Other Well-dwellers

Filed under: — K. M. Lawson @ 2:47 am

Some years ago while studying in Beijing I bought a good number of nicely bound hardback volumes from a series entitled the “Library of Chinese Classics” (大中华文库, published by the 外文出版社 and 湖南人民出版社 in 1999), which includes many of the standard Chinese philosophical works one might expect to find in such a collection. What I found so delightful about the collection was the very useful way it put the original classical Chinese together with a modern Chinese translation of the classics on the left side of each page, along with an English translation on the right side of the page. In addition to letting me see how certain classical Chinese phrases are rendered into modern Chinese, it made it easier for me to find the original literary Chinese when I’m looking for a particular passage I have seen in other translations.

After a failed attempt in China, I’m taking first year “literary Chinese” again this year and after a semester of mostly reading some famous accounts of great assassins, we have moved on to Mengzi (classical Chinese is one of those wonderful languages where first year students dive straight into reading great literature). I often refer to other translations as a check on my own pitiful attempts and learn a lot from the ways various scholars have approached difficult passages. Unfortunately, from the perspective of English readability, the English translation in the above mentioned series is usually the worst I have come across. Many sentences feel like direct literal translations and are often horribly bland. While I’m in no position to evaluate the accuracy of this relatively new work, even if it were to trump all previous translations by correcting various egregious errors or misunderstandings, I wouldn’t want to use it by itself. Look, though, what one of the English editors, Chu Zhida, has to say in the introduction to the Mengzi volume in this series after he has listed other existing translations of the work:

“From the above-mentioned translations and theses we can see, Mencius bears certain influences in the west. But in modern cultural, the flow-in and flow-out are not balanced. Those flowing out were most completed by foreign missionaries, and later introduced and translated by foreign sinologists. Those completed by Chinese scholars especially systematic introduction are next to none. Since the study of the Chinese traditional culture has been orientated by the westerners, it sounds that the secondary supersedes the primary. As a foreigner, even if he is a sinologist, his knowledge of Chinese ancient history and cultural background is surely limited. As a result of the great differences between the east and the west, those translations and reviews must have born some negative influences. The author once wrote an article entitled Comments on James Legge’s Translation of Two Passages from Mencius (published in Chinese Translators Journal, the 6th issue of 1995), in which he pointed out: The work of translating The Four Books and Five Classics had better be completed by Chinese scholars in certain institutions and in a planned way and a number of learned scholars should join the work led by an authoritative administration, thus making those Chinese national treasures have better versions of foreign languages and become an important component of the world cultural treasure-house….As a translator it is an honour for the author to join part of the work. Working as a reviser of the English version of Mencius gave him an excellent opportunity to learn. Mencius mainly translated by Professor Zhao Zhentao is of high quality and better than the earlier versions such as J. Legge’s. It is worth admiring.” (41, my bold)

Fortunately, the English in the translation of the main text is at least better than Chu’s own introduction. What can we say of the claim made here though? On the surface it seems fairly harmless, if not common sensical to suggest that “foreigners” are at a distinct disadvantage when attempting to tackle such great Chinese classics, and it is certainly not controversial to claim that their knowledge is “limited.”

However, Chu is making the stronger claim that the translation of such works should be left to Chinese scholars. The result of this in this particular case, as I have indicated, was a translation that judged on its English alone, left much to be desired. The solution, of course, would have been better cooperation between the Chinese scholars and translators on this project, and truly fluent and eloquent English speakers (of any origin) who could have pointed out the many places where the resulting English prose suffered.

While the discussion here is specifically about translation, this issue is closely related to one that many of us “foreigners” who study East Asia must face time and time again. Must all of us humbly concede at the start of our careers that due to our “limited knowledge” and “cultural background” everything we do must be tainted with whatever Chu means to imply with the term “negative influences”? Must we confess that we can never truly do important and inspiring work in the field of, say for example, Chinese history and constrain ourselves to the subordinate task of introducing this room of the world’s “cultural treasure-house” to the ignorant West? Indeed, doesn’t the title of this website, 井底之蛙, suggest that we have already submitted to the verdict?

I think many of us would contest all of the above, and dismiss many such attacks as arrogant nativism. However, as this passage suggests, it is still more common than we might like to think. A friend of mine who studied early Japanese poetry for her dissertation was told by the professor she was to work with during her time in Japan that, “Foreigners can’t possibly understand the Manyôshû.” She had to switch to another professor, at another university, who had more faith her capacities.

It will always be the case that well-trained “native” scholars will be able to read more, faster, and will in many cases have “better instincts” on interpreting various material. I for one am constantly reminded of my own linguistic limitations, not to mention my vast areas of ignorance when I was doing some of my research in Tokyo and Taiwan, especially when compared to others I met there sharing my interests. However, I have also encountered plenty of counterexamples to the latter “better instincts” claim, especially with scholars who may have spent greater time studying and working with certain kinds of material than their “native” counterparts. Whatever raw skills we attribute to certain individuals, however, and however easily we dismiss the idea of an innately superior interpretive ability of a people for their “own” history, it doesn’t change the fact that all of us studying the history of East Asia suffer from severe limits to our vision (and I don’t mean to suggest by this metaphor that there is one “complete picture” out there to be seen), whether we are working/raised in the United States or in Taiwan, China, etc. That, I believe, is what I had in mind when starting out on this 井底之蛙 project. I would love to see more interaction between graduate students and professors in the less formal and hierarchical setting of a weblog like this, between academically minded students/professors and the greater public interested in East Asian history, and between those of us studying East Asia “over here” and studying East Asia “over there.”

–As a final provocative afternote, I should mention that I feel strongly that the fact that Orals/Comprehensive Exam PhD reading lists are in many cases largely or sometimes completely limited to English language works is one of the first steps within the graduate education setting here to creating the mental divisions between “our academic” world and “their” academic world.

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