The End of Translation and the Rise of Chinese Terminology
Few people realize that the Bible discourages people from studying foreign languages. The story of the Tower of Babel informs us that there is one humanity (God’s one), only that “our languages are confused”. From a European historical perspective, that has always meant that, say, any German philosopher could know exactly what the Chinese people were thinking, only that he couldn’t understand them. So instead of learning the foreign language, he demanded a translation.
Coincidentally, or maybe not quite so, History with a capital ‘H’ followed the Bible. At the time of the Holy Roman Empire of German Nation, when German scholars still spoke Latin, the German logician Christian Wolff got his hands on a Latin translation of the Confucian Classics. His reaction, I think, is as funny as it is disturbing: He reads Kongzi in Latin and says something like “Great, that looks very familiar, I have the feeling that I totally understand this Confucius!”.
Wolff was so overjoyous with his new mental powers, that he went on to lecture about the Chinese as if he was the king of China. It’s brilliant; if it wasn’t so comical. Among his unforgettable findings were ‘The Motives of the Chinese’, or ‘The Final Purpose of the Chinese’, and so on.
And, of course, when somebody occasionally asked master Wolff why he didn’t visit China, the greatest sinologist of all time played out his greatest intellectual triumph. He replied that “the wisdom of the Chinese was generally not so highly valued that it was necessary to travel there for its sake”.
It’s thus pretty much established, I think, that History stopped with this Wolff, or at least got too tired and too cynical. He sufficiently demonstrated that just about any European could become a ‘China expert’ without knowing a single Chinese terminology.
Since this was true for just about any foreign language; so now we know why the German philosopher Immanuel Kant could reasonably announce the ‘End of All Things’, and Georg Hegel could proclaim the ‘End of History’. Both learned men knew very well that they hadn’t mastered any non-European language in their life-time; and they simply assumed that History was a bit like that too.
This attitude in the Western hemisphere has never changed, with the effect that we live in a crazy world today. Most American and European scholars believe that the Chinese “speak their languages”, only that they “talk” in Chinese. Take the case of ‘democracy’ and ‘human rights’. You may have considered this, but those are European words and do not exist in China at all. Imagine China would return a favor and demand from Europe more wenming and tian ren he yi.
The European attitude is reflected in its translations. Most Westerners simply translate every Chinese key concept into convenient biblical or philosophical terminology. As a result, modern nation states, like Germany in the year 2012, are virtually Chinese-free.
Translation, of course, is an old human habit. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t question it. It was our habit to slay our opponents in battle, but we don’t do that any more (except in Afghanistan and Iraq). Why do we still destroy foreign key vocabulary? Well, we first do so, I think, for sociological reasons. If Germany censors all important foreign terminologies, the German public is lead to think it alone knows everything there is to be known in the world, and – metaphorically speaking – behaves like it. That’s why Germany has produced so many “world historians” and “philosophers” like Georg Hegel, Max Weber or Karl Marx. Academics call it deutungshoheit – meaning having the sovereignty over the definition of thought.
It might sound very depressing, but truth must be told: the West knows little about China, and ‘Cultural China’ has never become a truly global phenomenon. Not a single one percent of the educated European citizenry, in my estimation, knows what ruxue is, or a junzi or shengren. And those are some of the most important Chinese concepts there ever were.
To put it another way: have you ever wondered why there are now “philosophers” and “saints” all over the world, but that there has never been a single shengren or buddha in the West? Think about it, what is that probability? Whose version of ‘History’ are we taught? The East has been preyed upon and is bleeding out of its socio-cultural originality as we speak.
I often feel embarrassed for some Asian professors (who earned their “higher qualifications” in the west) when they open yet another department of “Chinese philosophy” or “Chinese religion” in China, often smiling into the faces of Western businessmen, missionaries and benefactors.
“Philosophy” is a Greco-Hellenic concept that is syndicated by the Judeo-Christian tradition. Rujiao, Fojiao, and Daojiao are all jiao, teachings. As to “religion” there is only one, the Western conception: We all live in the year 2012 of the Lord Jesus Christ. The so-called “freedom of religion” has to be understood as: “in this Christian world, you may believe whatever you want”.Chinais already evangelized precisely because all “Chinese religions” follow Judeo-Christian taxonomy.
China is not alone. India, too, is slowly figuring out there is something odd here. The Sanskrit-Hindu tradition invented tens of thousands of unique non-European concepts that are simply blocked out of History by Western media and academia. As if billions of Chinese and Indians in three thousand years never invented anything – as if they just stood there waiting to be stripped of their intellectual property.
Some commentators have argued with me that we need a ‘Global language’, and today’s English is the best candidate. To this I reply, are you crazy, that’s exactly what the Germans once did; now it’s the Anglo-Saxons who close their ‘History’ book and say “we already know you”. No, the true ‘Global language’ would be radically different from today’s English, it would need to adopt the originality and the tens of thousands of words provided by humankind’s other language traditions on top of it.
Every language learner has this from time to time: a subconscious certainty that something is lost in translation, every time, without exception. Yet, most of us are too fearful to follow our gut-feeling through.
Maybe there is a hidden flaw in the story of the Tower of Babel– a monstrous, frightening one. What if our languages are not confused at all, but any single group of human beings were just never enough in numbers to explore all the world’s possibilities? What if the Chinese had invented things – and named them daxue, datong, wenming, tianxia and so on – that no American has ever thought of this way, just as it always has been – I think we agree on this- the other way round.
It is often said that language is the key to understanding China’s culture and tradition.
The question is, which one should it be.