Chinese translation theory was born out of contact with vassal states during the Zhou Dynasty. It developed through translations of Buddhist scripture into Chinese. It is a response to the universals of the experience of translation and to the specifics of the experience of translating from specific source languages into Chinese. It also developed in the context of Chinese literary and intellectual tradition.
Early texts contain various words for "interpreter" or "translator". The Classic of Rites, claims that there was one word for each direction. For example, the translators who had to translate for vassals of the north were called yi4 譯. It has been claimed that yi4 譯 became the sole word for "translator" because in the Han Dynasty and the period of disunion, most translation was with the north. Other words are "tongue person" 舌人 and "return tongue" 反舌.
A Western Han work attributes a dialogue about translation to Confucius. Confucius advises a ruler who wishes to learn foreign languages not to bother. Confucius tells the ruler to focus on governance and let the translators handle translation.
The earliest bit of translation theory may be the phrase "names should follow their bearers, while things should follow China." In other words, names should be transliterated, while things should be translated by meaning.
In the late Qing Dynasty and the Republican Period, reformers such as Liang Qichao, Hu Shi and Zhou Zuoren began looking at translation practice and theory of the great translators in Chinese history.
Zhi Qian (支謙)'s preface (序) is the first work whose purpose is to express an opinion about translation practice. The preface was included in a work of the Liang Dynasty. It recounts an historical anecdote of 224AD, at the beginning of the Three Kingdoms period. A party of Buddhist monks came to Wuchang. One of them, Zhu Jiangyan by name, was asked to translate some passage from scripture. He did so, in rough Chinese. When Zhi Qian questioned the lack of elegance, another monk, named Wei Qi (維衹), responded that the meaning of the Buddha should be translated simply, without loss, in an easy-to-understand manner: literary adornment is unnecessary. All present concurred and quoted two traditional maxims: Laozi's "beautiful words are untrue, true words are not beautiful" and Confucius's "speech cannot be fully recorded by writing, and speech cannot fully capture meaning".
Zhi Qian's own translations of Buddhist texts are elegant and literary, so the "direct translation" advocated in the anecdote is likely Wei Qi's position, not Zhi Qian's.
Dao An focused on loss in translation. His theory is the Five Forms of Loss (五失本):
He also expanded upon the difficulty of translation, with his theory of the Three Difficulties (三不易):
Kumarajiva’s translation practice was to translate for meaning. The story goes that one day Kumarajiva criticized his disciple Sengrui for translating “heaven sees man, and man sees heaven” (天見人,人見天). Kumarajiva felt that “man and heaven connect, the two able to see each other” (人天交接,兩得相見) would be more idiomatic, though heaven sees man, man sees heaven is perfectly idiomatic.
In another tale, Kumarajiva discusses the problem of translating incantations at the end of sutras. In the original there is attention to aesthetics, but the sense of beauty and the literary form (dependent on the particularities of Sanskrit) are lost in translation. It is like chewing up rice and feeding it to people (嚼飯與人).
Huiyuan's theory of translation is middling, in a positive sense. It is a synthesis that avoids extremes of elegant (文雅) and plain (質樸). With elegant translation, "the language goes beyond the meaning" (文過其意) of the original. With plain translation, "the thought surpasses the wording" (理勝其辭). For Huiyuan, "the words should not harm the meaning" (文不害意). A good translator should “strive to preserve the original” (務存其本).
Sengrui investigated problems in translating the names of things. This is of course an important traditional concern whose locus classicus is the Confucian exhortation to “rectify names” (正名). This is not merely of academic concern to Sengrui, for poor translation imperils Buddhism. Sengrui was critical of his teacher Kumarajiva's casual approach to translating names, attributing it to Kumarajiva's lack of familiarity with the Chinese tradition of linking names to essences (名實).
Much of the early material of earlier translators was gathered by Sengyou and would have been lost but for him. Sengyou’s approach to translation resembles Huiyuan's, in that both saw good translation as the middle way between elegance and plainness. However, unlike Huiyuan Sengyou expressed admiration for Kumarajiva’s elegant translations.
Xuanzang’s theory is the Five Untranslatables (五種不翻), or five instances where one should transliterate:
Yan Fu is famous for his theory of fidelity, clarity and elegance (信達雅), which some believe originated with Tytler. Yan Fu wrote that fidelity is difficult to begin with. Only once the translator has achieved fidelity and clarity should he attend to elegance. The obvious criticism of this theory is that it implies that inelegant originals should be translated elegantly. Clearly, if the style of the original is not elegant or refined, the style of the translation should not be elegant either.
Liang Qichao put these three qualities of a translation in the same order, fidelity first, then clarity, and only then elegance.
Lin Yutang stressed the responsibility of the translator to the original, to the reader, and to art. To fulfill this responsibility, the translator needs to meet standards of fidelity (忠實), smoothness (通順) and beauty.
Lu Xun's most famous dictim relating to translation is "I'd rather be faithful than smooth" (寧信而不順).
Zhou Zuoren assigned weightings, 50% of translation is fidelity, 30% is clarity, and 20% elegance.
Zhu Guangqian wrote that fidelity in translation is the root which you can strive to approach but never reach. This formulation perhaps invokes the traditional idea of returning to the root in Daoist philosophy.
Fu Lei held that translation is like painting: what is essential is not formal resemblance but rather spiritual resemblance (神似).
Qian Zhongshu wrote that the highest standard of translation is transformation (化, the power of transformation in nature): bodies are sloughed off, but the spirit (精神), appearance and manner (姿致) are the same as before (故我, the old me or the old self).