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Translatum Journal - Issue 5


He Xianbin
Associate professor in Guangdong Polytechnic Normal University (China)

Translation as Manipulation: a Case Study
of Yan Fu’s Rendition of On Liberty


The great Chinese translator of Yan Fu advocated faithfulness as the fundamental requirement. But when rendering Mill’s On Liberty, he shifted the focus of the title, added terms and statements about social Darwinism, and supplied each paragraph with a summarizing note. His translation conveyed slight different ideas of liberty and the two texts exerted differing influence on the cultural contexts. This case study exemplifies that shift of emphasis is also a kind of manipulation.

Yan Fu (1854-1921) was a great thinker, educator, translator and translation theorist in modern China. His translations had a huge social impact during his time, and the translation criteria he set out in the translator's preface to Evolution and Ethics left deep marks on translation studies in China and are still held up by many Chinese scholars as golden rules.

Yan Fu's translation was epoch-making in the Chinese translation history. Firstly, Yan Fu was a pioneer in systematically introducing the Western social science into China. Secondly, being one of the first bilingual translators, he helped end the Chinese collaboration tradition and initiate the individual translation history at the turn of the 19 th and 20 th centuries. Thirdly, in contrast to most of his colleagues who translated the Western works via the Japanese language, Yan translated directly from English.

Yan Fu advocated faithfulness as the fundamental requirement of translation. But paradoxically, he was often criticized for failing to live up to this standard himself. He had about ten translations to his credit, of which eight are famous and have become canonical. On Liberty is the most faithful of all eight. Not a single paragraph was omitted and the source and target texts correspond quite well. But careful comparison of the original and the translation reveals that, for Yan, translation is not re-presentation, but manipulation.

1. Yan Fu's manipulating strategies in rendering On Liberty

The renowned essay On Liberty was written by the English philosopher John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) and published in 1859, the year in which Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species was published. Mill had a great impact on the 19th-century British thought. He is probably most famous for his essay "On Liberty" (1859), which has become a classic of libertarian philosophy.

On Liberty is concerned with two main things. Individual liberty of thought and freedom of opinion should be protected, and there must be constraints on social intervention of the individual liberty.

In 1899, forty years after On Liberty was published, Yan Fu translated it into Chinese. It was the first time that the Western thought of liberty and freedom was wholly introduced to China. Before he had time to revise it, the Boxer Rebellion began and the allied forces of eight Western Powers invaded Tianjin (where he worked and lived) and Beijing. Yan Fu fled to Shanghai and gave lectures about logic. According to his translation preface, the translation manuscript was lost together with his books. It fell into the hands of a Westerner who mailed it back to Yan Fu three years later. It was published in 1903.

Yan Fu was literally very faithful to the source text. But actually the two texts are significantly different. Yan employed a number of strategies for this end, like shift of focus, addition of terms and statements, and supply of summarizing notes.

1.1 Shift of focus in title translation

Yan Fu's first draft of the rendition of On Liberty was named Interpretation of Liberty. Upon publication, Yan changed the title to On the Borderline between State Power and Individual Power. The scope of the English title was very inclusive and might cover whatever was connected with liberty, and Yan's first rendering corresponds to it quite well. In the changed Chinese title, however, Yan Fu narrowed down its scope to the limits on both state power and individual liberty and clearly implied a sense of control over or restriction to individual liberty, which was opposite to the call for more individual liberty in the source text.

In the same way, Yan Fu rendered “Of the Limits to the Authority of Society over the Individual”, the name of the fourth chapter, as “On the division between the powers of the state group and minor individuals”.

Yan made at least two alterations. Firstly, the emphasis shifted from limiting social power and protecting individual power, to constraints on both state and social powers, and this change implied that there was a limit to individual liberty and freedom. The ideas changed dramatically. Secondly, Yan used “group” to modify “the state” and “minor” to modify “individual ”, implying the priority of state or society power over individual power and the sacrifice of the latter for the former when necessary. Similar treatments can be found in rendering a few key terms in other parts of the text. By changing the emphases of some of the titles, Yan Fu actually changed the theme and purpose of the book.

1.2 Addition of terms and statements

In translating the book about liberty, Yan Fu added such terms as “ evolution ” ? “ competition ”, “ survival of the fittest ”, “ prosperity ”. These words were connected with social Darwinism and absolutely absent from the source text. This addition reflected his concern for the construction of China into a wealthy and powerful country. Yan's other added words meant that protection of individual liberty is helpful to the liberty of the state, but he laid more emphasis on the distinction between state power and individual liberty and strengthened his view that the state liberty counts more than individual liberty. This view of liberty was obviously different from that of Mill.

1.3. Supply of summarizing notes

Unlike his other translations, in which he wrote comments on the text, Yan Fu added footnotes to his rendition of On Liberty , which became a special feature of all his translations. Wang Kefei (1996: 105)'s explanation is that when Yan Fu received the lost manuscripts, he did not have too much time to comment before having it published. Therefore he briefly wrote some notes instead.


Number of notes in Yan’s rendition of On Liberty
Chapter No of paragraphs No of notes
One 16 19
Two 38 40
Three 20 23
Four 19 19
Five 23 22
Total: 116 paragraphs, 123 footnotes by the translator

Yan's footnotes in this book may be divided into two types. The first is his interpretation of proper names, which he thought readers might not understand, including names of people and places, like “ Charlemagne” and “ Calvary ”. The second and the more important type is his summary of the ideas for each paragraph.

As a rule, Yan offered one footnote for each paragraph. Occasionally, he put two notes for the same paragraph and no notes for some paragraphs. This might be because some paragraphs had more than one central meaning while sometimes over one paragraph expresses the same sense. The footnotes in the above table are about the main ideas of the paragraphs alone and do not include those interpreting the proper nouns.

Yan's footnotes partly demonstrated his focus of liberty. He used the footnotes to emphasize his selection of the Western thought of liberty. This can be seen from the large number of notes concerning the borderline between individual liberty and social power. These notes attract the readers' attention from the protection of individual liberty to the borderline between individual and social powers. They remind the readers of the limit on their own liberty when they argue for liberty from the society.

Whether Yan was conscious of it or not, some of his notes did not match the themes of the paragraphs, and Yan was suspected of manipulating the notes for his own purpose.

For example, paragraph 5 of Mill's introductory mentions an important aspect of Mill's theory of liberty---the tyranny of the majority. Mill argues that the prevailing opinion may impose its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them, prevent the formation of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own. That is what he means by “the tyranny of the majority”. It is one of his great contributions to the Western theory of liberty. Mill believes there should be a limit to the legitimate interference of collective opinion with individual independence.

Yan Fu's summary of this paragraph is “The following discusses why the borderline between individual liberty and collective liberty must be clearly marked.” Their disparity is obvious. Mill only mentioned the limit on social power while Yan's summary referred to restriction to both the power of society and that of individuals.

Evolution and state prosperity is another of Yan's focus in his notes. For instance, near the end of the whole essay, Mill classified the objection to government interference into three types. Yan Fu put such a footnote for the remaining six paragraphs of the last chapter, though they did not mention evolution: “The following paragraphs deal with the limit of governmental intervention. They are not related to liberty, but vital to evolution and a country's prosperity.” (Yan Fu, 1981:114)

Of the three kinds of objections to government interference, Yan Fu thought the second was the most important. That principle is:

I n many cases, though individuals may not do the particular thing so well, on the average, as the officers of government, it is nevertheless desirable that it should be done by them, rather than by the government, as a means to their own mental education- a mode of strengthening their active faculties, exercising their judgment, and giving them a familiar knowledge of the subjects with which they are thus left to deal.

Yan Fu (1981:115) put a note saying that this paragraph offers the key to the Western prosperity and readers should never neglect its significance.

To sum up, Yan's summarizing footnotes served the same purposes as his changes and additions, demonstrating his emphasis on the priority of state liberty and his concern about the destiny of China.

2. Differences between Mill's essay and Yan Fu's text

Yan Fu said in the translator's note that the source text was profound in both thought and language and he had to restructure it to make it intelligible.

Yan Fu's major difference from the author lies not in the minor translational changes, but in emphasizing the other side of the coin of liberty. By adding sentences not present in the source text and by offering summarizing notes, Yan Fu made the liberty in his translation slightly different from that of J. S. Mill.

Firstly, the theme of Mill's essay is to define the nature and limits of the power, which can be exercised by society over the individual. Its basic principle is to govern the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control. T he liberty of thought and freedom of opinion, liberty of doing as we like, without harming others, and freedom to unite, should all be protected. Its central idea is the protection of individual liberty and restriction on social interference.

Yan Fu's translation was produced in a different context. It had a different motivation and served different functions from the original.

We were not able to locate Yan Fu's statement of his purpose of translating On Liberty. Schwarz offered two contradictory answers. He first said that, after the failure of the 100-day Reform in 1898, an atmosphere of oppression pervaded the society and the feeling of being deprived of liberty (especially in thought and opinion) deeply hurt Yan and motivated him to translate the book of On Liberty (Schwarz, 1964:111). In other words, Yan Fu translated because he longed for liberty and freedom in China.

In another page of the same book, Schwarz said that, in the 57 th letter to his student of Xiong Cunru, Yan Fu said he was inclined to condemning the revolutionary disorder in China at that time, and his purpose of translating On Liberty was teaching the youth about the limitations of the Western thought.

Unfortunately, we could not find the above remark in Yan Fu's 109 letters to Xiong Chunru. As a matter of fact, we read through the whole book of letters compiled by Wang Shi (1986), but found no mention of the book On Liberty. If Schwarz's second statement was right, Yan Fu's major intention of translating was not to spread the ideas of liberty and freedom, but to caution people against it.

Yan Fu's purpose of publishing his translation seemed to verify Schwarz's second explanation. In his translation preface of On Liberty, Yan said that for the past ten years people had been earnestly discussing liberty and freedom, but did not have a clear idea what it was. The consequence was that the conservative people considered liberty wild and dangerous beasts and the reformers equated it with random action.

In the translator's note on the same book, Yan said China was in urgent need of his translation. He made minor deletions and changes and published it three months after receiving the missing manuscripts. He seemed not to have time to write comments (anyu) yet.

In other words, Yan Fu published his translation so that his fellow countrymen could have a better idea of liberty. That is why he changed the title of the book from Interpretation of Liberty to On the Borderline between State Power and Individual Power. For Yan, knowledge of the borderline between social and individual powers seemed more important than, and is even a precondition for, the struggle for liberty, as is clearly stated in his translation preface.

In short, focus on restriction of social power versus emphasis on the limits of both the social power and individual liberty is the first major disparity between Mill and Yan Fu.

Secondly, Yan Fu's thinking of liberty was mixed with social Darwinism, as can be seen from his addition of words and notes connected with the evolution theory. In Mill's theory there was no such term as “state liberty”. Yan Fu coined the term in translation and added a sentence to the effect that protection of individual liberty was helpful to the construction of state liberty. “What Yan Fu was most concerned with was the survival of the state, and his addition of evolutionary ideas emphasized the role and status of the state (Lin Zaijiao, 1999:226)” For Yan Fu, state liberty always preceded individual liberty. This is illustrated in a translation comment on the Spirit of Law , in which he said what China was in urgent need of was not individual liberty, but state liberty.

“Yan Fu rendered On Liberty into Chinese not out of the necessity of developing individual liberty or restricting the social interference of it, but out of the need of enlightening the Chinese people and saving China. His translation motivation widely differed from the writing purpose of Mill. (Wang Kefei, 1996:93)” Hence concern for individual liberty or state liberty is another disparity between Yan Fu and Mill.

Thirdly, the two books played different roles in China and the West. Mill had a great impact in the 19 th century. Unlike his translations of Evolution and Ethics , the Wealth of Nations , the Spirit of Law , the Study of Sociology , and System of Logic , which were listed as five of “the 100 Translations Influencing Modern Chinese Society”(Zou Zhenghuan, 1996), Yan Fu's rendition of On Liberty received little response. In fact it had a negative effect on the Chinese society.

The Chinese readers of On Liberty , like its translator, were not inspired by the new thought of liberty and freedom. Instead they began to know the notion of the borderline between social liberty and individual liberty. Liberty and freedom did not bloom in China. On the contrary, after Yan's publication, people became more cautious to liberty and some worried again that people were too free, or people's liberty was out of its legitimate range. Some conservative people went so far as to use Yan's translation as a weapon against the revolutionaries, claiming that they knew about liberty but nothing about its legitimate limit. (Wang Kefei, 1996: 127-133)

Many factors attributed to this. Among them one was Yan Fu's attitude reflected in the translation---he overemphasized the importance of the borderline between social liberty and individual liberty, and consequently, diluted the thinking of liberty and freedom. His argument that there should be a limit on individual liberty also greatly affected the readers' reception of the theory. (ibid)


About the author: He Xianbin, Ph. D, is an associate professor in Guangdong Polytechnic Normal University (China), and an honorary visiting academic in the Centre for Translation and Intercultural Studies of Manchester University from March1, 2005 to March 2006.


Lin, Zaijiao. Yan Fu’s understanding of liberty. in Liu, Guisheng (eds.) New studies of Yan Fu’s thought. Beijing: Qinghua University Press, 1999.
Wang, Kefei. Chinese and Japanese implanting of the Western philosophies in the modern ear: a comparison. Beijing: China Social Science Press, 1996.
Wang, Kefei. Cultural History of Translation. Shanghai: Shanghai Foreign Education Press, 1997.
Wang, Shi (eds.). Collection of Yan Fu’s Essays and Translations. Beijing: the Chinese Press (Zhonghua Shuju), 1981.
Schwartz, Benjamin. In Search of Wealth and Power: Yen Fu and the West [M]. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1964.
Zou, Zhenghuan. One Hundred Books Influencing Modern China. Beijing: China Translation Publishing Corporation, 1996

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