On translating from Chinese into European languages

Viviane Alleton & Michael Lackner

When discovering a translation of a work from his own tradition in a European language, a Chinese will base his judgement on the degree of fidelity of that translation on what he regards as being the original text. A sinologist in the role of the critic will react in the same way. But the effect of such a translation on a European audience is largely independent from the criterion of fidelity. The readers react according to two expectations. On the one hand, they are prepared for that which is presented to them as compatible with China as constructed in their imagination through earlier translations and the discourses of travellers. On the other hand, being engaged in the political, intellectual and literary debates of their day, they are voluntarily searching in the Chinese text for examples suited to justify their favouring of certain models dominant in Europe at the time or legitimizing an emergent current.

The present work is not aimed at elaborating a theory of translation, but at highlighting the decisive moments as challenges of the adventure which is the encounter of two societies separated in space [1] - one of the first questions here being whether this distance, as one sometimes tends to believe, implies fundamental differences which the translator cannot overcome.

The authors, having their European culture and their knowledge of Chinese in common, were not selected in view of a systematic exploration of disciplines and nations. They came together not only through a web of friendships, but because of a shared question: How do the choices of the translator evoke a specific understanding of the Chinese world within the ordinary reader?

One of the most striking contrasts between Europe and China is that graphic community has exempted the Chinese from all translation. The only massive historical exception was the importation of Buddhist texts written in Sanskrit during the first centuries of our era. Although these translations caused a considerable culture shock, the practice of translation remained confined to a few specialized studios and was mostly the work of intermediaries from Central Asia. To be sure, China was engaged throughout her history in close relations, either as vassal or suzeraine, in war or negotiation with border populations who spoke Mongolian, Turkish, Tibetan or an Altaique language. However, the work of interpretation and translation that was thereby implied was entrusted to specialized offices which did not enjoy great prestige, and remained at an infinite distance from the world of the mandarins and the course of examinations that led towards it. Translations from European languages, which became available in small quantities following the arrival of the Jesuits between the 16th and 18th centuries and were eventually undertaken on a larger scale (in competition with translations from the Japanese) from the mid-19th century onwards, remained a considerable novelty.

The European game

Europe, for its part, split since antiquity into two realms of civilization, the Greek and the Roman, each of both being nurtured by translations from the other, and in close contact with the Semitic world, has known a truly frenetic activity of translation since the consecration of vernacular languages in the Renaissance. Thus, to cite just one example, each of the great treatises on agriculture that were revised in whichever part of the continent, from Andalusia to Brandenburg and from Paris to Naples, was immediately translated into one or several other languages.

It is remarkable that the inter-European translation work that is incited by the multilingualism constitutive of Europe functions for translations from the Chinese in the same manner as for autochthonous texts. This European game is analysed by Wolfgang Bauer and Federico Masini. Exploring the instable balance between fidelity and elegance, W. Bauer reviews numerous texts translated into French or English and re-translated into German. His analysis reveals that the tertiary renderings are generally more elegant in the target language than the probably more trustworthy translations by the sinologists. The inter-European journey erases to a certain extent the blunders of the first translator, so anxious about the distance separating him from his model through time and space. Frequently, famous personalities have dedicated some of their time to such re-translations.Goethe or Martin Buber may serve as cases in point. The growing number of direct translations from the Chinese was often of minor literary quality, but the great game of the European languages continues to provide an interesting supplement: the variety of European languages results in the actualization of several of the virtual interpretations present in the original Chinese text, each translator rendering best that which corresponds to the tendencies of his own language and culture. There is a veritable creative power at work in these translations that stands in contrast to the apparent coagulation of the always unified original text.

F. Masini offers here the first inclusive survey of the history of Italian translations from the Chinese. This undertaking, accompanied by an exhaustive bibliography, is truly outstanding. As in Germany, re-translations predominated in Italy until the end of the Second World War. Many great names of Italian literature played a role in this game. F. Masini illustrates the misadventures of a poem translated from the Chinese into French by D'Hervey-Saint-Denys, re-translated, again into French, by Judith Gauthier - who had no knowledge of Chinese -, and then further into Italian by T. Massarani, from where it was adapted by a whole range of writers and poets not many of whom knew Chinese. Today, like the rest of Europe, Italy has entered the era of direct translations.

The personalities of translators

Not in all cases, however, was there a direct transition from the writer amusing himself by giving shape to an existing translation to the sinological and mostly academic translator with whom we are familiar today. There was also a phase where translators regarded themselves as magicians of a kind and to a certain extent quite rightly so. This is above all a Germanic phenomenon, presented here by Lutz Bieg, Michael Lackner and Monika Motsch.

L. Bieg concentrates his interest on Vincenz Hundhausen (1878-1955). For this great erudite, translator of Horace and possessed with classical antiquity, the Chinese language, which he knew very well in its modern form since he had lived almost thirty years in China, was a language like any other: for him, the distance that separated China from Germany through space did not seem any more difficult to bridge than the distance that separated him from the Latins through time. Hundhausen was related to groups inspired by Stefan George, whose ambition it was to realize a sacralization of art in the 1920s and 1930s. Standing outside of the academic system, he was not held in great esteem by German sinologists, who accused him of hardly ever consulting the classics,[2] however, his familiarity with great Chinese intellectuals, such as Feng Zhi (1905-1993), the translator of Goethe, guaranteed him access to classical Chinese culture. His very colourful translations [3] were widely read and supported by the press whenever the sinological community contested his competence.

Another translator who was not recognized by specialists is studied by Michael Lackner: Richard Wilhelm. In contrast to the work of Hundhausen, who never gained much reputation outside the Germanophone world, Wilhelm's translation of the Yijing (Book of Changes) was itself rapidly translated into English (Wilhelm-Barnes) and from there into French. Eventually, Wilhelm's rendering, taken up in many languages, experienced worldwide diffusion and remains to this day the most common translation. Yet this translator was in a sense the apostle of an ideology, more precisely the mediator between a Chinese attempt at national renaissance and circles in Germany centered around Eucken and Driesch, who were trying to construct a new German identity, both equally wrapped up in a mysticism inspired by Jung. Wilhelm's ideological stance presupposed a non-historical perception of China, and it is remarkable that this reductionism produced a text much easier to read than the Chinese text ever was for Chinese readers.

Erwin von Zach is an even more truculent personality, far removed from accepted norms. This ill-reputed Austrian aristocrat was a true bulimic of translation from the Chinese. Monika Motsch analyses his renderings from the work of the great Tang poet, Du Fu. Translating in a most literal way and, frankly, in such a tedious manner that one could say he tainted Du Fu's image for generations of Germanophone readers, von Zach had the enormous ambition that "future poets (...) will consider (his) version as primary material on which to build poems in German".

It is noteworthy that this type of translator, who regards himself more or less as a thaumaturge, seems to have existed, at least with regard to the Chinese, only in certain parts of Europe, namely in the Germanic world, and has been unknown in France and in the Latin countries.

Thus, even if the Marquis D'Hervey-Saint-Denys (1823-1892), who is presented here by Angel Pino and Isabelle Rabut, was also very pugnacious, he is still very different, and this not only because he lived before the violent upheavals of our century. This brilliant translator became a theoretician only a posteriori, justifying his practice in response to criticisms addressed against him. He went to great lengths in order to explain the obligation of the translator to seduce the reader, arguing as though he had a coherent project. A. Pino and I. Rabut lead us right into the translator's studio.

The translator speaks

It is very fortunate that we are able to benefit here from the testimonies of two of the most reknown translators from the Chinese in Europe: Jacques Dars and André Lévy.

Evoking a famous article by Freud ("Endliche und unendliche Analyse"), J. Dars talks about the titles of translations of great Chinese works. The importance of these labels is all the greater for the Chinese since the originals are sometimes known under several different titles corresponding to different readings. The same great novel may thus be rendered "The Story of the Stone" as a metaphysical adventure, or "A Dream of Red Mansions" as a variation on adolescence. The melancholy of the translator who is not recognized as a creator is engendered by the situation of his work in time, which is put into question over and over again, "terminable and interminable translation".

The "passion of translation" is also illustrated by André Lévy, although on a more optimistic note. To be sure, A. Lévy recognizes that the accumulation of works cannot result in a continous perfecting of the received text since the language as well as the modes of reception change in the different countries over the course of time. However, the new élan that every new text arouses in the seduced translator may from time to time invoke beautiful encounters.

The versatilities of translations

Another question that may be asked is what happens to the Chinese texts in this European adventure. It is addressed here by Fu Daiwie, Anne Cheng and Christoph Harbsmeier. D.W. Fu calls his paper "Imposition of Taxonomy". By this he is implying that European translators interested in the history of sciences in China, in particular Joseph Needham, have let their own taxonomic conceptions dictate their choice of the fragments to be translated as well as the manner in which they proceeded to do this. This decontextualization is facilitated by the fact that many ancient Chinese texts present themselves as a succession of propositions whose sequence is not necessarily explained. This is especially true for the Mengxi Bitan, the notes of a famous 11th-century polygraph, which have been intensively exploited by sinologists. The latter translated texts in the vocabulary of the Occidental sciences, which were conceived from an entirely different perspective and have thus obstructed the understanding of the true argumentative structure.

Anne Cheng considers this question on an even more reduced scale: one phrase from the Confucian Analects, which is generally interpreted as signifying that the Master rarely talked about the virtue of humanity (ren), although the latter seems to be in the centre of his teaching.[4] A. Cheng examines the Chinese commentaries as well as the translations in Occidental languages, thus implicitly questioning the status of the commentaries. In the end, she joins D.W. Fu in proving that the paradoxes the translator encounters are partly due to the fact that he does not fully grasp the context. This has of course more serious consequences for texts that are more than 1500 years old and have paved the way for innumerable glosses than for those examined by Fu. In the case under consideration, the Chinese tradition has tried to solve the paradox; but for the translator, it is not forbidden to leave it as it stands and present it as an open question.

C. Harbsmeier deals with the founding texts of so called "philosophical" Taoism in a reverse attitude. Have the translators of the Laozi and the Zhuangzi who have employed the pronoun "I" "over-translated" their originals? In a highly ingenious manner, C. Harbsmeier constructs a space of incertitude between an "I" imposing subjectivity and a "we" expressing collective authority. This position was contested by J.F. Billeter, who remarked that the pronoun "I" in the target language does not necessarily refer to a subject able to produce an autobiography but may also refer to the abstraction of an agent.

Words and polysemy

Polysemy is a universal phenomenon. In a language like Chinese, where morphological segmentation is present in the writing itself, this polysemy reaches as deep as the radicals in European languages. The result is a particularly violent challenge for the translator, for he is obliged to choose from all the meanings possible and of all these one fixed coagulation that will not necessarily be the one the author had in mind. This challenge is tackled by Jean Levi, Georges Métailié, Zhang Yinde and Andrew Plaks.

According to J. Levi, semantic plasticity plays a fundamental role in Chinese thinkers' articulation of different levels of discourse. The difficulty for the translator is that he often has to revert to literary means, such as plays on words, allusions and metaphors spun out for texts that are not counted as belonging to the literary realm. This confronts us with the problem of genres, whose division does not always coincide in China and Europe. In addition, we have a rather different configuration of the world: thus, war is in certain Chinese texts derived from the field of human activities aimed "at total assimilation to a cosmic operation". But it would be a reduction to oppose China and Europe on this basis. A term such as "priesthood", for example, may likewise evoke in a Lutheran European the picture of a person fully dressed in black, while a Catholic might imagine an official shimmering in gold and white.

The position of Georges Métailié with regard to botanical terms is more reassuring. In this domain, the translators from the Chinese have created extravagant usages which not only lead the readers to identify objects erroneously, but also impress on them an entirely unwarranted exotism. G. Métailié proposes to clearly distinguish the genres in the target language. In a scientific text, it is reasonable to use the Latin denominations; in a literary text, the treasury of pictorial and metaphorical expressions in popular language generally makes it possible to find a happy equivalent for the Chinese terms. However, this requires great effort, and perhaps here is one of the conclusions of our work: there are no untranslatable texts but only lazy translators.

The problem of the names of persons which is invoked by Y.D. Zhang is situated at the heart of Chinese life. In fact, the personal name ("first name") is constructed by morphemes from the living language, which means that it comprises one or more meanings, latent in everyday usage, but immediately reactivated for the Chinese reader. In this way, the literary author injects a program into the names of his personalities. Certainly, Rabelais as well as Balzac were masters of this game. The difference lies in the ability of even a less erudite Chinese reader to grasp the intentions expressed by means of the proper name. Y.D. Zhang explains the challenge thus imposed on the translator who is not willing to content himself with a mere summary.

A. Plaks tackles an essential text from the great tradition of esoteric Confucianism, the Zhongyong (The Invariable Mean). Faced with the great difficulties offered by this text - smooth and without immediate context, discussed, annotated and commented upon since the third century before our era and abundantly translated since the times of the Jesuits (R.P. Michele Ruggieri 1585), A. Plaks proposes a return to a modest vision: there is no reason to make the text "more interesting" or more precise than it is. Applying himself to the way in which the fundamental terms are linked to one another in the contextual web of the text, he tends to think that recent sophistications are not entirely justified. He argues that the first translations by the Jesuits into Latin and French, which were inspired by the thought of Aristotle as interpreted in the Middle Ages, did not introduce the distortions that some have wished to see in them. A. Plaks considers that successful translations from the Chinese may refer the European reader to the roots of his own culture.

[1] And, with regard to the entire classical tradition, in time as well.
[2] In this respect it is without any doubt possible to compare him to the Frenchman André d'Hormon, who spent part of his life in China, far removed from any career.
[3] Especially that of the Shijing (Book of Odes).
[4] Ren is the object of 58 sections and is mentioned 105 times in the text of the Analects, which consists of 499 sections altogether.



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Last modified: September 4, 1999 by Joachim Kurtz