Jack Ren on the Politics of Translation
The long standing Reed tradition of honoring our thesising seniors with a showcase in the Quest has been on an extended break. COVID-19, Zoom, and the overall craziness of the last year have pushed our seniors to the backburner, but the time has come to bring them and their research into the spotlight once again.
The focus of this first Thesis Christ of the year is Jack Ren ‘22, a political science major who is diving into his research in the coming months. His thesis is (tentatively) titled “The Politics of Translation.” Ren aims to look at how (or if) politics motivate the translation of texts.
The process of deciding which direction to go began with the book Zizhi Tongjian (资治通鉴). Ren noticed that the only translation that could be found online was on Amazon and was translated by someone with no academic standing. This prompted the question: what makes the text untranslatable? This was the beginning of his thinking about how western cultures interact with and translate Chinese texts.
Instead of diving into this specific case, Ren pivoted to a more quantitative approach to the political nature of translation. The core of Ren’s research focuses on the identification of key traits in Chinese texts, such as when translations were published, when were the originals published, and differences in length between original texts and their translations. Then he will attempt to find trends in their rates of translation.
“Translation is one of the few ways that [the English speaking world] can stare into another culture,” Ren says. What we as an academic community choose to translate becomes a “microcosm of what the English speaking academic sees in that culture.” Some works end up being translated far more than others. Ren gives the example of The Art of War. The Art of War is one of the most translated works of any Chinese corpus. Why has it been translated so many times, while other equally important works have never been translated? The goal of this research is to attempt to figure out what makes a translator choose what to translate, and how (if at all) that choice reflects the current political climate.
Ren found his way to his research through his work as a medical translator. As a native Mandarin Chinese speaker, he works with medical professionals to help provide patients with the proper care. In these intense, often life-or-death situations, he has made connections with people “within seconds of speaking.” He found that translation could become a space for connection that is personal and unique. It was this experience that made the power of translation apparent to Ren.
Ren highlighted several formal and informal advisors that have helped him along the way. A moment that deepened Ren’s interest in the translation field was his meeting with the former President of Taiwan and long time translator, Ma Ying-jeou (pictured). Reed Professor of Chinese, Hyong Rhew, has been his “go-to person to consult on classical Chinese literature”; Elizabeth C. Ducey Professor of Asian Studies, Douglas Fix, has been a valuable resource and supporter; Robert H. and Blanche Day Ellis Professor of Political Science and Humanities, Peter Steinberger, is his academic advisor; and Visiting Assistant Professor of Political Science, Lexi Neame, is his thesis advisor.
Ren’s research has the potential to yield fruitful results, but he has expressed no interest in pursuing this specific topic beyond his thesis. However, he does intend to continue to work in translation throughout his career. He emphasized how the idea for this thesis was borne out of a deep curiosity and love for the practice of translation.