Sunday, November 27, 2005

Lost in Translation in Translation

The Analects of Confucius Book 3 number 5:

D.C. Lau's translation:
"The Master said, 'Barbarian tribes with their rulers are inferior to Chinese states without them.'"

Arthur Waley's translation of the same passage:
"The Master said, 'The barbarians of the East and North have retained their princes. They are not in such a state of decay as we in China.'"

So which is it--is China better or are the barbarians? We don't need to feel bad. Looking at commentaries from the Han Dynasty onward, we can see Chinese people of different eras were just as lost as we are, and also needed a "translation." They had to explain the text in more understandable language.

Many commentators read 亡 (Waley's "decay") as being 無 (Lau's "without"), and then there's the matter of what you want to do with the 不如, "not like." Both Lau- and Waley-style interpretations can be found.

Many commentators also read the Analects not as isolated fragments of conversations, but almost as if there were a narrative running through each book. Book 3 is about sumptuary laws and conducting appropriate rituals (Confucius keeps harping about upper-class people putting on airs and doing stuff only the Emperor should be allowed to do), so people have raised the question why there'd be an empty potshot at the barbarians in the middle of all that. The context, they say, points to China's decline after all. Others say it means even if ritual was being misused, China was still the land of ritual and therefore still superior despite its lack of rulers.

I never realized the ways the Analects could be read (or, indeed, was read over history), and as a consequence I thought it was a pretty dull text. It's not--it's fascinating. It is too bad that the English translations leave out the good stuff that has arisen around the text over the years. It's clear the translators used it. What does the "original" text mean? Nobody's known that since Confucius' time, and it's a good thing, too. The openness of the text has created space for all sorts of readings.


Azuma said...

I feel unfashionable saying so, but I wouldn't say it was a good thing. I mean, if an arguement I wrote advocating something was misread due to obfuscation of linguistic change into advocating something different entirely, or even its opposite, I think I'd be upset in the afterlife. But maybe I'm not clear on what you mean. [CAUTION: Not a Sinologist] I always thought of Confucius as a pragmatic philosopher. If there are those who speak in gnomic riddles meaning to mean more than one thing at once, I would think at least he wasn't one of them.

amida said...

Damn, I just wrote a longish reply to your comment, and it seems to have disappeared. The gist was:

Don't feel too bad for old Confucius--these guys are essentially arguing the same thing (here, "Ritual is really really important") but taking different paths to get there and drawing different sophisticated questions from their very careful readings (here, "Is Ritual part of nature or is it ingrained in our culture?") Nobody is giving any crazy po-mo Derridean deconstructionist readings in these texts, and they're pretty hungry for the meaning of Sage #1.

Also, I have deliberately chosen a very vague passage from a very vague text. It's not everything that gets this sort of 180-degree reading.

I think we just can't know what it means for sure. Everybody draws on these commentaries when they read these texts--even modern Chinese editions come with some of them included. I think the English translations would benefit from laying their cards on the table, admitting the text is not cut-and-dried, and expose the reader to the whole discussion.

I know I am all over the place with these thoughts. I am not 100% clear yet, either, as I have never taken an interest in Confucianism before. Like most foreigners, I think, I was always drawn to Taoism, etc. and thought Confucianism was nothing more than "Study a lot and listen to your parents." There is a lot more to it than that (and that's one reason I think readers of the translations should be privy to the commentaries).

amida said...

As a translator, what would I do with this passage? Maybe something intentionally open like:

The Master said, "The Yi and the Di with rulers are not like the states of Xia without them."

Then I'd have a big fat footnote.

Matt said...

Azuma, your Classical background is showing ;)

I can see both points of view. I love the idea that hard, cross-textual study can bring obscure things into focus and solve centuries-old riddles of language; on the other hand, I also love the fact that this kind of thing demonstrates how every text draws its meaning partly from context, and as the context fades away and gets patchier the meaning does too. (I suppose here my linguistics-with-a-side-of-PoMo-English background is showing.)

Azuma said...

Sorry for the delay, by the way.

Yeah, I didn't really think you were getting pomo on me all of a sudden, but you can see at least it was a little unclear what you meant by that in the end. And I like your translation as solution too, very much.

I guess my position in the abstract is that there always is something the author is trying to say, even if most of the time, it's more like a general mood or impression or image than something one can quantify in quotes as "X". But the example of Confucius is a good one for the equally valid point that as an age reads a text a certain way, right or wrong, that has meaning. Certainly a knowledge of what Confucius "meant" to say is no more important to studying China than what everyone in a historical context then "thought" he was saying. Really, perhaps much less so. I would be the one to try and understand the period at issue by examining why the people of that age read something a certain way, but that of course presupposes that I understand the original intent, the control for such mental experiments. Which I might not, in a given case. Though that's the kind of error I think scholarship has to tolerate.

Please do post more on Confucius as you go along. My image has always been pretty much the exact same as yours, and I look forward to correcting that.

Azuma said...

Linguistics and pomo-English? I think I know that story. How long did it take before you fled English for Lingusitics? It took me about six months, though I didn't change the locks for about a year.

Matt said...

I started out English and Math/Computers, then fled both of them for Linguistics, then realized that if I did a couple more English units in my final year I could get a double major... I actually enjoyed the pomo stuff much more the second time around, because I had enough perspective to treat it as a big semantic game (and other classes in Chaucer and Beowulf to keep me sane.)

Sorry for using your blog as some kind of... chatting place, Amida!

amida said...

Azuma: You hit it on the head there--I am interested in studying what people thought other people said.

The really tricky thing with something like the Analects is, they predate dictionaries and reference materials. If you try to use reference materials to try to understand it, you are very likely to come across a reference to the very thing you are looking up and a "meaning" derived from... the commentaries!

Some have (naively) argued that China had no "philosophical" tradition and, at the same time, overlook the commentaries. That misconception is being rectified these days.

Matt: Chat it up, please!
And mukashimukashi, I too wanted to double major in Religious Studies and Comp Sci. I just couldn't get through the math for CS, though. Then in my 3rd year, I opened this Chinese can of works and ditched the Religious Studies.