The Thinking behind “Fan” (翻) and “Yi” (译)—Construction of the Concept of “Translation” in Ancient China

Social Sciences in China (Chinese Edition)

No.2, 2016


The Thinking behind “Fan” () and “Yi” ()—Construction of the Concept of “Translation” in Ancient China



Wang Xiangyuan


Students of translation have neglected the rich store of ideas on the subject to be found in the concepts fan, yi and fanyi (translation and interpretation) in traditional Chinese translation theory. Utilizing the methods of semantic theory and conceptual archeology, we undertook an examination and analysis of the issue, and found that in traditional Chinese translation theory, yi and fan operate in different ways. Yi is an interactive parallel activity on a level plane, also called chuan (transmission) or chuanyi, while fan is a sort of “overturning” of linguistic interchange and transposing in three dimensional space. The two complement and complete each other. In terms of style, fan and yi both involve wen (refinement) and zhi (simplicity). They also involve the extent of translation in translation activities; some things were “untranslatable” in the sense that they could not be fan (bukefan) and so it was proposed that they were “not translated” or “not translatable”. However, bukefan is not the same as bukeyi; what could not be fan could be yi. Traditional Chinese thought on fan and yi is useful to resolving the lengthy debate over “translatable/untranslatable,” and can make up for deficiencies in Western translation theory.