Illegible Cities

Illegible Cities: Translating Early Modern China (Oxford University Press, forthcoming)


The history of China, as any history, is a story of and in translation. While our histories of translation in China tend to focus on the medieval past, or on the engagement with ideas and texts from Anglophone and European contexts in the latter half of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, translation to and from non-European languages was a crucial and understudied aspect of the history of early modern China. That history tends to emerge from the sorts of documents existing in forms that don’t obviously and immediately tell stories: examination papers, grammars, glossaries, poems in translation, language-learning manuals. Illegible Cities is book project with three interrelated goals: (1) To create stories that inform our understanding of China’s early modern translation history out of a set of these documents, (2) To explore what the form of an academic history book might look like by playing with the voicing of a historical account and its uses of fictioning as part of the historian’s craft, and (3) To use those stories and that playfulness to inform how we think about language, translation, and their bodily forms in early modern China and beyond. The book’s many stories (…of glossaries and official Ming translation bureaus…of bilingual Ming Chinese-Mongolian language primers…of the first Latin grammar of Manchu…of a Qing Manchu conversation manual…of a collection of Manchu poems by a Qing translator…) serve as case studies that open out into questions of language and translation in China’s past, of the use of fiction as a historian’s tool, and of the ways that translation creates language. The book has been accepted by Oxford University Press, and I’m working on final edits. Stay tuned for the little monster to appear on a bookshelf near you in the next year or two.