Blog Post

Human Rights Lost in Cultural Translation

Invoked as antidote to oriental authoritarianism, human rights talk often draws a line between us and them, between other cultures bereft of rights and the West blessed with rights and liberty.

If only some humans enjoy rights, translation of rights discourse seems suspect.Some 100 years ago, Chinese and Japanese reformists translated John Stuart Mills’ On Liberty. But critics since then have opined that the Asian translators did not get it right.Due to his ignorance of individualism or to his upbringing in Confucianism, the Chinese translator Yan Fu, for instance, ignored the individual priority of liberalism and was too quick to leap to a notion of right as the right of the community or nation-state.

In rendering Mill’s work, however, the Asian translators were implicitly criticizing Mill’s notion of individual liberty for providing no provisions for public goods.Rather than trying to render an image of the individual based on personal or property rights, they altered the Western notion of right into obligation to community and society.So the alleged mistranslation is actually a critique that shifts the right-based person to the responsible member of Confucian social organism, highlighting commitment to collective practices and mutual goods.

What gets lost in this translation is the mythical divide between liberal modernity and oriental authoritarianism.The same critique was taking place in Mill’s homeland Britain around the time of translation. In the 1880s it became clear that personal liberty, buttressed by a libertarian state, was responsible for increased oppression in England and in colonies.Individual liberty was brandished by the rich to keep the masses in dire poverty and servitude.Through economic policies of low taxation, rights of inheritance, and the tradition of entailed estates the ruling state promoted an laissez fair economy that benefited a few at the expense of many. British critic T. H. Greens and reformers charged that the liberal order had been usurped by liberalism itself.They reasserted the individual’s public obligations and virtue and launched a reform. In late 19th century Asia, liberalism might seem attractive to reformists, but the demands of the liberal imperialist powers in East Asia rendered the claim of liberty downright menacing.

Rather than a guarantee, human rights may be used to aggravate the dire condition of inequality and injustice.The language of right honors the legal notion of property right. Key to this is commodity exchange, confined to the exchange of equivalents, a transaction between capital and labor.Under this contract peace and prosperity is said to prevail, although this is more apparent than real.In the expansion of capital into other nations, however, rights discourse becomes a question of “how the right of ownership changes in the course of accumulation into appropriation of other people’s property, how commodity exchange turns into exploitation and equality becomes class rule.” [i] Viewing globalization as a neo-liberal, neo-imperialist agenda, David Harvey contends that primitive accumulation continues in the form of “accumulation by dispossession,” stripping rights of colonized communities to survive and to order their own life.[ii]

The accumulation of capital means the market becomes the sole ruler over the fate of human beings.  Its tyranny brings land, nature, and labor into a scheme whose sole purpose is to achieve maximum money gains. Subject to its rule, human beings, land, and nature could no longer remain in the natural rhythm and were unable to reproduce themselves.But labor, land and nature, by being embedded in what E. P. Thompson calls “the grid of inheritance,” are not commodities. [iii]  Under total market rule, writes Karl Polanyi, “man under the name of labor, nature under the name of land, were made available for sale; the use of labor power could be universally bought and sold at a price called wages, and the use of land could be negotiated for a price called rent.” Yet leaving “the fate of soil and people to the market would be tantamount to annihilating them”[iv]

Against this, counter-movements had been waged since the seventeenth century in land legislations and socialist movements in European nations.They struggled for rights—not only individual rights but substantive rights of survival and community attempts to put checks on the random destruction of the market.Government intervention, social movements, land protection, and national independence movements in Asia and around world are the action of society and people to protect themselves from encroachments of the profit-driven global market.In these movements, is not individual liberty bound up with political liberty? Must individual right be protected by the exercise of the people’s rights?

[i] Rosa Luxemburg, The Accumulation of Capital, trans. Agnes Schwarzchild (London and New York: Routledge, 2003), 432.

[ii] David Harvey, The New Imperialism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 145.

[iii] E. P. Thompson, The Essential E. P. Thompson (New York: The New Press, 2001), 287.

[iv] Karl Polany, The Great Transformations. Forward by Joseph E


Ban Wang's picture
Wang Ban is the William Haas Professor in Chinese Studies at Stanford University. He received his Ph.D. in comparative literature at UCLA. In addition to his research on Chinese and comparative literature, he has written on English and French literatures, psychoanalysis, international politics, and cinema. He has been a recipient of research fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton. He taught at Beijing Foreign Studies University, SUNY-Stony Brook, Harvard University, and Rutgers University before he came to Stanford. His current project is tentatively entitled China and the World: Geopolitics, Aesthetics, and Cosmopolitanism. His interests include modern Chinese literature and film, comparative literature (East and West), aesthetics, intellectual history, psychoanalysis, transnational politics and culture.