Professor of translation at Hong Kong Baptist University, Tan Zaixi claims that "the Chinese tradition of translation is an ‘externally-oriented’ tradition, whereas in the West there is a more ‘internally-oriented’ one". Traditionally, Chinese translation theories were in fact for works from foreign languages to Chinese.

The Modern Standard Chinese word fanyi 翻譯 "translate; translation" compounds fan "turn over; cross over; translate" and yi "translate; interpret". The Chinese classics contain various words meaning "interpreter; translator", for example, sheren 舌人 (lit. "tongue person") .

Chinese translation theory was born out of contact with vassal states during the Zhou Dynasty and developed through translations of Buddhist scripture into Chinese. A Western Han work attributes a dialogue about translation to Confucius, who advises a ruler who wishes to learn foreign languages not to bother and focus on governance, letting the translators handle translation.

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