Translation, Power Hierarchy, and the Globalization of the Concept “Human Rights”: Potential Contributions from Confucianism Missed by the UDHR



This essay strikes new paths for investigating the politics of translation and the (non-) universality of the concept of “human rights” by engaging them in a critical dialogue. Part I of my essay argues that a truly universal concept would have available linguistic equivalents in all languages. On this basis, I develop translation into a tool for disproving the claim that the concept human rights is universal. An inaccurate claim to universality could be made to look valid, however, if one culture dominates over others, and manages to impose its own concepts and exclude competitors. Part II explores how human rights, initially a modern Western concept, became more and more universalized as a result of the global reach of Western political and economic power. I attempt to shed new light on the subject by investigating the role of translation in bringing about the global hegemony of Western legal and political languages and concepts. Since translation always involves a choice of foregrounding one of the two languages and cultures involved, the translator is a power broker who can promote one voice at the expense of the other. My examples for conducting this investigation are the key contributions made by China and the West to the drafting of the UDHR: with ren and rights representing respectively the West and China’s proposed solutions to crimes against humanity in the immediate aftermath of World War II. While the concept rights became increasingly assimilated into the Chinese language along with her repeated defeats by colonial powers (and was already firmly established in the Chinese vocabulary by the time of the drafting of the UDHR), ren by contrast has never been included by any Western language and culture.


Translation, human rights, UDHR, Confucianism, ren, P.C. Chang, Vattel, international law, Opium Wars, Voltaire

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