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Home » Opinion » Foreign Views

English translations don’t do justice to ‘untranslatable’ Chinese concepts

Editor’s note: 

Junzi in Chinese has a far richer and more nuanced meaning than its common English translation as “gentleman,” just as shengren has different connotations from its English translation as “sage.” Hence, the author calls for the use of Chinese concepts as part of a new global language.

I have been working very hard lately. I have restored the shengren 圣人 to East Asia and to world history, and empowered two billion East Asians by green-lightening more of their precious terminologies for worldwide recognition.

It wasn’t easy. I am despised by an army of undiscerning academic highbrows, and ridiculed by semi-educated and vengeful “China-experts” whose era of translating Chinese into Western categories has now come to an end. The public is ready for non-European vocabularies.

For 3,000 years the Chinese owned the concept of daxue£¨´óѧ£©, yet no Chinaman ever came of the idea — let alone succeeded — to elevate this word permanently into the English language. What to think of such cultural passivity?

Yes, I am fearless and indifferent to convention and limitation. If there are shengren and junzi£¨¾ý×Ó£©in the world, let them be known. And if there is a tianxia £¨ÌìÏ£© or a datong £¨´óͬ£©, we shall restore them to the global lexicon, too.

More and more writers have irreversibly lightened up to the fact that each culture had purpose and design. Europe never invented rujia £¨Èå¼Ò£©; China did. Americans didn’t trailblaze the concepts of dharma, karma or yoga; India did. The wisdom of the East is immortalized in its vocabularies and must be liberated from European language imperialism once and for all.

When commentators ask me: “What is that, tianren heyi £¨ÌìÈ˺ÏÒ»£©?” I passionately reply: “Glad to hear that you don’t know.”

Some people say this is madness! Or, maybe we just took the Takarabune and sailed a hundred years ahead of the establishment. I painfully remember, from my young days in Bockum-Hovel in the old German city of Hamm, when my grand grandmother — may her soul rest in peace — used to warn me, and she meant well: “Do you ever mingle with mongoloids!”

Bias against foreign terms

We are still not past anti-foreignism, my dear friends.

On the contrary, these days we are experiencing another: an unprecedented Anglo-Saxon bias against foreign terms: The New York Times, The Times, The Wall Street Journal, Science magazine — the greater part of the Western “mass muscle” — is coercing their authors to hold back on non-English words or eliminate them from their submissions.

The aim: to keep their ever-so-global papers pure, “readable” and appropriate for the species.

Ask yourself, when was the last time you read Persian or Russian thought in print in Western media? The likely answer is: You never did.

Likewise, to this day, even with China rising, Western media remain virtually Chinese-free, and this isn’t even a metaphor.

In the age of conquest, Europeans could make a colored man and his livelihood disappear — and get away with it. They could also omit —  or shall we say erase — any of his words, or simply substitute a European term for it.

Even today the shrewd and narrow-minded — especially the academics — still get away with (European) biblical or philosophical translations of Chinese key terms all the time.

I ask, is such practice really necessary, ethical or even legal anymore in this 21st century of knowledge, information, and intellectual property rights? Can we really disown, say, Japanese sake and sushi any way we want, perhaps calling them “rice wine and fish” even though sake and sushi are their names?

Let there be tens of thousands of Eastern key words filling our European imaginations to the brim.

It will give us plenty of opportunity to finally learn something new.

Who cares no single human being can possibly remember all languages? That’s complementary to the fact that we are so many language speakers; because that’s ultimately what we do: we are constantly scanning the world and creating new thought, and branding our innovations by putting unique names to them.

Asia is the other mother lode of all human creativity. Make it count!

I’ve said many times that we couldn’t do it before, that we couldn’t tolerate too many Asian words and categories in Europe (we couldn’t even tuck in French, imagine that), simply because in the old days we lacked vision, patience, and the infinite memory capacity of today’s machines. Those so-called European “modern men” only cared for those categories most familiar to them.

End irresponsible translations

This is about to change.

Now that we’ve mastered all the sciences, we must make a science out of the humanities — the last and sorry dimension that is still at fault, that is still dominated by opinion, speculation, ignorance, personal preference, faith and fashion and wise-cracks, and, sometimes, even outright despotism. We must end irresponsible translations of foreign key terminologies and we must work overtime to find the “untranslatable” words in each language.

The day will come when we are going to treat all vocabularies of the world’s languages as the colored bricks in a box that was handed down to us by all those who came before us. Let us build the fairest construction the world has ever seen — the global language.

Thorsten Pattberg is a research fellow at The Institute for Advanced Humanistic Studies at Peking University. Shanghai Daily condensed the article.




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