Translation movements in the modernization processes of Turkey and China

Özge Bayraktar-Özer

Atılım University


The migration of knowledge between cultures is ubiquitous, whether it happens naturally on encountering communities or is consciously planned by authorities to learn from one another. As nations constantly share their scientific and philosophical knowledge with others, translation takes on a key role in the transmission of not only knowledge, but also the advancement of all aspects of the source culture. In this respect, the Qing and Ottoman empires, after experiencing military defeats, were able to recognise the progress made by certain nations as a result of the Industrial Revolution. The knowledge transfer from these industrialized countries therefore became part of the attempts by states, private institutions and reformers to catch up with these countries in the area of development through increased translation initiatives. Trends such as these subsequently continued to shape the culture-planning processes in many countries. Against this background, the present study aims to shine a light on the parallel course of translation movements in the modernization processes of China and Turkey from the mid-19th to the mid-20th century. It offers an overview of the translation movements crafted in an analogous pattern that entailed three stages of implementing translation activities in the modernization efforts of the two countries.

Key Words: translation history; translation movement; historiography; modernization; culture planning.

1. Introduction and literature review

The concept of “modern”, by and of itself, refers to the present. It has long been discussed and criticized through a range of different theories along with accompanying terms, such as “modernity” and “modernization”. In classical modernization theory, which emerged in the 1950s, an evolutionary path is regarded as being followed by societies to move from rural to urban, and from agricultural to industrial (see Bradshaw, 1987; Harrison, 1988; Shrum, 2000) societies. Therefore, the process of modernization is regarded as a transition

from primitive, subsistence economies to technology-intensive, industrialized economies; from subject to participant political cultures; from closed, ascriptive status systems to open, achievement-oriented systems; from extended to nuclear kinship units; from religious to secular ideologies; and so on (Tipps, 1973, p. 204).

The ethnocentric approach embedded in modernization theory, which explains the development of nations as the linear transition from traditional to industrial, is challenged by the other theories of development, such as the theories of world-systems and of dependency (Reyes, 2001). To clarify the terms “development” and “modernization”, which can be used interchangeably, Black (1977) asserts that “a nation’s primary development goal should be meeting the basic needs of all of its people” (p. 55), while modernization is acknowledged as one of the aspects that can serve this goal.

Since “the modernization theories are built on a belief in change and progress that is dominant in Western thought” (Marais, 2014, p. 126), modernization is often regarded as a synonym for Westernization, in which case it refers to “the approach which targets at reaching the social and intellectual combination of Western Europe” (Mardin, 1983, p. 245). However, according to Belge (2007), regarding “some concerning connotations” (p. 43) of the term, for the non-Western trying to reach the unique position of the West in the world, Westernization is replaced by “modernization”, as the latter is perceived as a more neutral concept and refers to the developmental stages generally associated with industrialization. Besides this, unlike what the former term implies, the social transition of some nations cannot depend solely on Western countries, which are considered as the first-comers to modernity. For instance, although Turkey and Russia have been referred to as the first examples of Westernization (Belge, 2007), other modernized nations such as Japan and China did not solely follow the paradigm of the first-comers to modernization (Grasso et al., 2018). Bearing these concepts in mind, within the scope of this article, the term “modernization” is preferred over Westernization and it does not necessarily refer to any sociological theory of development; instead, the concept is used here as an umbrella term to explain the attempts of two empires to move towards advancements and prominent knowledge in the fields of the military, industry and technology. It does so by transferring such elements through translation from the dominant progressive culture, which was the Western one between the mid-19th and the mid-20th century.

Two of the major empires in history, Imperial China and the Ottoman Empire had, within themselves, entirely diverse social and cultural attributes and yet they shared a similar philosophical and historical background in their transition from empire to republic. First and foremost, the two countries had similar worldviews based on a sense of superiority. For centuries, Sinocentrism in China and the Islamic practices in the Ottoman Empire left little room for learning from Western philosophy. These two countries specifically share common ground in fashioning their institutional responses to reforms, which also distinguish their modernization processes from those of other comparable countries, even though they may share similar characteristics. Being latecomers to modernization, Turkey and China were similar in their sluggish response to catching up with Western advancements, unlike the swift actions of other latecomers such as Russia and Japan. For instance, the difficulties encountered with Chinese modernization were more challenging compared to those of Russia and Japan. Grasso et al. (2018) suggest that this was due mainly to the internal incapacities of China caused by severe poverty and massive population growth; the failure of traditional financial institutions to redress these incapacities and the lack of a modern banking system as was the case in Russia and Japan; and the low impact of the Chinese elite on developmental investments. Besides these difficulties, the Sinocentric ideology prevailing in the country left the leaders unmoved by the Western encounter. Accordingly,

Chinese leaders, confident in the superiority of their civilization, could not imagine that anything of value could be learned from the Western barbarians at their gates (Haag, 2011, p. 19).

Meanwhile, in Japan, a comprehensive official programme of state-building and modernization was undertaken while these efforts were limited in China (Koyama et al., 2018).

Although Turkey’s modernization is frequently compared to Russia’s and Japan’s, one difference between Russia and the Ottoman Empire, for instance, is the “offensive modernization” of the former, which aims to be acknowledged and included in Europe, and the “defensive modernization” of the latter, which aims to hold on to its belongings (Acar, 2008, p. 65). Another example of defensive modernization, Japan, also differs from Turkey as it started modernization earlier and progressed more rapidly due to its island kingdom structure with a homogenous racial and religious composition, which paved a smoother way for nation-building; in contrast, the Ottoman Empire, positioned as it was at the crossroads of the three continents, had to encounter Western military forces and imperialist expansion with a heterogeneous social fabric that includes both non-Muslim and non-Turkish people (Rustow & Ward, 1964). Turkish bureaucrats and the intelligentsia, who were not necessarily fans of the West, felt the compelling need to modernize and save the state (Aydın, 1993). The target of modernization in the Turkish nation was later thrown into relief and made a priority by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, founder of modern Turkey, whose vision was that of building a unique identity rather than resembling the Western (Ahıska, 2009). On this premise, the Turkish modernization manifests itself as an outcome of internal progress rather than of an external force. Therefore, the Westernization destiny of Turkey, albeit one shared by other Eastern societies, is considered to be unprecedented (Gellner, 1994, as cited in Ahıska, 2009).

Both the Ottoman and the Qing empires awakened to the urgent need to keep up with Western advancement only when they sustained military defeats at the hands of the European powers. Later, state authorities initiated self-strengthening and reformation movements in both countries with the purpose of “preserving the feudal regime of the Qing government” (Ma, 2001, p. 381) in China and “to bring the military institutions and armament of the West to the Ottoman Empire” (Mardin, 1991, p. 12; my translation). To this end, both countries resorted to the translation of Western works in their attempts to modernize. Translation and interpreting were always a part of social life, considering the multi-ethnicity of the societies and the imperial structures of the two states. These included translation activities long carried out both under state control and through the efforts of institutions and publishing houses. However, these activities were limited and disorganized until the 19th century.

It is tenable that translation has been of paramount importance in accessing the knowledge produced by other societies and cultures in various fields such as literature, science and technology, among other fields. Any effort to ensure that values and knowledge travel requires the vehicle of language, and therefore translation has played a central role in the transformation of civilizations throughout history. Because the transfer of knowledge between societies is among the primary functions of translation, massive translation movements have been associated with socio-cultural turning points in the lives of nations. The role of translation in the development of societies has long been expressed in studies by Susam-Sarajeva (2006), Milton and Bandia (2009), Gentzler (2008), Tyulenev (2012) and Sturge (2007) (as cited in Marais, 2014).

The bilateral connection between intense translation activities and socio-cultural reforms in societies has been well demonstrated in the literature. In the Turkish context, one of these studies, by Berk (1999), investigates the role played by translation in the modernization period, particularly between the mid-19th and the late-20th century. Berk (1999) asserts that the main translation strategy in this era helped to introduce new literary genres to Turkish literature, developed the language, and reinforced the creation of national identity. In another study that focuses on translation activities in the Tanzimat era (a period of reform that modernized the Ottoman state and society between 1839 and 1876), Aksoy (2005) suggests that the translation activities performed in the 19th and the early 20th centuries laid the ground for the emergence of sciences, literature and the arts besides paving the way for cultural developments in the Ottoman Empire. The study conducted by Yücel (2006) investigates the function of translation in the enlightenment of Turkish society between 1940 and 1966. It concludes that translation activities, particularly those undertaken by the Translation Bureau, an institution under the auspices of the state, were of great importance to the enlightenment of the Turkish population and had a profound impact on their worldview.

In the Chinese context, the topic has also received copious scholarly attention. To name a few, Tsien (1954) conducted a comprehensive study on the Western impact on translation activities between the 16th and the mid-20th century. In particular, the study provides data regarding the number and percentages of the subject areas and languages translated during that period, and it elucidates a parallel between areas of translation and those of modernity. In another study, Hung (2005) emphasizes that the initiatives of the Qing government to set up translation institutions which made a major contribution to building a translation centre. The most important of these is known as the Translation Bureau of Jiangnan Arsenal. These initiatives had a great influence on China’s modernization through the output of technological and scientific translations. Lippert’s (2001) study, specifically concerning the changes in language in response to the influx of Western concepts and terms, discusses the adaptation of such new items in Chinese and Japanese. These concepts and terms interacted with each other during the modernization period of the two countries through translation by offering a comparative perspective.

There are also many comparative studies on modernization that partly touch upon the role of translation (see Koyama et al., 2018 for a Japan–Turkey comparison; Rustow & Ward, 1964 for China–Japan comparison). The translation literature also embodies research that involves comparisons of the translation movements of different countries and cultures in their modernization processes (see Berk, 2006 for a comparison of Turkish, Czech, Bulgarian and Finnish translations; Haag, 2011 for Chinese and Japanese modernizing). However, a limited body of research has been conducted specifically to compare the translation activities in the modernization processes of countries holistically, in parallel with the historiography which “tends to localize explanations for historiographical developments within national contexts and to neglect international dimension” (Lorenz, 1999, p. 25). Such an integrated comparison is believed to offer a vital and comprehensive outlook on the contribution of translation to modernization. Within this scope, this study attempts to focus on the parallels between the translation movements of Turkey and China in the process of modernization and to reveal how they differ from each other based on the translation historiographies written by scholars in the two countries – this with a view to illustrating more insightfully the taken-for-granted role of translation in this context. To ensure a more systematic analysis of these translation movements for a clearer comparison, a chronological approach is adopted in presenting the brief translation history in parallel with the modernization processes of China and Turkey from the mid-19th to the mid-20th century.

The present study also questions the role of translation in the development of so-called developing or underdeveloped countries beyond the constraints of high-culture products such as literature and science translation, which is the main focus of translator scholars in their research on development (Marais, 2014). In recognition of this aspect, the study sets out to understand which texts have been translated en route to development or how the translation agency served the purposes of the nations in point. Accordingly, in this study, the analysis of the translation movements is not limited to a narrow period or genre. Instead, a broader perspective is adopted to capture snapshots of the chronological translation activities in the two countries’ path to modernization. Owing to the centuries-long histories in question, the research data of the study are mostly predicated on the available research on the translation histories of the two nations. Although secondary data constitute most of the dataset in the present study, the broad knowledge accumulated in translation studies about the history of translation can help to justify the comparative history of translation movements (Valdeón, 2018) based on the written history. As for the data concerning the history of Chinese translation, only English-language research is preferred due to the Chinese language incompetence of the researcher.

2. From the late Qing Empire to the early Chinese Republic

The prevalent Sinocentrist ideology, which is based on the perception in China’s philosophy of cultural superiority, undoubtedly restrained the need for learning from others. A rare need to access foreign repertoires combined with state authorities’ reluctance to interact with foreigners limited translation activities or other practices involving foreign languages. This inferior status of translation and translators was also exacerbated by the attitude of the state. The Qing government banned all translation activities because any sort of association between the Chinese public and foreigners, often labelled as barbarians, was not welcomed (Chen, 2017). For these reasons, the limited translation movements that there were in Chinese history were launched and mostly carried out by the non-Chinese until the modernization period (Tsien, 1954).

Some developments in the mid-19th century unsettled the Sinocentric approach of China and instilled doubts about her so-called central position in the world. The Western powers’ accelerated expansion to markets for raw materials led to military invasions into China. The defeat of the Chinese in the Opium War (1839–1842) proved the superiority of the warfare techniques of the foreigners. In addition, cultural influences from the West awakened the Chinese intellectuals to the fact that the country was no longer at the centre of the world (Fan, 1999). The first modernization attempt in China, which started with the Self-Strengthening Movement, was launched upon this awakening to learn from and integrate with the modern Western world. The ultimate goal of this movement, however, was to protect the feudal regime of the Qing administration (Ma, 2001), which by the late 19th century would come to be questioned and criticized by reformist intellectuals such as Yan Fu (Cheng, 2001).

The scholarly sources point to the lack of translators as far back as 1860, which delayed the peace-making process with Anglo-French coalitions in Chinese history. It was only in 1862 that the government approved the establishment of Jingshi Tongwen Guan (the International Foreign Language Institute) to train individuals in foreign languages and the significance of international diplomacy (Yuezhi, 2013b). The students and teachers of the institute translated reference books, which were later used as textbooks at the institute. The 26 main reference books translated and published by the institute represented a gamut of specialized domains such as medicine, chemistry, mathematics, diplomacy, economy, law, astronomy, linguistics, physics and philosophy (Yuezhi, 2013b). These translations contributed to introducing Western physical and social sciences to China, and to the training of more individuals to acquire knowledge in these fields and to master foreign languages.

Various other institutions were also established for foreign language learning (e.g. Peking Tungwen College in 1862) and translation activities through the initiatives of the Qing government. Under the auspices of the Jiangnan Arsenal – one of the most important military enterprises of China – the government-supervised Imperial Foreign Language Institute and the Translation College were established and they carried out many superior translation activities compared to their predecessors (Yuezhi, 2013a). The Translation Bureau of Jiangnan Arsenal was set up in 1867; it has been defined as “one of the most productive and influential translation organizations in the late Qing era” (Yuezhi, 2013a, p. 6). It contributed immensely to transferring modern scientific knowledge into Chinese, with intensive operations in the fields of natural science and technology leading to the manufacture of firearms and machines. Tsien (1954) reports that translations in the applied sciences had the highest share (40.6%) among all the other fields – literature, the arts and the social sciences – between the years 1850 and 1899.

However, the singleminded dependence on the translation of military and technical works was insufficient to ensure the Chinese military victory. For this reason, the interaction with the Western world which had been increased through translation institutions was further empowered as students who were sent abroad started to return to their homeland undertaking the role of bridges between the Chinese and the Western civilizations (Huang, 2002) and embassies were established in Western capitals by the 1880s (Ching-Hwang, 1982). This planned interaction with the West marked a willingness to adopt Western learning by importing their philosophy of progress into their homeland. To this end, the translation of non-technical works flourished during the mid-19th century.

A significant turning point of the translation movement was the progress that Japan made through her modernization movement, called the Meiji Restoration, and the Chinese defeat in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894. The victory of Japan over China established her military superiority as a consequence of her successful modernization efforts and alarmed the Chinese “about their own slow pace in adjusting themselves to the changing world” (Wang, 2001, p. 15). In the aftermath, Chinese authorities and intellectuals started to question their path to modernization and had their belief in the need for major reforms in this respect restored.

Of the intellectuals, Liang Qichao, the remarkable Chinese scholar and reformist, proposed two new ways of learning from the West (Ma, 2001). His first suggestion was to select the right books to translate by refuting the notion that the translations of natural science texts had been sufficient – although he appreciated the translation efforts of the past 50 years. In addition, he claimed that Chinese intellectuals often preferred to lean upon the theories that had long faded away and that there were new theories to replace the old approaches. Liang Qichao also asserted that the military power of the Western world did not lie solely in their knowledge of military sciences, but also in their competence in the basic sciences such as chemistry, electronics and mathematics. Instead of limiting translation to pure science and military science texts, he suggested translating texts of practical use such as Western charters, constitutions, civil, criminal and commercial law to reform China’s legal system, and historical works in applied fields such as agriculture, commerce, mining, communication and physics (Fan, 1999).

During this period, too, Yan Fu, who was sent to the United Kingdom to learn naval techniques, systematically introduced the Western thinking behind Western techniques to the Chinese (Ma, 2001). His major translations were in the fields of economics, sociology and politics, including the works of Adam Smith and E. Jenks,

to show the Chinese intellectuals that the secret to Western wealth and power did not lie in special Western techniques, but in the institutions that lay behind these techniques (Ma, 2001, p. 382).

Another prominent Chinese translator, Lin Shu, made significant contributions to the literature with the translation of literary Western works and by introducing new ways of thinking (Fan, 1999, p. 31). Such prominent translators “found themselves closely linked to state cultural policy and the publishers that competed in markets created by state institutions” (Hill, 2007, p. 37).

In this way, Japan set a good example for China – which had not been as successful with her self-strengthening movement by that time. Another field that Japan’s victory evoked was national empowerment. “A war between progress and retrogression”, as defined by the Japanese reformist Fukuzawa (as cited in Narsimhan, 1999), the war also evoked the need for national strengthening. The successful modernization of Japan drew Chinese scholars and translators towards Japanese as the intermediary language for indirect translation. Accordingly, the Chinese government instituted a scholarship programme that sent students to Japan. Following the arrival of the first group in Japan in 1896, the number of Chinese students in the country grew substantially, reaching 50,000 by the 1920s (Wong, 2006). Liu (1995) posits that the Japanese language served as a source of “theoretical language to talk about race, civilization and national identity and to deal with the contradiction of being Chinese in a modern world” (p. 240). As reported by Tsien (1954), the percentage of books translated from Japanese increased fourfold to 60 per cent between 1902 and 1904 compared to 15 per cent between 1850 and 1899.

The impact of translation and Japanese on Chinese modernization can be exemplified by the codification of ancient Chinese laws, which were based on the Confucian philosophy with a mix of traditional rituals (li) and laws and standards (fa). The Confucianism underpinning of the traditional social order limited the sphere of positive law in the Chinese legal system, despite its being among the longest-running legal traditions in the world (Epstein, 1998). The defeats against recently modernized Japan also initiated the efforts to modernize the legal system of Imperial China. To transplant modern foreign laws into Chinese laws – perceived as outdated – Liang Qichao promoted “the idea of borrowing from Western law as a fundamental policy for governance in China” (Cao, 2021, p. 47). In this process, when modern law was first introduced into China, codification – which refers to the “process of collecting and restating the law of a jurisdiction into a legal code” (Wang, 2014, p. v) – was used as the primary tool with which to transplant Western legal codes that depended mainly on the values of liberty, equality and individual rights. The incorporation of these concepts into the Chinese legal system heralds a radical departure from the traditional understanding of the legal system and also a strong reformation of ancient socio-economic institutions and the ruling political ideology (Epstein, 1998). In this sense, the codification process was considered an integral part of modernization as there was a pressing need to strengthen the regime’s power through codification, both within China and in foreign affairs (Epstein, 1998).

In the codification process, to incorporate the Western law indirectly, the Japanese model was followed closely for two main reasons: first, Japan had already set a successful example of an East Asian country that completed its codification process having drawn on civil, criminal and commercial codes based on the German legal model (Huang & Huo, 2014). The model was also absorbed as a whole for the practical and swift modernization of Chinese law (Epstein, 1998). Second, the similarity of the Japanese and Chinese languages, and therefore the ease with which Chinese students could learn Japanese, was a facilitating factor for reformists to work on Japanese (Cheng, 1924; Cohen, 1970). To this end, 13 Chinese students were sent to Japan in 1896, and the number of students reached as high as 13,000 by 1906 (Cohen, 1970). The translation group established in Japan by 1900 included ministers of state and future ambassadors, and the group translated several books on politics and law (Cohen, 1970), therefore incorporating the Japanese-mediated Western legal learning into the Chinese language. When the Bureau for the Compilation of Laws was established and the Empress Dowager’s edict came into force, work on translating the criminal procedure codes into Chinese commenced (Cohen, 1970). Many of the traditional penalties, including cruel executions, were abolished in the 1905 revision of the Qing code that followed the Japanese and German codes (Cheng, 1924); moreover, the new, modernized criminal code was enacted in 1912. The establishment of the Republic of China (ROC) in 1912 accelerated the progress being made in translating more foreign laws and legal works (Cao, 2021). The first Civil Code in Chinese history was promulgated in 1930 following the German Civil Code, again through Japanese influence (Zhang, 2014), and incorporating the new elements of the recent Swiss Civil Code (Su, 2014). Accordingly, the Western jurisprudence-based codification laid the foundation for modern Chinese law. In this process, Western legal thoughts were mainly introduced into the Chinese legal system through translation, along with law-making activities. Therefore, translation played the role of catalyst in transplanting new legal realities and meanings into the Chinese society in the process of modernization (Cao, 2021).

The semi-colonial status of China remained the same even after the establishment of the Republic in 1912. The May Fourth Movement of China (1919), which emerged as an anti-imperialist and intellectual revolution, led to the growth of interest in the humanities in the country. During this movement, which also aimed to reform the classical Chinese language, “the issue of the Chinese language became interwoven with the discussion of Chinese modernity” (Tong, 2010, p. 333). Nevertheless, in recognition of the intertwined forms of language and society, for the intellectuals in the late 19th century the Chinese language per se posed a threat to the course of modernization. Problems identified with the Chinese language included, first, that it lacked a national spoken standard that could be understood across the wide variety of dialects of a large population, and, second, the ancient and difficult-to-learn standard Chinese was completely different from the spoken one and this led to illiteracy rates as high as 95% among the public (Chen, 2008). To resolve these problems in the course of modernization, the standard national language of Chinese was developed through phoneticized Chinese unifying various dialects and also spoken and written language forms in the early years of the 20th century. Chen (2008) defines such a language reform as a “multi-faceted process of national modernization” (p. 215) since it targets expanding the intellect and mass literacy of Chinese people all around the country. Above all, language reform was a quintessential condition for the development of vernacular literature (Tong, 2010), which would be achieved through translation in the early stages of the formation of the national literature. In line with this, translations started to be made into colloquial language, unlike other science texts, which were translated into classical Chinese.

The modernization movements shifted to a new dimension to steer the public’s view of socialism in China with the rise in Marxist-Leninist thought in 1921. During this period, it was Chinese students who had returned from France, Germany and Russia who assumed a pioneering role in cultivating Marxist-Leninist thought in the Chinese revolution process through translation (Jianzhong, 2005). To this end, Western literary works were translated so that they could be used as a propaganda tool in both entertainment and education. Between the years 1912 and 1940, the translation of literary works ranked the highest among all fields. The giant leap from a few works in previous periods to many in this era suggests that the motivation behind this movement resulted from the political and social reform in Chinese society rather than exclusively in the area of entertainment (Tsien, 1954, p. 326). In the second decade of the 20th century, translation from Russian literature also started to increase in China. Along with an instinct to stand up against Western domination, the political fouondation for this growth is explained by Gamsa (2010):

Already in 1920, the rise of interest for Russian literature was inseparable from the political victory of the Russian revolution ... By the next year, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) would be founded in the foreign concessions of Shanghai, while the first delegation of Chinese students would depart from that city to the Soviet Union (p. 4).

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) established publishing houses to translate and publish a large number of books on Marxism-Leninism (Jianzhong, 2005). In the early 1920s, the translation of Russian literature shifted from the classics of Tolstoy and Turgenev to Soviet writers such as Gorki, Fadeyev and Ostrovsky, a move grounded in the idea that literature undertakes a responsibility to “mold the new citizen of the socialist state” (Gamsa, 2008, p. 361). In this sense, the Russian impact on the translation activities of modern China can be considered as a shift of axis in the modernization movement towards Marxism, indicating the use of translation as a tool of propaganda. Tsien (1954) reports that “many Russian works on dialectical materialism were translated” following the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (1949) and “the introduction of this ideological literature laid the foundation for the development of the Communist movement in China” (p. 215). The remarkable increase in the percentage of books translated from Russian (77.5%) compared to the thirty-year period between 1919 and 1949 (9.5%) also reiterates this new direction in the Chinese Republic (Tsien, 1954). Apart from this, literary translation of works from Russia in the 1950s, along with Soviet films and music, had the intention of propagating socialist values and paving the ways for building a nation which carries such values. Volland (2008) exemplifies this intention of socialist identity-shaping with the translation of “socialist children’s literature and stories about revolutionary heroes” (p. 63), which was designed to promote a socialist culture shared by the socialist world. Another effort to this end can be found in the translation of Soviet science fiction, which not only filled the gap in popular entertainment, but also equipped young readers with the values of the socialist dream, Communist morality and a sense of community shaped around these values (Volland, 2015). On importing the new socialist culture by learning from the Soviet Union and creating “new people” sharing the same ideals of the future through literature, Zhou Yang, vice-director of the Central Committee of the CCP, reported in 1952:

Literary work can only educate the masses in the socialist spirit with the presence of these new people … Soviet literature has successfully created full-fleshed images of the new people, new people committed to the construction of communism. Soviet literature has set up an example for us (as cited in He, 2010, p. 399).

Therefore, the immense translation movement from Russian is a consequence of the “Marxian socialism, which provided the blueprint for modernization for much of the twentieth century” (Grasso et al., 2018, p. vii). Accordingly, it can be concluded that China followed the Euroasian power rather than Western countries, the first-comers to modernization, such as Britain, France and the United States (Grasso et al., 2018).

3. From the late Ottoman Empire to the early Turkish Republic

A similar sense of superiority, particularly against Europe and Christians, could also be observed in the history of the Ottoman Empire. İhsanoğlu (1992) points out that the Ottomans’ self-acknowledgment of being superior is derived from material and spiritual factors. The Ottomans’ belief in Islam as the ultimate and final religion in the world, along with their confidence in military power and the control of significant commercial routes, affected the Turkish view of others profoundly. The Islamic culture and tradition remained the frame of reference for social and administrative matters in the Ottoman Empire. In this sense, the languages of predominantly Islamic culture – mainly Arabic and Persian – were the main sources of translation activities for the “works belonging to Islamic civilization, Islamic mysticism, and Islamic logic” (Aksoy, 2005, p. 950). However, this perspective did not restrict translation activities to those for diplomatic purposes or belittle the status of translators. On the contrary, the multi-ethnic nature of the Empire brought a privileged status to translators, who were mostly from “bilingual or multilingual families, of the non-Muslim section of the society” (Eruz, 2010, p. 64) who were heavily involved in diplomatic correspondence.

With the Treaty of Karlowitz in 1669, the Ottoman Empire lost large swathes of territory to the Western world for the first time. During the 18th century, the state authority started to reflect on how to make use of the Western military techniques and technology in the Empire. However, the reactions of both society and the military hampered the modernization efforts. In contrast, the reformation process in the Ottoman Empire is widely known to have officially started in the Tanzimat Era (1839–1876), during which the authority of the sultans was restricted and equality before the law was declared for both Muslim and non-Muslim citizens for the first time in the Ottoman history. In addition, the intelligentsia of Tanzimat sought to introduce the fundamental Western concepts, primarily of freedom of speech and equality, to the country. Nonetheless, Mardin (1991) suggests that Ottoman statesmen aimed to create a sense of Ottomanism in an attempt to preserve the continuity of the Empire during this period.

As in China, there were no systematic or organized translation movements in the Empire until the pursuit of modernization started[i] with the initiatives of Sultan Selim III, which were followed by those of Mahmut II between 1789 and 1839. In the 50-year period encompassing these two reformist sultans’ modernization endeavours, it was not a coincidence that the first systematic and Western-styled schools were established in the military and technical fields. Translators served in these schools to translate the Western scientific repertoire into Turkish and also to train other translators (Özmen, 2016). During this brief period, 89 scientific texts covering fields such as “military science, mathematics, geography, medicine, pharmacology, physics, chemistry, and astronomy” were translated mostly from the French language, given the Ottomans’ political and military affinity with France (Özmen, 2016, p. 150). Translation consequently contributed to the development of an Ottoman scientific repertoire. Prominent figures such as Hüseyin Rıfki Tamani, Şanizade Mehmed Ataullah and Mustafa Behçet Efendi translated the first examples of scientific works – which were also used as textbooks in the Western-style schools – into Ottoman Turkish from German, Italian and French (Özmen, 2016). In this way, the translators and the textbooks also contributed to the transition from the religion-based traditional Ottoman education system to a science-based secular and modern education system (Özmen, 2016).

One of the first initiatives of Mahmut II was to send students to science hubs in European cities – particularly Paris, London, Vienna, and Berlin – for education by covering their expenses. Some of these students returned home as translators in the 1830s (Eruz, 2010). The Ottoman archive documents, including the statements of the sultan and bureaucrats, show that “it was aimed to adopt the scientific and technical progress of Europe as rapidly as possible” (Erdoğan, 2010, p. 125; my translation). The students’ study areas ranged from agriculture, mining, architecture, arms-production and law in Paris; and artillery, engineering and marine engineering in London; to military training in Vienna. These particular areas of study also point to efforts that were aligned with the targeted areas of modernization (Erdoğan, 2010). Also during this period, an official institution named Bâb-ı Âli Tercüme Odası (the Translation Chamber of the Sublime Porte) in the 1830s and, later, an official academic board, Encümen-i Dâniş (the Academy of Sciences) in the 1850s, played an active role in translation activities. Eruz (2010) suggests that most of the works translated at these institutions were technical texts intended for use to improve the military and in the newly reformed schools.

In the Ottoman Empire, the choice of certain subjects for translation, as primarily determined by the state, can be seen as having been aligned with those areas used for modernization in the Qing Empire. Owing to the military defeats and the awakening to Western advancements, reform movements were launched initially to improve the military forces and to preserve the imperial state authority. In this sense, military texts, and technical texts of practical use, were heavily translated in the first stage of the modernization movement in both countries. This focus on translating Western military texts shows that both empires tacitly acknowledged the superiority of the West in warfare techniques and technology and the need to learn from them.

Shortly after this early reforming period, during the Tanzimat Era (1839–1976), the modernization and secularization of the Ottoman legal system were initiated through Western-oriented legal reforms. The first step in this process was “the codification of legal rules through substantial borrowing from western law” (Yavuz, 2021, p. 399); importantly, translation was incorporated into the modernization of the Islamic penal laws of the Ottoman state, replacing them with secular legal concepts and principles. Along with these initiatives, the Ottoman penal law was amended in 1858 by borrowing the key principles of crime and punishment from the French Penal Code through source-oriented translation (Öner & Karadağ, 2016). Similarly, the codification of the Ottoman legal system was followed by laws related to commerce, land and civil affairs during the Tanzimat Era (Rubin, 2016).

In the early years of the Republic, a secular legal reform was initiated which was modelled on Western laws. Whereas the Law of Obligations in 1926 and the Turkish Bankruptcy Act in 1929 were direct translations of the Swiss law in force, other major laws such as Criminal Law and the Code of Penal Procedure were translated respectively from the Italian Penal Code and the German Code (Daldeniz Baysan, 2015). This close relationship between modernization and translation indicates that the predetermined areas of translation are closely associated with the areas that these states targeted for modernization.

In the Ottoman Empire, literary translation started earlier in comparison to the Qing Empire. The first literary translations from Western languages were initiated from the French language in 1859 (Anamur, 2013). In a similar manner to the positive impact the literary translations had on Chinese society and culture, the translations of various literary genres from the West introduced the Western way of thinking, lifestyle and major cultural elements as a whole to the Ottoman society. The inclination of the Turkish intelligentsia towards literary translation can be explained by the reformation efforts initiated earlier than the those of the Qing government. This could also have been a product of the more welcoming approach of the policy of the Ottoman Empire policy towards the West compared to that of the Chinese, due to their geographical affinity.

The impact that the established of embassies in Europe had on the scope of the modernization efforts can also be considered a factor. In 1720, the first Ottoman embassy was established in France (Gönlübol, 1993) and the first Ottoman students were sent to Paris (Erdoğan, 2010), paving the way for early contact with this culture and turning France into a centre of further modernization efforts. This led to the French language becoming a language of prestige among the Ottoman elite, which resulted in many literary translations being undertaken during the Tanzimat Era: 58.9% of all translations books published in the Ottoman Empire between 1729 and 1875 were reported to have originated from the French language (Berk, 1999). Taking into account the preferred source languages for translation in both empires within the same period, it can be asserted that the Ottoman Empire was closer to the European culture and values owing to the French effect; in contrast, China had to access the European perspective through a second and non-Western foreign language, that is, Japanese.

The proclamation of the Republic of Turkish in 1923 initiated a multi-dimensional modernization process that also included cultural and sociological perspectives aside from the political revolution. Atatürk set the fundamental goal of the Republic of Turkey as being to raise the country to the level of contemporary civilizations. In pursuit of this objective many political, economic, social, cultural and educational reforms were initiated as the core element of state policy. The nature of such reforms is summarized by Tahir Gürçağlar (2008):

[They] established various elements of an emerging cultural repertoire. The cultural repertoire which was being proposed aimed at reinforcing a sense of nationhood, which was very much necessary in order to keep the citizens together, since until not long before, they had upheld a set of different and dispersed values. The making of this repertoire … demanded laborious planning and execution, which would fail unless the planners could manufacture some form of social consent (pp. 50–51).

It was needed to create a new modern and national identity to make these reforms deep-rooted in support of the modernization of the Turkish nation, and to help people adopt the multi-layered and comprehensive reforms. While the major principle that unified people in the multinational Ottoman Empire was religion and pan-Islamism, efforts to create a national identity based on nationality in the new Republic of Turkey gained momentum (Korkmaz, 1995). One of the most significant reforms to target nation-building and social consent was the Turkish Language Reform. Under the auspices of state authority for the first time, language reform was initiated via the Alphabet Reform in 1928 and the Turkish Language Reform in 1932, which replaced the Persian-Arabic alphabet with a Latin alphabet. Atatürk believed that “the national and rich language is the primary factor for developing a national sense” (cited in Korkmaz, 1972, p. 107; my translation) through emphasizing the strong bond between cultural identity and language. In line with this maxim, the Turkish Language Reform aimed to purge Turkish of foreign words, bring a more unifying form to the language, enrich the vocabulary, and acknowledge Turkish as a respected language of literature and science among world languages – thereby achieving the nationalization process of the young republic (Özdoğan, 2015). Tahir Gürçağlar (2009b) defines the Turkish Alphabet Reform together with the secular orientation of the new republic as “an ideological and philosophical basis … for the national-identity-under-construction” (p. 40). During this period, the new Latin script rendered the Ottoman literature inaccessible to the younger generation and so the youths’ need for reading material had to be met by translating Western classics (Tanpınar, 1998, as cited in Tahir Gürçağlar, 2009b) and the intralingual translation into modern Turkish of Turkish fiction written using “old” words (Berk Albachten, 2015).

As in the case of Chinese colloquial language translations, the translations that followed the Turkish Language Reform sought to render texts directly accessible to citizens. This approach was intended to instil a national identity and to promote a consciousness of national language and history, while simultaneously building cultural and intellectual affinity with the Western countries.

As a part of the state planning to strengthen the sense of nationhood among the citizens of the young Republic, translation was both politically and ideologically motivated, because its main purpose was to lay the intellectual foundation for “cultural westernization” (Tahir Gürçağlar, 2009b, p. 43). Translation activities reached their apogee in the 1940s (Aytaç, 1990). The Translation Bureau, which was established in 1940 under the patronage of the Ministry of Education, undertook the crucial role of disseminating the cultural elements of Western civilization through literary works, and worked actively towards this end until its closure in 1966 (Tahir Gürçağlar, 2008). The main aim of the bureau was to adopt and convey humanist thought through translation. In pursuit of this aim, Hasan Âli Yücel (1961), the Minister of Education during that period, considered the translation activities of the bureau to be critical and placed special emphasis on the translation of literary works that embodied the values of humanism. Bearing this mission in mind, the source languages and cultures of the translated works, Greek and Latin classics, exemplify the main tendency to import Western humanist values (Tahir Gürçağlar, 2009a). Between the years 1940 and 1946, 55% of the translated works in Turkey originated in Latin, followed by 35% in French, 19% in German, 15% in English, and 12% in ancient Greek (Sauer, 1997). In another dataset, it was reported that in the decade from 1940, of the 604 translated works, only 34 books one could label “Oriental classics” were translated into Turkish, whereas 210 books were translated from French and 90 from English (Aytaç, 1990). In these ways, the cultural transfer of Western humanist values was prioritized in the young republic’s path towards modernization. The intense translation activities conducted by the bureau contributed to Turkey’s modernization process by introducing new literary genres such as poetry, drama, the novel and literary criticism into modern Turkish literature. Unlike the translations during the Tanzimat Era, which were less state-driven, those of the early Republic Era played a more guiding role in their content owing to their being vehicles of a specific planned programme – the translation activities back then being aligned to the state ideology of “attaining Western civilization and development” (Aksoy, 2010, p. 444).

4. Discussion and conclusion

China and Turkey have borne distinctive characteristics as countries and nations throughout history. The translation historiographies of the two countries demonstrate that they followed a very similar pattern in their translation-mediated modernization movements during the period between the mid-19th and the mid-20th century, when the countries were undergoing transition from an imperial state structure to a republic. This could be attributed to their shared patterns regarding several initiatives:

·         the initial purpose of translating from the West;

·         the parallelism between the targeted fields of modernization, ranging from military to legal areas throughout the years;

·         implementing translation movements aligned to the targeted modernization areas; and

·         the nation-building impact of translation upon the proclamation of the republic.

As amply described in the translation studies literature, the main translation areas were found to be in alignment with the targeted modernization areas. Apart from the acclaimed contribution of translation, this study asserts that a three-step process played out in which translation was incorporated into the modernization initiatives of these nations. In the first step, both countries launched their translation mobilization based on technical texts, particularly military texts, in line with the primary aims of the reformation and self-strengthening movements, with the ultimate goal of preserving the imperial state order. As for the second step, translation activities evolved along with the changes, adopting a more inclusive approach to Western values beyond exclusively transplanting military knowledge. At this point, the Chinese and Turkish intelligentsia focused their attention on the translation of practical texts that could be used to reform the legal system and the social sciences. In the case of Turkey, however, the focus on literary translation in transferring enlightenment values far predated that of the Chinese. In the third and final step, these newly established republics resorted to the translation of literary works as a way of building a nation based on certain values or ideologies as a means of implementing a unifying element in society. In line with the founding principles of the new regimes, humanism- and Marxism-themed literary works were selected for translation in the then-new republics of Turkey and China, respectively. All in all, the final stage of the translation movements was integrated into the modernization movements and the nation-building and culture-making functions of translation were actively put to use in their early years. Considering the overall progress of the modernization movement in both countries, it can be asserted that the role of translation shifted from being a beneficial tool for transferring knowledge from a developed nation to one undergoing modernization to that of an agency tasked with promoting and shaping national identity by creating vernacular literature that was a vehicle for conveying national and ideological values.

Based on the similarities and differences between the translation histories of Turkey and China, the following conclusions can be reached regarding the assumed role of translation in the modernization processes of these two countries:

·         Although the crucial role of translation is reiterated in the development of countries in relevant research in translation studies, the incorporation of translation into modernization initiatives neither necessarily follows a linear path nor conveys the purpose of modernization from the outset. Aksoy (2010, p. 441) suggests that translation is not always used for “acculturation and enrichment”. Similarly, a chronological analysis of major translation activities in these contexts indicates that translation is not initially resorted to as a way of modernization. Instead, it serves as a primary tool with which to compete with developed societies. The closed-door policies of the states lead to the perception of translation as an apparatus to be used only temporarily until satisfactory knowledge is acquired and transmitted from others to bridge the gap in advancement. Therefore, organized translation movements, particularly those under the authority of the state, are mostly focused on technical texts at the beginning of the modernization movement.

·         As the policies based on the translation-centred transfer of merely military and technical knowledge are found inadequate on their own in ensuring a Western way of national development, cultural and social transformation is initiated by importing the social values of modern societies via translation, particularly in the social sciences and the codification of laws. Although the role of translation in transforming nations by importing the social and cultural values (further see Even-Zohar, 1994: “culture planning”) is mostly included within the scope of the literary repertoire in translation studies, the translation of social science texts, along with the modernized language per se, also functions as a significant instrument for states undergoing transition.

·         In parallel with the role attributed to translation in nation-building (Berk Albachten, 2013; Schäfer, 2018; Tahir Gürçağlar, 2008; Valdeón, 2013), the main and most profound impact of translation on modernization can be observed in the ideology-transfer stage of the process. During this stage, literary genres and texts are chosen specifically for translation as a way of disseminating certain values and ideologies, which would also lay the ground for the newly emerging nation-states.

Although these three steps highlight the role of translation in the developmental stages of the two countries in point, a single causal relationship between translation and development cannot be claimed – which acknowledges that “society is a phenomenon that emerges from a large number of nonlinear processes” (Marais, 2014, p. 34). Apart from this, the development movements in the two countries have never been limited exclusively to modernization and translation-related spheres, a topic that exceeds the scope of the present study. This three-step model, in fact, challenges the notion of the linear model of development and the taken-for-granted role of translation. Instead, it is concluded that translation is resorted to as an apparatus in the service of the varying intentions of nations, states and authorities during different periods. Whether translation has contributed to the development and/or modernization of these countries in related spheres is a question to be answered in further studies.

This model of the role of translation activities in the route towards modernization can also be investigated through further research on both private and state initiatives involving translation. In addition, it could be useful for other comparative studies on translation history to establish the connections between translation and modernization in different cultures and countries as a way of offering more profound evidence of the extent and nature of the engagement of other translation movements studied in the scope of the modernization efforts of states.



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[i]      The first translation movement under the control of the Ottoman state was initiated in the Tulip Era in the early 18th century. However, it was limited to the translation of Islamic works from Arabic and Persian. These activities fall outside the scope of the present study, as they were “a part of the education-improvement movement” (Eruz, 2010, p. 96) rather than modernization in other respects.