Interpreters in 18th and 19th century Europe and China

Professor Henrietta Harrison

Letter written from Li Zibiao to Francesco Massei 14 May 1772, Archivio Instituto Orientale di Napoli
Letter written from Li Zibiao to Francesco Massei 14 May 1772, Archivio Instituto Orientale di Napoli

I am working on a joint biography of Li Zibiao (李自標, Jacobus Ly), who was the interpreter for the first British embassy to China in 1793, and George Thomas Staunton, the twelve-year old son of Macartney’s secretary George Leonard Staunton who was the embassy’s other interpreter. Both are fascinating characters. Li Zibiao was born into a Catholic family in China’s far northwest. At the age of twelve he travelled to Naples and spent twenty years there training to be a Catholic priest, before returning to China with the embassy. Throughout his later life he corresponded with his former teachers and classmates in Naples, and this correspondence is preserved in the archives of the college, now the Università Orientale in Naples, and in those of the Propaganda Fide in Rome. George Thomas Staunton was a child prodigy, trained from his earliest years by his father George Leonard Staunton in languages and botany. After the embassy he went on to a career as an interpreter for the East India Company in Guangzhou and for the disastrous 1816 Amherst embassy, as well as translating the first book to be translated directly from Chinese into English the Qing legal code. He then returned to England where he became a member of parliament, voted in the crucial decisions on the Opium War, and was a founder member of the Royal Asiatic Society.

Entrance to the house of Li Minghan 李銘漢 in Wuwei 武威Gansu.  Li Minghan, a well known nineteenth-century historian, was almost certainly from the same Ningxia Li family as Li Zibiao.
Entrance to the house of Li Minghan 李銘漢 in Wuwei 武威Gansu. Li Minghan, a well known nineteenth-century historian, was almost certainly from the same Ningxia Li family as Li Zibiao.

I hope that the stories of these two men will increase our knowledge of the history of interpreting and help us to rethink popular ideas about China’s historical perception of its place in the world. Interpreters have usually been invisible in history (or confined to its footnotes). Modern simultaneous conference interpreting, in which the interpreter is a disembodied voice speaking through a microphone, fosters the illusion that interpreting can simply be a matter of transferring words from one language to another. Li Zibiao’s role in the Macartney embassy reminds us that in the eighteenth century the ability to interpret was the result of an unusual life story and the interpreter might have to handle many practical matters, and explain each culture to members of the other, as well as being what Li called “an interpreter of words.” The interpreter was a central figure in the negotiations and should be treated as such by historians. The project also examines the role of embodied knowledge and therefore personal trust in the production of knowledge across cultures in this period. The Qianlong emperor’s dismissal of British gifts and the dispute over whether Macartney should kowtow have long been seen as evidence for a blinkered China-centred world view that ultimately led to China’s defeat forty years later in the Opium War.

I argue that this interpretation of the embassy, famously associated with John K. Fairbank, is based on eighteenth-century British (not Chinese) concerns with diplomatic protocol and the selection of Qing archives published by Chinese scholars in the early twentieth-century who were critical of what they saw as excessive Qing emphasis on ritual. Individual Chinese in the eighteenth century, including some high officials, had considerable knowledge of Europe and Europeans, but that this knowledge, as in the case of Li Zibiao and George Thomas Staunton, was embodied in their personal life stories and belief was dependent on personal trust, rather than being incorporated into publications and the mainstream elite tradition.