Charles Frederick de Brocktorff, Atlas, ay Majmu‘a Kharitat Rasm al-Ard (Malta: Church Missionary Society, 1835). Pre-1926 public domain work; photography by Nile Green.

To the Unsung Interpreters

Nile Green—

Today we take all sorts of cultural knowledge for granted. Few people nowadays have probably never heard of the Buddha or Confucius. Yet much of today’s global understanding of other cultures is a product of the nineteenth century. And not only for Europeans, as Edward Said’s Orientalism showed some forty years ago. The nineteenth and early twentieth century was also the period when intercultural understanding—together with many misunderstandings—spread between different peoples of Asia themselves, not least through the Asian communications revolution that unfolded in this period. Among this now taken-for-granted knowledge was the idea of Asia itself.

After spending several decades travelling extensively around regions modern maps tell us comprise West and South Asia (that is, the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent), about ten years ago I made my first trip to Japan. I found myself in what the Indian critic Rustom Bharucha has called ‘another Asia.’ Day after day, I found myself questioning my former tactic assumptions about the continent. I was apparently on the same continent, but nothing seemed the same—or even familiar—at all. Then one morning after breakfast, my gaze fell on a row of colorful cans on proud display in the old hotel I was staying in. Something about them looked oddly familiar (at last), and closer inspection of the labels revealed why: they were cans of Indian curry powder. A few questions revealed they were culinary relics of the ‘opening’ of Japan in the 1860s that saw an influx of Indian merchants to the port of Yokohama. I quickly changed my travel plans and quit the calm temple gardens of Nara for the dockyards of Yokohama. I also emailed a librarian who furnished me with a pdf of an Urdu study of Japan by Syed Ross Masood. It would prove to be the first of dozens of accounts of Japan I would read in the languages of that other Asia I’d been studying till now. How, I wondered, did those Indians—or Iranians, Arabs, and Afghans—understand Japan when its ports opened to the world? 

Photo of Japanese curry cans, provided by author.

That question has preoccupied me for most of the ten years since I first started reading such ‘inter-Asian’ writings—at first travelogues, then subsequently histories, phrase books, newspaper articles, and translations, including translations of key Asian classics (whether the Quran, the Dhammapada, or the Analects of Confucius) into other Asian languages. As the scope of my readings widened, I travelled to other parts of that vast continent that were unfamiliar to me, taking me across China, Malaysia, and Myanmar, as well as repeatedly back to Japan. 

Little by little, I began piecing together a series of surprising stories. One was the Indian rediscovery of the lost Buddhist religion that disappeared in the subcontinent in the medieval period before its memory was resurrected by dozens of Indian-language texts in the first decades of the twentieth century (including a translation of the travels of the Chinese monk Xuanzang). Another was the extraordinary role of Chinese Muslims as intercultural intermediaries who learned to read and write in Arabic as well as Urdu. 

Syed Ross Masood in Japanese dress, provided by author.

Further research made me realize such accomplishments were remarkably rare, prompting my search for dictionaries, grammars, or simple phrase books between different Asian languages. Their startling scarcity forced me to confront the challenges—of script as well as language—of transferring knowledge between different Asian regions, each with their own high cultural traditions that were necessarily embedded in language. Little wonder, then, that direct inter-Asian translations—the Quran in Japanese, Confucius in Urdu—were so few and so late.

Having set out with a hazy assumption that a certain amount of cultural knowledge had been shared by different peoples (especially within the Asian continent itself) for a very long time, I began to see that such knowledge is more the exception than the rule of world history. This in turn led me to ask what makes such knowledge possible, not only for the rare individual who masters many languages, but for whole communities of ordinary people. This induced me to investigate the infrastructures of inter-Asian understanding, whether language guides, colleges, or specialist publishers from Istanbul to Kobe. (As it turned out, Kolkata played an especially important role as an inter-Asian informational bourse.) 

Finally, I returned with newly critical eyes to the most basic supposition I began with: the concept of Asia itself. When I learned that the idea of a single unitary landmass—a continent called ‘Asia’—was only introduced to the region it designated in the seventeenth (and especially the nineteenth) century, my findings at last began to make sense. Just because ancient Greek geographers had labelled the lands east of the Mediterranean as ‘Asia,’ leaving the word to slowly spread much later through Europe’s modern colonial expansion, it didn’t mean that the different peoples across that diverse geography considered themselves as belonging the same single space. Far from it. There were many older indigenous ideas of space that reckoned more realistically with the barriers of physical no less than linguistic geography. It was only around 1900, as the spread of the concept of ‘Asia’ coincided with the rise of anticolonialism, that the idea of Asian unity gained momentum in the region itself. And so it was that, in 1903, the renowned Japanese art historian Okakura Tenshin made his famous declaration, ‘Asia is one.’ 

Yet Okakura wrote the book that began with these words in English, a language he learned as a schoolboy in Yokohama, where his father traded silk with foreign businessmen, and later as a student in the United States. When several decades later the book was translated into Japanese, its opening phrase had to borrow an English loanword to communicate its key claim as ‘Asia’ became Ajia. It would take a century to be translated into other Asian languages.

As it happened, eminent figures like Okakura (who became known in the West by working at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts) contributed remarkably little to the grittier groundwork of inter-Asian understanding. Far from famous, the authors of the texts about ‘another Asia’ I found in Asian languages are mostly forgotten today, even in their homelands. And so, when I finished my own book on Asia’s self-discovery, it was obvious to whom it had to be dedicated: to those unsung interpreters. They were the people who spread across Asia so much knowledge now taken for granted. 

Nile Green holds the Ibn Khaldun Endowed Chair in World History at UCLA. A prize-winning author and former Guggenheim Fellow, after decades traveling among the cultures he describes, he wrote How Asia Found Herself: A Story of Intercultural Understanding to explore how those cultures have understood one another.

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