ (Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg)

Yan Fu (1854–1921) has long been seen as a pivotal figure in the transitional period of late Qing and early Republican China. His translations of important Western works like Thomas Henry Huxley’s Evolution and Ethics or John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, among others, have received considerable attention from scholars inside and outside of China. There are comprehensive monographs on all his major translations and many books and articles representing a wide range of perspectives on Yan Fu’s thoughts and ideas. More often than not, questions concerning intellectual history are discussed in connection with Yan Fu’s translation practice.[1] Liu Jinyu, a well-established scholar from the Foreign Languages College of Inner Mongolia University (内蒙古大学外国语学院), nonetheless promises new insights and understandings can be gained from Yan Fu’s translation of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations in the book under review here (the somewhat inept English title on the cover is: Translation, Concepts and Economy: Yan Fu’s Translating The Wealth of Nations in China).

Liu partly justifies her claim by having analysed, for the first time, the original base text that Yan Fu worked with and on which he left numerous marks, handwritten notes, and commentaries: the 1880 edition of Smith’s An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations with foreword and annotations by James E. Thorold Rogers (1823-1890), published in Oxford by Clarendon Press and now stored at East China Normal University in Shanghai. Chinese researchers have known of its existence since 1985 (cf. Pi Houfang’s 皮后锋 foreword to Liu’s book), but there has never been a detailed examination of this edition. According to Liu, 317 handwritten notes next to the original text allow for a better understanding of Yan’s translation practice and economic thought, as they reveal his references to – and criticisms of – foreign economic ideas. However, she does not limit her research to these notes but also undertakes a detailed comparison of the base text and its annotations with Yan’s translation and his commentaries as well as providing a comparison of Yan’s translation of the Wealth of Nations with later versions. Liu endeavors to shed new light on Yan’s work by systematically applying methodologies from history and cultural history to translation studies. In particular, she refers to Edward Said’s “traveling theory,” conceptual history (mentioning both Quentin Skinner and Reinhart Koselleck), and Mona Baker’s usage of narrative theory.

Liu wants to understand Yan as a translator in both the narrow sense of someone rendering words from English to Chinese and in the broad sense of acting as a cultural mediator between the West and China. Consequentially, she not only takes into consideration the linguistic or philological aspects of Yan’s translation but tries to provide a wider understanding of his work by also looking at other questions: How did Yan come to translate Smith’s text and in which form and version did he receive the text? Who (more specifically, which editors and commentators) helped to make the text intelligible to him? How did Yan (critically) receive the ideas of the original text, integrate them with his thinking, and present both Smith’s and his own thoughts to Chinese readers? Finally, in what ways does Yan’s translation differ from those done by other translators?

Liu’s book is structured into two large sections of about 300 pages each. The first part contains her own text, while the second consists of selections of the English base text and Roger’s annotations along with corresponding translations and annotations by Yan Fu.

The analysis in the first section is divided into an introduction and eight chapters, of which the last is the conclusion. The first chapter is an overview of past research on Yan Fu, with critical comments by the author. The second chapter situates Yan Fu, Adam Smith, and their works in historical context. It explains Yan’s motives in choosing The Wealth of Nations for translation, and introduces many details about the structure and different editions of Yan’s version.

In the third chapter, Liu presents an initial analysis of her most valuable source material, namely Yan Fu’s handwritten notes on the original base text, his annotations, and commentaries. She finds that roughly a third of the 317 notes (of which only 33 are written in Chinese and the rest in English) are indicating his progress in translating, as they give dates, sometimes with fascinating little comments like “Boxers have delayed my work” (p. 97). It is also noticeable that more than fifty handwritten notes are found next to Rogers’ “Editor’s Preface”, although most are underlined passages or small cribs indicating the content of a certain paragraph. Longer and more critical comments can be found in the main text, including more than 80 notes concerning economic thought. Liu asks what Yan’s notes can tell us about his translation strategies, his grasp of economic concepts, and the context of his translations. For example, what kind of remuneration did Yan receive. In the second part of chapter three, Liu proceeds to analyse the annotations printed with Yan’s translation. She shows that a large part is based on annotations by Rogers in the English edition, especially the critical comments about Smith. This helps put Yan’s grasp of economic details into perspective and correct previous assumptions regarding the depth of Yan’s understanding.

The fourth chapter leaves the material from chapter three aside and situates Yan’s work within the wider field of the history of translations of economic texts beginning in the Late Qing. Liu considers the role of Japanese translations as textual intermediaries, as well as the legacy of later Chinese translations of The Wealth of Nations. She argues that while the translations have become more faithful to the original texts and more systematic and scholarly over time, the discourse they created has never really been interested in theories regarding the creation of wealth (fu 富), but rather remained focussed on strengthening the Chinese nation-state (guo 国).

The fifth chapter attempts to examine Yan Fu’s understanding and translation of the term “economy” from the perspective of conceptual history. Liu does a good job of introducing many of its fundamental theoretical tenets, pointing, for example, to the essential link of social and semantic change (p. 158), the difference between words and concepts, and concepts not simply being indicators but sometimes also factors of historical change (p. 174f.). It would indeed have been interesting to explore what kind of “experiences” and “expectations” the many old and new concepts related to economy that appeared in Yan’s writings comprised and how these differed from previous and later ones. In practice, however, Liu does not study the history of concepts but rather the history of translation words: she enumerates different Chinese words which were used to render English terms like “political economy,” “economy” or “economics” and takes note of their earliest appearance in Chinese texts. In the context of conceptual history, it seems especially unfitting that when referring to the English terms she simply speaks of their meaning in “Western culture, completely ignoring the considerable differences in the historical evolution of economic terms in different countries comprising “The West.” She equally takes note of that words (but not concepts!) used by Yan Fu that can be also found in premodern Chinese writings related to economics and how and where Yan Fu used them in his translation.

A more productive use of conceptual history might have entailed reflecting on broader trends in the social (e.g., functional differentiation) and semantic changes (e.g., temporalization) which marked the historic rupture at the turn of the century and were responsible for the notable gap between the modern vocabulary and the traditional one. After all, Liu quotes Yan Fu himself clearly stating that the new word keizai / jingji 经济 used in Japan had nothing to do with past meanings (p. 186); yet she still feels the need to explain it by reference to older notions expressed by jingguo jimin 经国济民 and even singular characters like jing 经, going all the way back to the Yijing 易经 (p. 165)—this is precisely the kind of anachronistic thinking conceptual history seeks to overcome. As a scholar in translation studies, Liu is, of course, mainly interested in the strategies Yan Fu employed to bridge the historical and cultural gap. Still, as she demands the application of new approaches to translation studies, it is unfortunate that Liu has missed the chance here to make a better case.

The sixth chapter returns to the source material first described in chapter three. Liu’s greater aim is to understand how Yan critically received the economic ideas of Smith and Rogers and how he presented them to Chinese readers. She does this by analysing the hand-written commentaries on the base text and comparing Roger’s annotations with those of Yan in the translation. She starts by presenting three examples of handwritten comments in some detail. The first one shows how Yan decided which parts of the original text could be omitted in the translation (p. 201). The second example shows how Yan did not give a literal translation of the term “invisible hand” but managed to convey the meaning of the passage in question (p. 203). The third example demonstrates how Yan criticised Smith’s value theory and developed an alternative in his side notes (p. 205).

All in all, Liu refers to only about a dozen of Yan’s handwritten notes, so one is left wondering what is contained in the dozens of other notes previously identified but left unexamined. Did they not merit further study? Have their contents become part of Yan’s formal annotations and therefore are covered in other parts of Liu’s book?

The next part of the chapter focuses again on the composition of Yan’s printed annotations. It shows how they interlace Rogers’ commentaries with Yan’s (sometimes limited) understanding of Western economic ideas and with his references to premodern Chinese ideas. This gives Yan’s annotations the double character of being simultaneously explanations of the original and (sometimes critical) commentaries of the source material.

Starting from part three of the sixth chapter, Liu does not refer to annotations anymore but instead considers Yan’s “framing” of his translation. In practice, she compares specific passages of Smith’s original with Yan’s and later translations to show which basic “narratives” Yan used, for example, in the choice of the title for his translation or in his translations for complex concepts like “feudalism” or “empire.” She concludes that many misunderstandings were produced by the fact that Smith and Yan operated in entirely different discursive contexts, but that these misunderstandings could also lead to the creation of innovative concepts and arguments in the Chinese context.

The seventh chapter explores Yan’s understanding and presentation of Smith’s economic thought and asks if Yan’s vision of economic liberalism is consistent with Smith’s laissez-faire liberalism. This part does not seem to refer to the new source material anymore but instead depends on a careful reading of the translation in combination with other texts and translations. Liu thereby wants to show how Yan accepted important propositions by Smith (e.g., laissez-faire and individuals’ self-interest; see p. 245) but that he deliberately chose certain ideas and rejected others. His choices, according to Liu, were influenced both by traditional Chinese economic thought (the Guanzi 管子 in particular) and by China’s situation at the time. In addition, she brings contemporary reactions to Yan’s work into the picture. She argues that his translation shows him wrestling with Western economic ideas and knowledge and reveals the complex process of positioning oneself in the clash of China’s traditional culture with Western influences.

The second part of the book, a reproduction of the first eleven chapters of Smith’s original text in Rogers’ edition (including his annotations) along with Yan’s corresponding translations and annotations, allows the reader to explore the source material directly. Liu often adds commentaries in which she shows where Yan Fu abridged, added, or omitted content and gives alternative translations of the passages in question. This is not only an excellent service for scholars interested in a detailed look at Yan’s translation practice but also makes for formidable teaching material. Unfortunately, the reproduction does not seem to include Yan’s handwritten notes and comments. A supplement consists of various tables with overviews of Chinese translations of The Wealth of Nations, economic writings translated by missionaries, and Yan Fu’s translations of important economic terms; there is no index though.

In summary, Liu’s book is most illuminating when it looks at the details of Yan Fu’s translation practice and certainly offers relevant new source material in the form of his handwritten notes. The author’s efforts in bringing a large number of source materials, different approaches from different fields, and Chinese and international research together are laudable. However, she does not always succeed in merging them into cohesive arguments. The book might have benefitted from concentrating on fewer research questions and limiting its theoretical approaches. Nonetheless, it is an important addition to previous works investigating Yan Fu’s translation practice and its manifold relations to questions of intellectual and conceptual history.

[1] To name just a few examples: Huang Kewu, The Meaning of Freedom: Yan Fu and the Origins of Chinese Liberalism, Hong Kong: Chinese University Press, 2008; Huang, Max Ko-wu & Dayton Lekner, “Yan Fu and the Translation of ‘Individualism’ in Modern China”, Contemporary Chinese Thought 47:3 (2016), pp. 208–222; Lai Jiancheng 赖建诚, Yadang Simi yu Yan Fu: Guofu lun yu Zhongguo 亚当·斯密与严复:《国富论》与中国, Zhejiang Daxue Chubanshe, 2009; Li Qiang, “The Idea of Progress in Modern China: the Case of Yan Fu”, in: Thomas Fröhlich & Axel Schneider (eds.), Chinese Visions of Progress, 1895 to 1949, Leiden: Brill, 2020, pp. 103–131; Shen, Guowei 沈国威, Yan Fu yu kexue 严复与科学, Fenghuang Chubanshe, 2017; Wang Xianming 王宪明, Yuyan, fanyi yu zhengzhi: Yan Fu yi ‘Shehui Tongquan’ yanjiu 语言、翻译与政治:严复译《社会通诠》研究, Beijing Daxue Chubanshe, 2005.


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