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TU Berlin

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Translated Terms as Meme Products: the struggle for existence in Late Qing chemical terminologies

David Wright (Bracknell)

Under certain circumstances, the existence of alternative schemes of technical terms may involve the lexical equivalent of a Darwinian struggle for existence between rivals. Eventually, following the development of consensus and consequent standardisation, a condition approaching the peaceful, bland, compromised ecosystem of a garden is established. By then, only "cultivated" terms, which no longer compete aggressively for lexical space, are allowed to exist.

An interesting case of tangled diversity and confusion are the translated chemical terminologies in late nineteenth century China. Rival systems of terms from the translators of the Jiangnan Arsenal, the Beijing Tongwenguan, and the Educational Association of China struggled for existence at the turn of the century, and we can find many examples of promiscuous usage in the authors of that period.

Applying Richard Dawkins' notion of the meme as a "unit of cultural inheritance", I argue that successful technical terms can be regarded as "meme products". The factors which determine whether a given translated term survives depends on a constellation of factors, including the matching of ambiguities between the source language term and th receptor language term.

I discuss the linguistic and extralinguistic factors which may determine the survival of a given translated technical term. The notion of fuzzy entropy is employed to explain why terms need not be completely unambiguous to be successful, and hence why the many resurrected characters used by the Jiangnan Arsenal translators triumphed over their (sometimes apparently "fitter") rivals.

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