Terminology translation can help build discipline system

Source:Chinese Social Sciences Today 2023-09-07

(LEFT) Common Law Terms You Need to Know by Zhang Falian (RIGHT) The Oxford Companion to Law by David M. Walker Photo: Weng Rong/CSST

Terminology translation serves as a pivotal pathway and method in human cross-linguistic knowledge practice. Long and extensive practices of terminology translation have led to knowledge transfer, linguistic interaction, and cultural exchange, exerting profound influences on the historical and cultural development of the target language society. The periodic peaks in translation activities over thousands of years in China’s translation history can serve as vivid and authentic examples. The translation of Buddhist scriptures during the Han and Tang dynasties, the translation of scientific and technological works in the late Ming and early Qing periods, and the interdisciplinary translation efforts since the late Qing and early Republican eras all have continuously infused fresh intellectual currents into the vast river of Chinese culture. Among these translation peaks, terminology translation stands out as a crucial tool for “sourcing and channeling knowledge.”


Historical evidence suggests that Chinese culture possesses not only a robust inherent genetic makeup but also an exceptional capacity for assimilation and transformation, displaying a continuous vitality that accommodates diverse influences. However, in the modern development of China’s academic disciplines, the enlightenment and nurturing of academic “modernity” have been consistently impacted by translations from Western scholarship. Over the past century, the terminology systems that form the foundation of China’s academic disciplines have largely evolved through varying degrees of cross-linguistic transplantation from Western terminology systems, primarily facilitated by the practice of terminology translation. China’s modern academic and cultural landscape has continually evolved within the context of “the eastward transmission of Western sciences,” leading to the ongoing revision of the traditional Chinese knowledge lineage and the emergence of a unique complexity in its intrinsic logic and representational forms. Faced with the challenges arising from this complexity, it is imperative that we not only standardize Chinese translation of terminologies but also promote the external translation and international dissemination of Chinese-origin terminologies. It can be asserted that terminology translation has laid the foundation for the formation and development of China’s modern knowledge systems and will remain a vital method for constructing contemporary and future knowledge systems.

Historical features

From a historical perspective, specialization and professionalization of academic research have been essential prerequisites for the establishment of modern disciplines. Disciplines are a product of modernity, emerging as a result of the objective requirements of knowledge accumulation and the development of scholarship to a certain stage, which necessitates the inheritance, dissemination, and reproduction of knowledge. The formation and development of disciplines are intrinsically linked to knowledge production, organizational structures, institutional support, and system refinement. However, at its core, the establishment of disciplines revolves around the systematization of knowledge within them. The logical starting point and value pursuit of discipline construction lie in the transmission and innovation of knowledge, and the level of discipline construction is a concrete manifestation of the height of academic development and influence.

The birth and development of modern disciplines in China are the outcomes of knowledge dissemination triggered by the modern Western learning influx during the recent “eastward transmission of Western sciences” era. This development is intricately intertwined with China’s process of modernization, constituting a historically coexistent phenomenon. The passive encounter between China’s traditional knowledge systems and Western modern knowledge systems has, objectively, led to a collision of different civilizations. The traditional “Four Treasures of Knowledge (classics, history, poetry, literature collection)” has increasingly exhibited characteristics of fragmented Westernization, and the division into the “Seven Subjects (literature, science, law, agriculture, industry, commerce, medicine)” can also be seen as China’s active efforts to “Westernize” its knowledge tradition. The extensive practice of translating foreign discipline-specific terminology into Chinese has supplied the fundamental and critical “building materials” for the construction of China’s modern disciplinary edifice.

The academic system, the scholarly system, and the discourse system are interrelated and mutually supportive. The robustness and completeness of the academic system, the scientific and innovative nature of the scholarly system, and the stance and values of the discourse system can all be reflected in the construction of academic terminology systems. Terminology, as linguistic symbols representing academic concepts, is crucial for the sound material foundation of the academic system, the knowledge characteristics of the scholarly system, and the power effects of the discourse system. When it comes to the emergence and development of modern Chinese disciplines, terminology translation plays an indispensable role. Without terminology translation, there would be no shaping and development of the knowledge system of modern Chinese disciplines, nor would there be the construction of the academic discourse system in modern China. In this sense, terminology translation is an important prerequisite and key path for the formation and establishment of disciplines in modern Chinese history. However, this discipline modernization driven by translation has had a fundamental academic flaw from the beginning, which is a lack of knowledge autonomy. This flaw will gradually become evident in the process of expanding the academic system, deepening the scholarly system, and innovating the discourse system, becoming a key factor hindering the sustainable development of these three major systems.

Actual complexity

An academic system cannot be built overnight by any country. Its complexity lies not only in historical influences but also in its intimate connection with the practical issues encountered during its development. The construction and evolution of the modern Chinese academic system has followed the historical trajectory of China’s exploration and development of its unique path to modernization. Throughout this process, the historical uniqueness and practical complexity of constructing the modern Chinese academic system have always coexisted.

On one hand, the academic and discourse systems on which modern Chinese disciplines rely exhibit distinct foreign characteristics. On the other, the primary practical issues that modern Chinese disciplines address possess a genuine local character. As a result, the modern Chinese academic system, particularly in the humanities and social sciences, which is constructed based on the translation of Western academic and discourse systems, inevitably faces continuous challenges from local societal realities. The disciplinary terminology representing Western knowledge traditions and the discourse systems constructed from them fall far short of adequately representing or explaining academic and societal issues in China.

As China develops its academic disciplines, the issues arising from terminology translation have continued to accumulate, forming noticeable systematic discourse problems. The first issue is the systematic incompatibility that exists when a large number of foreign-origin disciplinary terminologies are being translated into Chinese. Taking the humanities and social sciences as an example, disciplines like economics, management, political science, law, sociology, and others rely heavily on the continuous translation and transplantation of terminology systems from the Western academic tradition. In light of this, while we should rationally absorb Western terminology symbols and the knowledge they carry, we should also prioritize resolving the systematic compatibility problems in translating foreign terminology into Chinese. Standardization of terminology translation is of utmost importance in this regard.

The second issue is related to the systematic dissemination of Chinese local disciplinary terminology into English. Fields such as literature, history, philosophy, which have existed in China since ancient times, also contain native terms. These terms carry essential knowledge content from China’s outstanding traditional culture and academic thought. Therefore, it’s crucial to consider effective pathways and strategies for their modern transformation and cross-lingual dissemination. The systematic positioning of the modern transformation and cross-cultural dissemination of ancient Chinese terminology is highly critical.

Third, systematic competition exists between creating and translating terminology in interdisciplinary fields. In interdisciplinary disciplines like linguistics, art, and education, where Chinese and foreign knowledge systems intermingle, the composition of terminology systems is a fusion of diverse influences, reflecting an underlying competition for academic discourse authority. To address this, efforts should be made to promote equal interaction among different discourses, facilitate the blending of knowledge and discourse systems from different times and cultures, emphasize innovation in discourse symbols based on original Chinese research, and continuously enhance China’s academic discourse authority through the generation and dissemination of new terminologies.


In the future development of China’s knowledge system, there should be a strong emphasis on systematic translation of terminologies across different disciplines. While terminology translation has largely been a spontaneous byproduct of academic work for a long time, organized terminology translation is becoming increasingly important and necessary. Organized terminology translation involves considering terminology translation as a crucial method for knowledge system construction and placing emphasis on clear objectives, systematic approaches, and structured processes when conducting such work.

First, we need to address the issue of knowledge autonomy. Enhancing the autonomy in the construction of knowledge systems is an important aspect of future development in China’s academic disciplines. Optimizing the knowledge genes of disciplinary terminology should be placed on the agenda. Given the historical characteristics of Chinese academic discipline development, it is highly relevant to further explore and utilize identifying and disciplinary concepts from China’s traditional knowledge resources, and promote them internationally through translation. Meanwhile, we can also effectively extract innovative, valuable concepts from contemporary academic discourse in China and construct corresponding terminology and systematic forms in order to promote their application more effectively.

Second, we need to address the issue of knowledge systematization. The future development of China’s academic disciplines to some extent relies on the production and reproduction of knowledge. Terminology is the crystallization of human knowledge in language. However, achieving the goal of disciplinarity cannot be realized solely through scattered terminology. As terms representing the language of disciplinary knowledge production or reproduction, they often achieve the dissemination and expansion of relevant knowledge through widespread use, thereby realizing the goal of disciplinarity. Terminology translation, as a prerequisite for cross-lingual use and research of terms, helps promote the interaction and innovative development of disciplinary knowledge between China and foreign countries. The reasonableness and effectiveness of such translations will impact the effective dissemination of knowledge carried by the source terms and their discourse. For the future development of China’s academic disciplines, to construct an independent knowledge system, it is possible to rely on the systematic compilation of disciplinary terminology dictionaries and the dynamic construction of large-scale disciplinary terminology databases. The international dissemination of Chinese-originated terminology should become a significant indicator for enhancing China’s academic development and innovation influence. The international propagation of academic discourse should be led by the translation of disciplinary terminology.


Wei Xiangqing is a professor from the English Department at Nanjing University’s School of Foreign Languages.

Editor:Yu Hui

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