Philosophy in another tongue (Chinese and Greek)
Plato said, 'The best guardian for a person's character is a thoughtful and cultivated mind.' translated by classical scholar and poet Francis MacDonald Cornford, according to Prof. Rick Benitez, below.
And, 'Chinese language is highly symbolic. So for instance, the character for a male person is comprised by two characters, one that means field, and the other than means power. Power in the field.' Dr Karyn Lai, below.
Imagine what we humans could achieve if we were fully empowered by an equal share of the gifts of nature and the global commons.
This is the transcript for the original broadcast on ABC RN Philosopher's Zoneprogram (1 March 2008), which can be downloaded from the ABC website:
INTRODUCTION: Philosophy aspires to universal truths but it has to do so in a particular language. How does the language in which philosophy is expressed affect what can and cannot be said, and how does translation affect our understanding of it? This week, we ask a Chinese philosopher how different Confucius is in English and we consider attempts to make Plato sound as though he came from Oxford.
Alan Saunders: Hello, and welcome to The Philosopher's Zone. I'm Alan Saunders.
Philosophy aspires to being universal. Whatever a philosopher says is supposed to be true, and it's supposed to be true whether it's said, or written in Greek, Chinese, German or French. But the language makes a difference. The philosopher Martin Heidegger famously said, Das nicht, nichtet. And that may make sense in German, but 'nothing noths' sounds pretty damn stupid in English.
So I spoke to a couple of philosophers whose attention is focused on work in other languages.
Rick Benitez is an associate professor in the Philosophy Department at the University of Sydney and an expert on Ancient Greek philosophy. And Dr Karyn Lai, from the University of New South Wales, specialises in Chinese philosophy.
Now I read Confucius as a student, and I read Plato. But the difference is that I knew that Confucius was going to be foreign, but I was somewhat taken aback to learn that understanding Plato meant understanding a few Greek words, so can you really do Plato in English?
Rick Benitez: I'm originally from North America. I came to Australia 16 years ago, and we speak the same language, so it's said. But I found that the cultural differences occasionally really shocked me, really surprised me, because I expected them to be the same. With Ancient Greek texts like Plato's Apology or some of the other early Dialogues, we find that the institutions are so recognisably similar to our own, jury trials, giving evidence, interrogating and cross-examining witnesses, that we tend to forget how different this culture 2,500 years ago is from ours. You can read those early Dialogues of Plato's with great profit and great understanding, but some of the subtleties and some of the really important things might escape you.
Alan Saunders: I mean, do you have any examples of really bad translations of Greek philosophy?
Rick Benitez: Well I do, I might give you one: this is Jowett's translation of Plato's Republic. Jowett is a famous translator of the Republic and he translates Socrates saying 'The best guardian for a man's virtue is philosophy tempered with music'. Now Cornford looked at that, he was criticising translations and he looked at that and said, 'Well somebody who reads that might run away with the idea that in order to avoid irregular relations with women, he had better play the violin in the intervals with studying metaphysics.'
Alan Saunders: So how would you translate that passage yourself?
Rick Benitez: I think Cornford's translation is much better actually. He says that 'The best guardian for a person's character is a thoughtful and cultivated mind.'
Alan Saunders: That's way different.
Rick Benitez: It's way different. And you have to understand the sense of the Greek, not just the literal meaning of the words, it's not like a dictionary translation word for word.
Alan Saunders: Karen, what are the problems with understanding classical Chinese philosophy in English?
Karyn Lai: Well exactly the same as some of the ones Rick has already pointed out, but I suppose the problems are compounded by the fact that in English, grammar counts a great deal in the meaning of a sentence, but in classical Chinese language, there is no grammar, there is no syntax, and here we're talking about, as you probably know, Chinese language is highly symbolic. So for instance, the character for a male person is comprised by two characters, one that means field, and the other than means power. Power in the field. So you know the characters you can kind of basically work out a rough idea. Power in the field is not necessarily going to give you masculinity, but it tells you some of the relationships and the way the Chinese conceptualise the world and how that's embodied in language. It tends to rest much more on meaning, the meaning of the characters than the syntax.
Alan Saunders: So the understanding, the analysis of Chinese philosophy isn't like the analysis of Western philosophy, you are actually looking at the characters and seeing what the characters convey. Rather, is this the case? Rather them following the argument from A plus B implies C, or something like that?
Karyn Lai: Well it is both of them, and a third thing. When I read Chinese philosophy, and I try to elucidate the concept, I do the same sorts of things I do with philosophy in English language, I look at the context, I look at the other pieces of work, I look at the relative weights of key concepts that appear in that passage, and so on and so forth. But one main thing I look at as well is how the particular characters appear in combination with others.
Alan Saunders: There is a show on Pay-TV at the moment called The Bullshit Detector, and this week they were looking at Feng Shui. They were analysing the works of three Feng Shui practitioners, all of them Caucasian and presumably not Chinese speakers. And I was thinking, Well look, the Chinese grid, the way in which classical Chinese thought divides the world up, is not the way in which Western thought divides the world up. So it's going to be different, and you cannot translate concepts one for one. So if you talk about 'chi' and you're an English speaker and you translate 'chi' as 'energy', well that is bullshit, because it doesn't behave in the way that energy behaves in western science. The world is simply divided up very differently.
Karyn Lai: That's right. And so given what you say, and I agree with that, that you can't define, properly define, or hope to catch the universal meaning of a concept purely by definition, you have to look at it's instantiations as well, so Chinese language is very anti-essentialist in terms of the meaning that's embodied in particular characters. It's non-absolutist, and I believe that's very much correlated with the way the Chinese might see the world. For instance, I think there are very close correlations between the way the symbols represent meanings and how the meanings are articulated differently in different contexts, and the way they understand the self. So there is a self, but they refuse to talk about the self in abstraction, it's always the self in that context, or in another context, or as a relational self and so on and so forth.
Alan Saunders: Rick, you've become interested in Chinese philosophy I gather. In translation, I assume.
Rick Benitez: In translation, I don't read ancient Chinese. I became interested in Chinese philosophy through an interest in comparative ethics, because I thought by looking at some translations that there were some significant similarities between traditional Chinese ethics and traditional Greek ethics.
Alan Saunders: This is an interest in virtue, in the virtue ethics.
Rick Benitez: That's right. And virtues involve their own particular translation difficulties. We use rather crude names for general virtues: bravery, justice, temperance, but there are very fine grades of these things. There are different kinds of grade readers: bravery in battle, and there's bravery in resistance to poverty or disease, or things like that, very different shades of them. So trying even to find the right word in one language for the virtue you're talking about is difficult. When you want to make translations across languages, you have the special difficulty that virtue terms are always connected with at least in part, some subjective states, states of character. And those things can't easily be expressed in words, and we need to look at the constellation of connected terms in the source language. Examples that maybe Karen and I could talk about a little bit from Chinese terms for virtue, terms like 'li' and 'xiao'. I don't know if I pronounce these well.
Karyn Lai: Pretty good.
Rick Benitez: Trying to find a corresponding term for them in English or Ancient Greek is really difficult.
Karyn Lai: that's right, and you talked about 'li' and 'xiao', there's also in Confucianism the concept 'rn'. That can have all of these meanings, value, it can mean primary value of humanity, it can mean human relatedness, it can refer also to the paradigmatic person who embodies this quality, and it can also refer to a particular instantiation of that virtue.
Alan Saunders: So Karen, help Rick out. What should he be doing? Should he be reading lots of different translations and comparing them, or should he find a translation which has got thousands and thousands of footnotes so it makes it understandable. Or should he learn Chinese?
Karyn Lai: All three, that's all making it easier. I'd say start with the first. Compare across translations, because different translations are valuable for different sorts of insights. There are some that are somewhat more philosophical, there are some that are more faithful to the intellectual history.
Rick Benitez: An example of some of the difficulty that you might have, say take the term 'xiao' which is usually translated in English as 'piety'. And I first became very interested in that because I found a passage in Confucius that was very similar to a passage in Plato in its context. The passage is a passage in which a son gives evidence against his father for stealing a sheep. And in Plato in a Dialogue called Euthyphro,a son gives evidence against his father for murder. The Confucius passage seems to be 'xiao', 'piety', and the Plato Dialogue is about piety. But there are some important subtle differences because the Greek term for 'piety', 'to hoison', sometimes also translated into 'holy', is in a special relationship towards the gods, whereas the Chinese concept for piety is the filial piety primarily.
Karyn Lai: To parents.
Rick Benitez: To parents.
Karyn Lai: I'd like to draw on this analogy further. When I introduce students to this passage, I love it, because it's provocative. Confucius says fathers should cover up for their sons, and sons should cover up for their fathers, it's all this masculine language. And the first reaction the students funnily enough, well perhaps it's not funny, but perhaps as you'd expect, being brought up in a culture that emphasises normativity in morality, they don't pick up on the obligations aspect of piety, but what they pick up on is Confucius is asking us to lie.
Alan Saunders: On ABC Radio National you're with The Philosopher's Zone, and I'm talking to Rick Benitez from the Philosophy Department at the University of Sydney, and Dr Karyn Lai from the University of New South Wales, about the perils of translation.
Now there was a school of Chinese philosophers who seemed to have an almost Western idea of how language and logic could work. They were the followers of Mozi, who died around 391BC and they were known as the Mohists. Karyn Lai.
Karyn Lai: They weren't liked at all because they were always criticised for engaging in impractical matters, coming from the point of view of the Taoists and the Confucianists. They didn't worry too much about ethics and government which should have been the sole preoccupation. They worried about language and its connection with reality. They tried to analyse language, they tried to systematise what they could, but the project fell flat on its nose. And I'll give you an example why. They tried to draw analogies and tried, so it seems anyway, from our modern perspective, to try to introduce some kind of syntactical analysis, so they said for instance 'The brother is a handsome man, but for her to love her brother is not for her to love a handsome man.' So there's a predication of adding on the activity to love, it doesn't work. From that they tried to draw the analogy, which is their point, that robbers are people, but to kill robbers is not to kill people. For them, in the Chinese language, and here you have to understand the Chinese language because - and this is where the symbolic meaning of particular characters and how they combine to come up with different meanings, really comes to light. The conclusion to kill robbers is not to kill people stands because 'to kill robbers', which is to 'shadao' has a completely different meaning from 'to kill people' which is 'sharen', which means 'murder'. So you could see the difference, but it was based entirely on the compound term basically the semantics rather than the syntax of these parallel statements. So at one point, several scholars jumped on the bandwagon, and they said, 'It's great, it looks as if these later Mohists are working on syllogisms. Very syllogistic-like structures.
Alan Saunders: Yes, I was going to say the syllogism of which the most famous example is the syllogism in Barbara 'All men are mortal, Socrates is a man, therefore Socrates is mortal.' Rick, what the Mohists were doing, does look pretty familiar in European terms, doesn't it?
Rick Benitez: Well it looks like an attempt, I don't know enough about Mohists to be confident about this, but it looks like an attempt to systematise language, to regularise language, to nail down the precision of terms, at least for philosophical discourse.
Alan Saunders: Well there've been a lot of attempts by philosophers to arrive at a universal language, that is free of particular local inflections, isn't there?
Rick Benitez: Yes, and you can achieve it to an extent, and usually one of the ways that you achieve it is by reaching for what is a kind of minimal and wider content, a sort of more widely shared content, but it's more minimal than what you might get in any one person's remark. A minimal content that's thought to be shared by anybody who make an assertion containing 'and but', 'and but', or 'if then' or 'if and only if'. And that's OK, it works in some contexts, and it allows for all kinds of clear communication, but there's a sacrifice as well.
Alan Saunders: There is such a thing I suppose, perhaps you might both have opinions on this, there is such a thing, and it's not a very philosophical point, but there is such a thing as fruitful mistranslation. The opening of the Gospel according to St John in the King James translation from the 17th century, it goes 'The light shineth in the darkness and the darkness comprehendeth it not.' Now 'comprehendeth' just means the darkness hasn't put it out and in modern translations they say, 'The darkness has not put it out.' But what you get if you've got a 21st century mind applying yourself to this 17th century translation of an ancient Greek text, what you get is the notion that the darkness can't understand the light, it cannot comprehend the light. And that's a lovely thought, even though it has nothing to do with the original. So we can get that sort of thing from translation as well, can't we?
Rick Benitez: And you sometimes feel robbed when the scholars come along and correct.
Alan Saunders: Are there Chinese examples of that sort of fruitful mistranslation, or fruitful misunderstanding?
Karyn Lai: Lots of them, and you know the key victim I think is the concept Tao. It's been translated in terms of the way, method, teaching, reality, the absolute one, process, and that's going to back to our earlier point about reading across translations. Sometimes yes, when you read across translations, some of them, mistranslations, you tend to get a fuller, richer picture. With the English language our terms change their reference from age to age.
Alan Saunders: Well yes, I mean my favourite example there is the 18th century English poet, Alexander Pope, his translation of the Iliad, which I think is one of the great long poems in English, it might not be one of the great translations of Homer. You've got views on something that I don't think is a great translation, the 19th century poet, Robert Browning's translation of the Agamemnon, by Aeschylus. What's your view on that?
Rick Benitez: Well Browning in fact called a transcription. He was just going to transcribe from the ancient Greek literally, word for word, and as far as possible in the very same syntax. I can give you an example of the kind of almost meaningless sentences that appear in the Browning translation and a way that I would translate it. This is around lines 997 to 1,000 in his Agamemnon. Browning: 'But in your organs in deed, not foolishly toward upright thoughts, purposeful, willing, circling, heart.' And I think what the Greek there is trying to say is something like 'And it's no fantasy, stark terror whirls in the heart, and the end is coming. Justice is born.' So there's a huge difference there.
Alan Saunders: Well as a translation of a play, I mean that's going to close out of town, isn't it?
Rick Benitez: It is. You know, I went to the University of Sydney library to read a copy of Browning's translation, and I found a first edition on the shelves, and this is a famous work, there have been a number of comments about it, there have been plays about it, 'The Browning Version', it's a famous work, and famous in some ways for its obscurity. You'd think that since it was first published someone would have read it all the way through. But half-way through that volume I found the pages were no longer cut. And I don't think anyone in the history of the Sydney University library had read through that volume, the first edition of Browning, and that's because it's not readable.
Alan Saunders: Karyn Lai, if I'm reading Chinese philosophy, my tendency is to look for the most recent translation on the grounds, the possibly naïve grounds, that this is the one that's going to speak to me most. I've got an edition of Sun Tzu's The Art of War which has a vast amount of commentary and a vast amount of footnotes, so I feel secure there. But what should I be going for? I should just be reading a lot of them, should I?
Karyn Lai: I think so. And a good clue would be, well not necessarily reading each translation, but a good clue to start with would be to look at the preface and to understand where the translator is coming from. As one of my colleagues, who works in Chinese Studies once told me, and this is from Chinese translations to English, he said, 'You know, there's no pure translation, every translation is an interpretation.' There is one very important translation of - and this is of the part that's in the Taoist text of a very famous text that's been translated into many language, and the way its opening statement is translated just illuminates how important translation is. The opening statement in Chinese has only six characters, 'Dao ke dao fei chang dao,' but when it's translated into English it becomes something like 'The way that can be told is not the absolute way.' Notice there in the translation that lots of articles have been inserted: 'the' way that can be translated is not 'the' absolute or the eternal way. And when you insert articles, you are already guiding the reader or determining what the reader perceives, or how the reader is going to take this concept of Tao further, because if you insert the article 'the' it suggests that there is only one reality.
And going back to what you said earlier Alan, about philosophy and universality: In the ancient Chinese philosophical context, universality wasn't a unanimous aim, there were some schools that tried to say 'Look, I've got the solution, I've got the answer', but there were yet many other schools that basically - and Taoism is one of them - that basically recognised that 'Look, reality is plural'. How do we deal with this plurality?
Alan Saunders: A point that one philosopher made to me was that one of the greatest commentators on the work of Plato's student, Aristotle, one of the greatest commentators is St Thomas Aquinas, from the 13th century. And St Thomas Aquinas read Aristotle in Latin, he didn't read them in Greek, so you can be - you actually have to be a genius, but you can be a great commentator on Greek philosophy without knowing any Greek.
Rick Benitez: Yes, Thomas was a genius. He was 25 years old and he's writing commentaries on being and essence to help his other fellow theologians understand metaphysics. That said, there are correlations between Latin and Greek, correlations of grammar and terminology that makes understanding a lot easier than it would be say from Greek into English.
Alan Saunders: Well it's still quite common isn't it, for collected works of a Greek author to have a Latin title, you know, 'Aristotilus Opera', 'The Works of Aristotle'.
Rick Benitez: That's right, particularly for Aristotle and the titles of some of the works because they had such a history in mediaeval philosophy, De Anima which is the work on the soul, in Greek it's 'Peri psychês' Plato even, the most famous work of Plato's, Republic is from the Latin term for its title, Res publica, not from its Politaus, the Greek title.
Alan Saunders: Well you mention De Anima, the soul, but we tend to think that a soul is a thing that you have, or perhaps you don't have, we tend not to take the notion that to have a soul is to be animated. We've sort of reified a soul. Is that a mistranslation?
Rick Benitez: There's a lot of controversy about Aristotle, but I believe that it is a mistranslation of Aristotle, I think Aristotle's most settled view about 'psykhe', psyche, is in the second book. He doesn't think that it's a separate substance, it is the function of a living thing. I think it is a mistranslation to call it soul, in that sense.
Alan Saunders: Rick Benitez, Associate Professor in the Philosophy Department at the University of Sydney and Dr Karyn Lai, from the University of New South Wales.
The Philosopher's Zone is produced by Kyla Slaven with technical production this week by Michelle Goldsworthy. I'm Alan Saunders, and I'll be back next week with more translation and we will explore the meaning of the mysterious word, 'gavagai'.
Dr Karyn Lai
School of History and Philosophy
University of NSW
Associate Professor Rick Benitez
Department of Philosophy
University of Sydney
Australasian Society for Ancient Philosophy