Shengren – Chapter 4.2 – Meaning and Intention in Translation

Stony Brook: Lets turn to some of these philosophers and some things that they have said, and the first one I wanna look at is Harvard philosopher Hilary Putnam. In the mid-seventies he wrote a paper called ‘The Meaning of Meaning’ which has been very influential, and I guess the key slogan that came out of that is that meanings just ain’t in the head. Agree or disagree, or is that just incoherent?

Noam Chomsky: It is incoherent without further explanation. First you have to tell us what meanings are. You can’t decide whether they are in our head or not until we know what they are. If by meanings we have in mind what people have in mind when they are using the word in English than sure they are not in the head, they are all over the place. Talk about the meaning of life, it is not in the head. If you have a more technical notion in mind, you’ve gotta explain what it is. And there it is a matter of choice. You can define the technical notions so that it’s in the head and that it’s not in the head. When you define technical notions you have a choice. The way it’s done in the sciences, and the way it ought to be done, is you define a technical notion in the context of an explanatory theory. You just don’t define it as technical notion out in space. So lets ask what is the explanatory theory in which we’re gonna give a technical notion which will pronounce meaning, or pronounce it some other way, and then we’ll ask whether that theory is a sensible theory and does it place this technical notion on the head or not. But all that extra work hasn’t been done.[1]

– Noam Chomsky, The Stony Brook Interviews

If somebody said a shengren was an alchemist,[2] demigod,[3] magician,[4] or pedagogue,[5] what were his intentions? If someone sees 圣人shengren and ushers to himself: ‘I don’t wanna know this, to me it’s all religion and holymen,’ what does it say about Asia scholarship? Were those intentions based on individual expectations, or on collective [religious] preconceptions? Certainly, one’s educational background, the aim and benefactor of one’s research project, and the predominant way of thinking in one’s peer group were all normative in forming one’s intentions, for example to translate shengren as: ‘Zauberer und Gaukler’ (mages and jesters),[6] ‘model-philosophers’[7], ‘halblegendäre Könige der früheren Dynastien,’[8] or ‘die Berufenen’ [the appointees].[9] Or, put another question: Do cultural scientists purposely call shengren a ‘Kulturschöpfer,’[10] and do idealists purposely call shengren an ‘Idealmenschen?’[11] Needless to say, all those bizarre translations above were undertaken by at least one prominent German sinologist.

The German missionaries Karl F. A. Gützlaff and Richard Wilhelm intentionally translated shengren as ‘die Heiligen,’ because biblical and familiar vocabulary suited their mission and flattered the German social mind. In a Christian society there is a market for Chinese Christianity. More figurative examples were: the poetic ‘Genius,’ the Wilhelmischer ‘Politiker,’ the Nietzsche’an ‘Sittenlehrer’ or ‘Űbermensch,’ or just ‘Göttlicher,’ the Humboldtsch’er ‘Berufener,’ and, last and boring: the non-European ‘Philosoph.’

Not all translations were as cliché as Heiliger, but all were suspect. Fancy translations revealed the intentions of the translators; even hyperbole was suspicious, as this random examples show: English: ‘sages’ –[12] ‘great sages’ – ‘legendary beings’[13] – ‘the divinest of men’ – ‘the most perfect divine moral nature’ – ‘the equal of God;’[14] or German: ‘Genie’ – ‘Staatsmann’[15] – ‘Herrscherideal’[16] – ‘einer der dem Volke reiche Gnade spendend’ – ‘mit göttliche Autorität und Kraft des Geistes’ – ‘Gott.’[17]

For at least four centuries, the Germans have persistently translated shengren differently from their English counterparts, and objected to any transgression. That meant something. German scholars had the intentions to christen Chinese sages Heilige, and thus refused to hold the candle to the greatness of China that had sages while Germany had none. Since Germany already had Heilige, Genien, Berufene, Göttliche, and Philosophen, those words sounded familiar and meaningful while artificially creating an atmosphere of familiarity with the language of the familiar.

Shengren was a foreign and unteutsch [un-German] word,[18] and its foreignness could not be tolerated. The translation ‘Weiser’ was a German word, but could not be tolerated either because many would not understand: how could China have Weisen and Germany none? ‘Sterbliche können keine Weisen sein!’ [Mortals cannot be sages!].[19] Besides, finding German words for Chinese concepts was linguistically demanding: Certain words stirred the audiences deeply while others were impotent. Richard Wilhelm famously translated ‘te’ [德de] as ‘das Leben’ [Life], but because that didn’t look spectacularly profound, he decided to write it all-caps (known as shout-out): LEBEN.[20]

The first wave of China experts could practically do anything they wanted with Chinese names. And, boy did they take advantage. Some of the greatest incidences of language imperialism happened in China. For instance, James Legge, the arguably most prominent translator of the Chinese Classics, translated the 子zi in The Analects on seventeen occasions conveniently as ‘philosopher.’ If that were true, China had more philosophers than sons. Suddenly, the disciples 有You and 曾Zeng were translated ‘the philosopher You said…,’ ‘the philosopher Zeng said….’ Many subsequent mass translators whose authorship often remained in obscurity[21] luckily completely rejected this blasphemy and corrected it: ‘Yu Tzü said….’[22] Zi indicated either a disciple/student or—including Chichung Huang’s translation published by Oxford University Press—’Master Yu said…’ zi indicated a master.[23] In the future, Chinese scholars might want to correct Western translation errors, but for now Legge’s Lun Yu—still the most widely known and authoritative textbook, all for the wrong reasons—reads like a Philosopher’s manual. Translating 子as ‘philosopher’ is not a wrong interpretation, it’s a factual mistake. Since Legge knew in this instant what he was doing, preparing a philosophical reading of the Lun Yu, his scholarship must be considered forgery. But since this language imperialism has been going on for a hundred years and more, those wrong ‘philosopher’-translations cannot be beaten back easily. Chinese philosophy is probably here with us to stay, just like other bullshit sciences like homeopathy, theology, and creationism. However, it doesn’t have to be the case that the world is kept ignorant about this forever: the European translations for Chinese names are incorrect, deceitful, and exposed. That should ring bells and raise flags in the global community about how we are going to handle language in the future. With today’s technology, a service that our predecessors failed to predict, we are now able to collect and compare any of those past translations, a bold task for scholarship, as the comparative method will not only be more accurate and precise, it will also unearth the one or other big scandal to us.

It is true that even today few Westerners can read Chinese; but back in the 19th and 20th centuries, very few of the China experts could even spell Chinese words correctly; and if their peers proof-read their works they usually had not enough interest in correcting incorrect translations. It was taken almost for granted that Legge was Confucius. In addition, China’s dialects varied greatly. The Europeans had to invent a Latinized script for Chinese first, which – after various trials – became first Wales-Giles and then today’s Pinyin system. In the beginnings of the East-West cultural exchanges, few missionaries could pronounce Chinese names correctly, as remarked in a footnote by the Chair of Chinese at Oxford University, Homer Hasenpflug Dub, in his Hsüntze (1925): ‘He [the European] spells the name and discusses its pronunciation. After reading the note, it is a bold man who would attempt to speak the name!’[24] And, one may add to Dub’s observation, it is a clever man who does not attempt to speak the Chinese name at all, but sneaks in his philosophers and saints. If culture was a father, did it want to raise its own kids or somebody’s elses? It stands to further discussion whether the English speakers really had adopted the Chinese term ‘shengren’ if only they had known that word, known how to pronounce it, how to say its name.

Meanwhile, as the Chinese language remained mysterious and almost impossible to master, the various European interest groups in China preferred terminology helpful to their mission and/or personal agenda: sheng(ren) as Greco-Roman ‘philosophers,’ Judean-Christian ‘saints,’ Schopenhauer’sche ‘Genien,’ Humboldt’sche Berufene (appointees), or pagan ‘gods.’ Since all those terms were essentially European, each of them should be taken it cautiously– always and forever. Those translations came about during the Golden Age of Western imperialism, colonialism, and orientalism, at a time when cruel intentions mattered just a little bit more than the meanings of Asia.

[1] Noam Chomsky: The Stony Brook Interviews, broadcasted May 24th, 2009

[2] Jaspers, 1957, p. 159

[3] Wilhelm, 1974, pp. 80, 87

[4] Conrady, 1910, p. 520

[5] Wei, 1993, p. 121 ff.

[6] Jaspers, 1957, p 159

[7] Pohl, 1999, p. 302

[8] Lee, 2008, p. 49

[9] Simson, 2002, p. 90, 94, 169, 246

[10] Rötz, 2004

[11] Conrady, 1910, p. 540

[12] Pound, 1928, pp. 218, 229, 222

[13] Giles, 1926, pp. 66, 71, 73

[14] Brown, 1917, pp. 169, 170

[15] Schott, 1826, p. 55

[16] Grube, 1902, p. 26

[17] Wilhelm, 1914, pp. 60, 88, 114, 88

[18] Leibniz, 1677, p. 547: ‘Was aber die fremde oder unteutsche Worte anbetrift, so entstehet darin der größte Zweifel, ob nämlichen, und wie weit sie zu dulden, nachdem sie Vielen auch noch unverständlich.”

[19] Trawny, 2008: Phaidros, 278d

[20] Wilhelm, 1910

[21] This is especially true of ‘internet collections’ that are rarely properly sourced, verified, reviewed, and may electronically disappear at any time, including chinapage (dot) org and confucius (dot) org and even classic (dot) mit (dot) edu; but also of obscure publications that were miraculously written and published by Confucius himself: The Analects, 2006, letting alone the hundreds of layman or student translations in electronic circulation. Yes, it is a mess.

[22], 2011

[23] Huang, 1997; Moran, 2011,

[24] Starr, 1930, p. vii

Pattberg, Thorsten (2011), Shengren – Above Philosophy and Beyond Religion, LoD Press, New York