Chinese philosophy–8. The language barrier

Posted: 2014 年 05 月 05 日 in Chinese philosophy

The Language Barrier

It is true of all philosophical writings that it is difficult for one to have a complete understanding and full appreciation of them if one cannot read them in the original. This is due to the language barrier. Because of the suggestive character of Chinese philosophical writings, the language barrier becomes even more formidable. The suggestiveness of the sayings and writings of the Chinese philosophers is something that can hardly be translated. When one reads them in translation, one misses the suggestiveness; and this means that one misses a great deal.

A translation, after all, is only an interpretation. When one translates a sentence from, say, the Lao Tzu, one gives one’s own interpretation of its meaning. But the translation may convey only one idea, while as a matter of fact, the original may contain many other ideas besides the one given by the translator. The original is suggestive, but the translation is not, and cannot be. So it loses much of the richness inherent in the original.

There have been many translations of the Lao Tzu and the Confucian Analects. Each translator has considered the translations of others unsatisfactory. But no matter how well a translation is done, it is bound to be poorer than the original. It needs a combination of all the translations already made and many others not yet made, to reveal the richness of the Lao Tzu and the Confucian Analects in their original form.

Kumarajiva, of the 5th century A.D., one of the greatest translators of the Buddhist texts into Chinese, said that the work of translation is just like chewing food that is to be fed to others. If one cannot chew the food oneself, one has to be given food that has already been chewed. After such an operation, however, the food is bound to be poorer in taste and flavor than the original.





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