In this article, the author examines the case of the Chinese reception of Western political and social concepts as an example to discuss the substantive issues involved in the circulation of concepts between Europe and other parts of the world. Translation and adaptation are key steps in this process of circulation. The question however is not to investigate whether the transposed concept is an accurate transcription of the original, but to understand how this concept acquires new meanings and rhetorical functions within the political and ideological disputes of the society to which is has been transposed. Thus, translation should be understood as a complex, multilayered process of intercultural communication whose result is affected by inequalities of power, but still open to multiple outcomes of agency, even when exercised in colonial or semi-colonial settings.
In this article, the author applies the methodology of Begriffsgeschichte to the study of the concept of despotism in France, focusing mainly on the eighteenth century and the Revolution. During this period despotism became a basic concept (Grundbegriff), and thus highly contested. At the same time, the concept's long history, which stretches back to antiquity and includes the semantic boundaries that previously made it indistinguishable from "tyranny," created a diachronic thrust against which anyone seeking to add a new meaning or application had to work. Finally, as other key concepts, despotism produced political consequences unanticipated and undesired by those using it, not only major theorists but also pamphleteers, in a number of intensely fought conflicts which helped bring down the monarchy.
A Literal Translation and Its Consequences
The French journal, Raisons politiques, devoted its February 2001 issue to “Le Moment Tocquevillien.” What is but a moment for France has lasted for more than a century and a half in the United States. Here, admiration of Tocqueville, always great, has now reached the point where readers will soon have to decide among three entirely new translations of Democracy in America: this one by Harvey Mansfield and Delba Winthrop,1 James Schleifer’s, for the Liberty Fund, and Arthur Goldhammer’s for the Library of America. How should their audience go about choosing among them?
Vicente Oieni, João Feres Jr. and Melvin Richter
This interview was conducted during the VII International Conference of the History of Concepts: Transatlantic Dialogues, that took place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on July 6-9, 2004, and appeared for the first time in Anales of the Iberoamerikanska Institutet. 7/8: 13-26.