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The Difficulty of Translating Classical Chinese Into English

Popularity 1Viewed 7146 times 2017-3-12 11:38 |System category:Life| English, Chinese

One way to get a sense of the difference between Chinese and English is to look at different English translations of classical Chinese works like the Dao De Jing.

Of course, there is a big difference between classical literary Chinese and modern conversational Chinese, but the literary Chinese contains the essence of Chinese wisdom, so it still tells us something when you look at how differently different translators interpret it.

Here are some examples.  These are different translations of Ch. 2 of the Dao De Jing.

Original (in simplified characters):

天 下 皆 知 美 之 为 美 , 斯 恶 已 。
皆 知 善 之 为 善 , 斯 不 善 已 。
有 无 相 生 , 难 易 相 成 , 长 短 相 形 ,
高 下 相 盈 , 音 声 相 和 , 前 后 相 随 。
恒 也 。 是 以 圣 人 处 无 为 之 事 ,
行 不 言 之 教 ﹔ 万 物 作 而 弗 始 ,
生 而 弗 有 , 为 而 弗 恃 , 功 成 而 不 居 。
夫 唯 弗 居 , 是 以 不 去 。

Translation by James Legge:

All in the world know the beauty of the beautiful, and in doing this they have the idea of what ugliness is; they all know the skill of the skilful, and in doing this they have the idea of what the want of skill is.

So it is that existence and non-existence give birth the one to the idea of the other; that difficulty and ease produce the one the idea of the other; that length and shortness fashion out the one the figure of the other; that the ideas of height and lowness arise from the contrast of the one with the other; that the musical notes and tones become harmonious through the relation of one with another; and that being before and behind give the idea of one following another.

Therefore the sage manages affairs without doing anything, and conveys his instructions without the use of speech.All things spring up, and there is not one which declines to show itself; they grow, and there is no claim made for their ownership; they go through their processes, and there is no expectation of a reward for the results. The work is accomplished, and there is no resting in it as an achievement.

The work is done, but how no one can see;
'Tis this that makes the power not cease to be.

Translation by Dwight Goddard:

When every one recognizes beauty to be only a masquerade, then it is simply ugliness. In the same way goodness, if it is not sincere, is not goodness.

So existence and non-existence are incompatible. The difficult and easy are mutually opposites. Just as the long and the short, the high and the low, the loud and soft, the before and the behind, are all opposites and each reveals the other.

Translation by Patrick M. Byrne

As all under Heaven recognise the beautiful,
So the detestable exists.
As all under Heaven recognise the virtuous,
So the spiteful exists.

Being and Non-Being are born of each other,
Difficulty and ease form one another,
Long and short mutually define
High and low to each other incline,
Tone and voice align,
Front and back each other bind.

Therefore, the sage conducts his affairs without action
And instructs without words.
The ten-thousand-things are worked upon by him
And he does not renounce them.
He creates without having
And causes without depending upon.
He accomplishes merit without dwelling therein.
Isasmuch as he does not dwell therein,
Neither does he depart.

Translation from

When the world knows beauty as beauty, ugliness arises
When it knows good as good, evil arises

Thus being and non-being produce each other
Difficult and easy bring about each other
Long and short reveal each other
High and low support each other
Music and voice harmonize each other
Front and back follow each other

Therefore the sages:
Manage the work of detached actions
Conduct the teaching of no words
They work with myriad things but do not control
They create but do not possess
They act but do not presume
They succeed but do not dwell on success
It is because they do not dwell on success
That it never goes away

Translation by Richard Wilhelm:

If all on earth acknowledge the beautiful as beautiful
then thereby the ugly is already posited.
If all on earth acknowledge the good as good
then thereby is the non-good already posited.

For existence and non-existence generate each other.
Heavy and light complete each other.
Long and short shape each other.
High and deep convert each other.
Before and after follow after each other.

Thus also is the Man of Calling.
He dwells in effectiveness without action.
He practices teaching without talking.
All beings emerge
and he does not refuse himself to them.
He generates and yet possesses nothing.
He is effective and keeps nothing.
When the work is done
he does not dwell with it.
And just because he does not dwell
he remains undeserted.

Translation by D.T. Suzuki:

Everywhere it is obvious that if beauty makes a display of beauty, it is sheer ugliness. It is obvious that if goodness makes a display of goodness, it is sheer badness. For:

To be and not to be are mutually conditioned.
The difficult, the easy, are mutually definitioned.
The long, the short, are mutually exhibitioned.
Above, below, are mutually cognitioned.
The sound, the voice, are mutually coalitioned.
Before and after are mutually positioned.

The holy man abides by non-assertion in his affairs and conveys by silence his instruction. When the ten thousand things arise, verily, he refuses them not. He quickens but owns not. He acts but claims not. Merit he accomplishes, but he does not dwell on it.

Since he does not dwell on it It will never leave him.

(Opinions of the writer in this blog don't represent those of China Daily.)




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Reply Report Gayle 2017-3-12 23:59
Do modern Chinese people find it truly difficult?

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