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Diglossia, Intralingual Translation, Interpretation

by Lemardelé Élise - published on

Principal Investigators : Rainier Lanselle (Ecole pratique des hautes études) and Barbara Bisetto (Milan-Bicocca University, international collaborator of CRCAO)

Members :

Full Members

Stéphane Feuillas (Paris Diderot University); Matthias Hayek (Paris Diderot University); Pierre Marsone (Ecole pratique des hautes études); Philippe Papin (Ecole pratique des hautes études); Jean-Noël Robert (Collège de France); Daniel Struve (Paris Diderot University); Victor Vuillemier (Paris Diderot University)

Associate Members

Anne Cheng (Collège de France); Vincent Durand-Dastès (INALCO)


Özlem Berk Albachten (Bosphorus University, Bogazici University, Turkey); Rebekah Clements (Durham University) ; Matthew Fraleigh (Brandeis University) ; Mårten Söderblom Saarela (Max Planck Institute for the History of Science) ; Viatcheslav Vetrov (Heidelberg University) ; Karen Korning Zethsen (University of Aarhus, Denmark)

Post-doctoral students

Paul Gardères (INALCO)

PhD candidates

Aude Lucas (Paris Diderot University)


In their different fields of research, scholars working on classical and pre-modern East Asia constantly come upon situations where the parameters of the language used in a given text are in themselves a key feature of its meaning. In other words, the semiotization of a text does not only derive from its explicit content, at a denotative level: citation, commentary, rewriting, literary creation (with the transposition of one literary genre to another for example), and more generally the genesis of different types of text are some of the numerous situations in which meaning is also determined by the implicit, connotative, dimension of the specific linguistic form that was chosen to write the text. It is particularly noticeable in cases where the authors indicated an awareness of the diglossic nature of written language, a widely spread linguistic situation in what can be referred to as the “sinographosphere”.
In China, the coexistence of the two different registers of classical and vernacular Chinese has triggered a whole range of linguistic relocations that concern not only literary style but translation in the full sense too. The neighbours of the so-called “sinographosphere” (Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Altaic regions…), while they maintained an ambiguous linguistic relationship of familiarity and alienness with Classical Chinese (which in fact did not necessarily need to be translated into the local vernacular languages), were drawn into multiple forms of intralingual translation, that varied according to the complex situations of diglossia, pluriglossia and plurilingualism they were faced with.
Although they are fully aware of these linguistic realities, scholars treat them too often as simple facts that do not deserve to be studied in their own right. Yet we feel that here, precisely, lies the true continent, vast and paradoxically neglected, of the Asian tradition of translation: in the wealth and variety of its intralingual practices.
The notion of intralingual translation is here put forward as a fundamental paradigm. It concerns linguistic awareness in its full historical perspective and is at the heart of textual practices. It calls into question certain established categories – for instance the dichotomy between “classical” and “vernacular”, or the definition of practices that are closely linked but that we usually treat separately, such as translation, rewriting, and interpretation. It also encourages us to address the ideological implication of linguistic identifications, as well as their re-appropriation of the past. We are convinced that the promotion of such a concept could contribute to a completely new, and perhaps finer, approach of the mechanisms at play in the production, transmission and interpretation of texts within the different cultural areas of East Asia.
This cross-disciplinary research theme continues the CRCAO’s previous multi-year contract, which focused on “Translation and Cultural Transfers”, and aims to explore instances of re-writing, commentary and intralingual translation in diglossic and pluriglossic situations. The purpose of this project is to bring together and take advantage of a wide range of skills relating to the study of Chinese texts, regardless of whether their field of application concerns China itself or neighbouring cultural areas that use or have used Chinese at one point in their history. Our endeavour is part of a wider trend in the field of Classical and Pre-modern East Asian studies that calls for a paradigm shift in the approach to the question of vernacularisation.
The current common definition of intralingual translation goes back to Jakobson’s tripartite categorisation (1959). For Jakobson, intralingual translation is a process of rewording and rephrasing, exemplified here by the interpretation of verbal signs with the help of other signs from the same language. So far the very notion of intralingual translation has received relatively little attention, within the discipline of Translation Studies or of East Asian studies. The tendency in Translation Studies has been to favour a narrow understanding of the notion of translation, thereby missing out on what a wider definition of translation, that includes aspects such as commentary and re-writing, could bring. This is where the contribution of East Asian studies can be conclusive, and it is this contribution that our project aims to bring, through an investigation that is both practical and theoretical.
Jakobson’s definition mentioned above is rarely examined, as it ought to be, in the light of his own remark that “the meaning of any linguistic sign is its translation into some further, alternative sign”, which is here reminding us that he is here basing himself on Charles S. Peirce’s theory of the linguistic sign. According to the latter, “a sign is a sign” only in so far as it can “translate itself into another sign in which it is more fully developed”. The question that intralingual translation raises relates to the Bakhtinian conception of language, whereby an utterance always echoes, and reworks, a whole series of previous utterances. Situations of diglossia or pluriglossia make cases of vernacularisation particularly rich and complex, by adding to the phenomenon of intralingual translation itself a multiplicity of other phenomena. Among these we could mention cases of narratology, issues relating to authorship and readership, and more generally to all instances of re-semantization.
For example, in the creation of fiction narratives in China, such as plays, tales and novels, the transposition of sources written in Classical Chinese into target texts written in the vernacular is carried out through the intralingal translation and re-writing of the original sources, on a massive scale. But that is not all. With the linguistic transposition, the entire reading contract is modified, with the appearance of different narrators, addressing different audiences.
Furthermore, the relationship between the original source and the re-written text goes beyond the convenient model that opposes, in situations of diglossia and pluriglossia, a “higher” (or “classical”) form of language to an “inferior” one. The configurations are in fact far more complex—and much more interesting. The intra-lingual translation is not a simple tool, as in the case of the “initiated — profane” configuration, where a more “accessible” version is derived from an old or classical text. If it is properly understood as a re-written version, it can on the contrary be a tool to enhance the meaning of the classics, and this is one of the reasons why this research theme also relates closely to the field of hermeneutics. In this respect, the textual category of yanyi演義 (“elaboration of meaning”), which developed in the context of commentarial literature as one of the many different forms of reading through glosses, will be examined. Originally intended to help the understanding of ancient texts with paraphrases and lexical reformulations, this specific exegetic genre was then transposed to narrative literature (historical narratives in the first instance), where it became a type of text that was capable all at once of delocalising, updating and even subverting older texts, thereby impacting the entire body of knowledge shared by the group. Linguistic reformulation, in the field of Chinese vernacular language and/or the field of written (literary) language, thus represented the result of a process of interpretation and mediation that aimed to transfer these texts, simple or multiple, to new contexts of reception.
Comparable phenomena, involving the combined relation to Classical Chinese and to the local contexts in which vernacular languages emerge, is also relevant for the countries and cultural areas adjacent to China. In the case of East Asia, if it is true that the generalised use of classical Chinese up until the pre-modern period produced what we might call a sort of sinographic cosmopolitism, which to a certain extent obviated the immediate necessity for translation between different languages in the sphere of written texts, in cannot on the other hand explain the different strategies developed within each culture to tackle the issue of Chinese classical language, the rise of vernacular languages and the sharing of knowledge in a diachronic and socio-cultural perspective.
The contiguity of the practices of re-writing, of commentary, and of intralingual translation in the countries of the sinographosphere in the classical and pre-modern period explains the trans-disciplinary dimension that is at the core of this research theme.
This theme stems from a publication project that is already underway (“Intralingual Translation, Diglossia and the Rise of Vernaculars in East Asian Classical and Pre-modern Cultures”). The latter is part of the IRIS (Interdisciplinary and Strategic Research Initiatives) “Scripta-PSL” programme. It is associated with a multiannual IRIS Scripta-PSL seminar (“Diglossia, Intralingual Translation, Re-writing, Commentary”) hosted by the EPHE, and for which a multi-disciplinary symposium is planned for 2019-2020. The program will aim to bring together a series of specific workshops to capture and promote international contributions that will give Paris a recognised place in wider research concerning the above-mentioned research questions. At least one international symposium dedicated to the East Asian sphere will take place within the contract period, with the publication of the proceedings in both printed form and online.