The first British envoy to China was George Macartney; his mission is referred to in the historical literature as the Macartney Embassy. The basic purpose of the embassy was to open up trade between Great Britain and China, which theretofore has been greatly restricted in various ways by the Chinese authorities.
Naturally, Macartney would have needed translation assistance to communicate with Chinese officials. However, due to some peculiar circumstances that will be related below, translators were not easy to come by, as is detailed in this passage from the Wikipedia article on the Macartney Embassy:
As a result of the tribulations of East India Company supercargo and translator James Flint in the 1750s at the hands of the Chinese [VHM: the so-called Flint Affair, which will be described briefly below], the East India Company, the only quasi-official British government presence in China, had become hostile to the idea of training its employees as Chinese interpreters and were unable to provide Macartney with assistance. Instead, the embassy employed two Chinese students from the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith in Naples who were tasked with teaching Chinese to Thomas Staunton, 12-year-old son of mission secretary Sir George Leonard Staunton and John Barrow, later Sir John Barrow, 1st Baronet. Although the delegation had access to missionary interpreters in Beijing, as non-embassy members they were not permitted to attend the audience with the Emperor leaving Macartney with a child and a student of Chinese as his sole interpreters. Furthermore, memories of the execution of James Flint's scribes meant that no Chinese scholar-official dared to translate Macartney's speech. Instead, his words were translated into Latin then transcribed into conversational Chinese and finally rewritten in accordance with official protocol with the draft destroyed to protect the scribe.
What a strange and convoluted method for transmuting Macartney's words from English into written Chinese! The historical background for this procedure lay in the Flint Affair referred to at the beginning of the passage quoted above.
James Flint (?1720-?), one of the first English persons to learn Chinese, was an 18th-century British merchant and diplomat employed by the East India Company. The British chafed at being restricted to dealing only through Cantonese merchants and officials. They wished to expand their mercantile contacts through ports further north, such as Ningbo in Zhejiang. The Cantonese were strongly opposed to this, since it meant that they would lose a large portion of their income (including graft and extortion as well as profits from commercial transactions). Flint decided that he was going to submit a petition directly to the Qianlong Emperor in order to break through the impasse. With the help of Chinese merchants from Sichuan and Ningbo, he did exactly that, causing an enormous furor. It was unthinkable that a foreign barbarian would dare to submit a request directly to the emperor. Consequently, Flint himself was imprisoned for three years, and the two Chinese merchants who helped him write the petition to the emperor were executed. After that, Chinese were very reluctant to help foreigners write documents for submission to the government.
A side note is that, after he returned from China, Flint introduced the soya bean to North America. An associate of Flint from the East India Company named Samuel Bowen obtained land in Georgia on which he planted soya beans, from which he produced soy sauce and soy vermicelli. Even more noteworthy is that Flint corresponded with Benjamin Franklin about how to make tofu from soya beans. This is considered to be the first use of the word "towfu" in English.
Turning to the matter of character amnesia in the late 18th century, the following selection from An Authentic Account of an Embassy from the King of Great Britain to the Emperor of China (1797), by the Macartney Embassy secretary, George Staunton, father of the boy interpreter, Thomas Staunton, who accompanied the embassy, is revealing.
The passage occurs on pp. 309-313, following a description of the kowtow. (Transcribed by Brendan O'Kane from Google Books; Brendan offers apologies for any non-historically accurate typos.)
Rendering one language into another is never an easy task, but when there are serious political and cultural obstacles standing in the way, it becomes an even more daunting challenge. And, when the target language is one that is as difficult as written Chinese, it is sometimes necessary to resort to extraordinary means to get the job done passably well.