A new blog, amidaworld, focuses on Japanese and life in Japan, and there’s already a lot of interesting material; a couple of entries particularly relevant here:
New Japanese Word describes his discovery of the Wikipedia page for Mt. Fuji, “where I learned a great new Japanese phrase: ‘Fujiyama geisha,’ the Japan that is misunderstood by the West. I never heard it used in Japan, though there were many instances where it could have been: ‘Kill Bill? That movie was so full of Fujiyama geisha nonsense!'” (As the Wiki page makes clear, the Japanese phrase 富士山 is read Fuji-san, not “Fujiyama,” by native speakers.)
Lost in Translation in Translation quotes a Confucius saying so gnomic nobody’s known what it means for the last couple of millennia:
The Analects of Confucius Book 3 number 5:
D.C. Lau’s translation:
“The Master said, ‘Barbarian tribes with their rulers are inferior to Chinese states without them.'”
Arthur Waley’s translation of the same passage:
“The Master said, ‘The barbarians of the East and North have retained their princes. They are not in such a state of decay as we in China.'”
So which is it—is China better or are the barbarians? We don’t need to feel bad. Looking at commentaries from the Han Dynasty onward, we can see Chinese people of different eras were just as lost as we are, and also needed a “translation.” They had to explain the text in more understandable language.
Many commentators read 亡 (Waley’s “decay”) as being 無 (Lau’s “without”), and then there’s the matter of what you want to do with the 不如, “not like.” Both Lau- and Waley-style interpretations can be found.
Amida’s proposed translation: “The Master said, ‘The Yi and the Di with rulers are not like the states of Xia without them,'” accompanied by “a big fat footnote,” which seems to me the ideal solution. The comment thread has a fascinating discussion of whether the impossibility of knowing the author’s intent in such cases is a good or a bad thing. (In my younger days I would have felt the same frustration as Azuma, but I’ve come to terms with the unknowability of the past and can now share Amida’s pleasure in the fact that “the openness of the text has created space for all sorts of readings.”
There’s a follow-up post by Matt of No-sword comparing translations of an almost equally difficult passage (傳不習乎 in Analects 1:4), “which character-by-character is ‘transmit not practise (question)'”; in the comments, Amida provides an even more cryptic example:
Maybe you know the example of Confucius’ summarizing the entire Shijing with one line from it, 思無邪. That’s often thought of as meaning “Think no evil,” but in the days of the Shijing 思 was just an exclamatory particle, and 邪 meant straying or deviating from a line (as in a team of horses pulling something) so it should be “Ah—no straying.” What did Confucius mean? Was he playing on words? Did everybody get him wrong? Who knows—but it makes for good debate in commentaries.