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.


  1. Ian Myles Slater says

    I have been mulling over Amida’s comments for a couple of days. I have a small collection of “Analects” translations, and found that Legge’s nineteenth-century version offers almost the same phrasing as Amida, although rather diffuse, and vaguer: “The rude tribes of the east and north have their princes, and are not like the States of our great land which are without them.” (Dover reprinting of the Second edition, 1893.) (Points to Amida for better aphoristic style.) Legge’s wording seems to slightly favor China, but I think allows an opposing, ironic reading, equally well.
    Legge even offers the suggested footnote. Most of it, however, is devoted to explaining the unfamiliar names, and the characters, with the two alternate readings of the sayings finally mentioned, along with the names of commentators who endorsed them, and how they interpreted the characters. Not as helpful as might be hoped, but something.
    The 1998 Ames and Rosemont translation is similar to Lau’s, and it too offers a note; but entirely on the Yi and Di, and the implications, if any, of “animal” radicals in the names.
    I begin to wonder if there is a need for a different type of “historical” translation here. One designed (in this case) to present Confucius-as-he-was-read, and not attempt Confucius-as-he-was. Probably in several volumes, with at least as much on the hermeneutics as the textual, linguistic, and larger philosophical issues.

  2. I’d love to read such a book.

  3. This is really an interesting one. I’ve normally taken the Lau line. (Well, to be honest, in a fight between Lau and Waley, Lau has very seldom ever disappoint me…) Anyway, for all it’s worth, here’s my reasoning:
    I’m inclined take 亡 as “not have” because: (a) it often very clearly takes this sense in the Analects (so this is a clearly supported usage), and (b) because of the implied contrast with 有 in the passage: If 亡 is taken to be “perish, decay or something like that”, I think the expected contrastive would have been 存. In any case, 12.5 provides a great illustration:
    “People all 有 brothers, I alone 亡” [= I alone 無 brothers]; compare:
    “What need is there for the gentleman to worry about 無 brothers?”
    If this is correct, then on the model of 12.5, we should take 諸夏之亡也 as 諸夏之[無君]也.
    As far as I can tell: i.e., He Yan, Huang Kan, Liu Baonan go with the above reading. Zhu Xi, on the other hand, quotes an Mr. Wu, who goes with this reading, and one of the Cheng brothers, who basically go with something like the Waley reading! Wonderful isn’t it? But I think it is safe to say that the above is something of a ‘mainstream’ in the commentaries.
    Note also that the above reading does not actually settle the precise sense of the 有君/無君 contrast. It is possible that what is meant is not literally “having” and “not having” rulers, but something else. When Mencius (3B9) accused the followers of Yang Zhu of being 無君 and the followers of Mozi of being 無父, he is, presumably not saying that they really “do not have” ruler and father, but that their doctrines entail that they conduct themselves as if they have no ruler or father, i.e., they deny the property authority of the ruler, and the proper reverence due to the father.
    Ok, the next question is how does the 不如 work., i.e., what does it mean by:
    (夷狄之有君) 不如 (諸夏之[無君]) 也
    Here, I am not inclined to go with Amida’s “not like”–again, on the basis of usage in the early texts. The X不如Y construction appears 12 times in the Analects, and as far as I can tell, while some clearly imply some sort of ranking, and all are at least consistent with ranking, none clearly imply a mere “not like”. I’ve not done a comparative search for other Warring States texts, but my suspicion is it’s going to be more of the same (open to refutation).
    That said, it need not be the case that in a X不如Y construction, Y is “better” than X. Take for example:
    19.20 子貢曰:「紂之不善,不如是之甚也。…」
    Very roughly, Zhou wasn’t as bad as that
    –because the ‘common measure’ of comparison here is 不善, it turns out that the X term is “better” than the Y term. It’s like: X’s wickedness -is not as much as- Y’s wickedness.
    In our case, however, there is no such common ‘measure’: X’s having rulers -不如- X’s not having rulers. In such cases, I’m inclined to say that–unless context determines otherwise–the X不如Y construction does imply that Y is better than X, though exactly why better, and in what sense better are left unstated. And I fully expect the commentaries to have a field day filling in the gap.

  4. You’d have to say Amida is there or thereabouts.
    I’d gloss it as something like “The Master said: Even when the Yi and Di have princes, they are not as good as states of Xia when leaderless”, presuming 亡 to be used as in 亡国奴. isn’t Confucius making a point about the general superiority of Xia culture even unaided by a 君.

  5. Man, I love detailed discussions like this, even when I don’t know enough to take sides.

  6. On a more careful re-reading, I see that it’s actually DC Lau that I agree with, which is comforting. That’s what you get for indulging in 班门弄斧.

  7. Ian and Hat: Some books you might want to check out for “historicized” translations are the ones by Slingerland and Gardner. The former contains “selections from traditional commentaries” while the latter contains Zhu Xi’s.
    Huichieh: The reason I was going with “not like” instead of “better than” is because it’s intentionally left ambiguous, and therefore both sides of the argument are represented. For what it’s worth, I believe it’s Zhu Xi’s commentary that glosses 不如 as meaning 不似. (And yes, you’re right, the commentators do have a field day in this gap. That’s why this is such an interesting one.)
    Anyway, thanks for the comments, everybody!

  8. …and by the way, I have just posted a bit more on the Analects, so please stop by.

  9. Amida: Thank you for your reply.
    I would have agreed wholeheartedly with the rationale of your procedure–keep it ambiguous so that the readers can decide for themselves. But I really wonder if it’s often (but not always) a thankless task…
    But I suppose it really depends on what the point of the translation is. If the point is to render a translation that reflect Warring States usage (e.g., as can be reconstructed from the extant texts), then I think I’m (probably) prepared to say that 不如 definitely says something more than just “not like” (if by this is meant “different from”; see below), but something in the region of “less than” (even if not necessarily “not as good as”). How much more, I’m much less sure.
    On the other hand, if the point is to produce a translation that incorporates the wisdom of the traditional commentaries, then what I’ve said may not really be as relevant.
    A further complication is this, the English “X is not like Y” may (contextually) imply more than the notion that X is different from Y. (It is possible that 不似 (at some point in the history of the Chinese language anyway) has this feature as well.) For example, “Getting accepted by Stanford is great, but it is still not like going to Harvard”. If this is the direction you are heading, then I would certainly be less suspicious of “not like”.
    By the way, I do agree that the line is ambiguous. It is not clear if 諸夏之亡 is “better than” 夷狄之有君 at all. But I don’t think the ambiguity is located in the 不如 per se, but in the line as a whole.
    Incidentally, I can’t seem to find the gloss of 不如 as 不似 in my copy of Zhu Xi. You are referring to the Jizhu (i.e., Zhangju Jizhu)?
    Thank you for the great discussion. I’ll certainly drop by your blog when I have a chance.
    Hi Jim: Haven’t heard from you for a while…

  10. Sorry, Huichieh, that isn’t Zhu Xi, it’s from the 四書辨疑 by 陳天祥. I am using Cheng Shude’s 論語集釋 and they are all thrown together in there. If you haven’t seen the 論語集釋, I recommend you take a look!
    You are right, it may be a thankless task, but I think going through without acknowledging these questions in a translation is really a missed opportunity. It makes the text so much more interesting.
    Reconstructing an understanding of the Analects from a certain era is also a good idea. See the translations I mentioned above for examples. (Those translations are nice even for native Chinese speakers because in translating, one must make choices and reflect them in the language used.)

  11. xiaolongnu says

    This is so not my period, but I have to chime in — This brings back memories of my first Classical Chinese class lo these many years ago. We started out with Shuo Yuan 說苑 and moved on from there. Confucius came later, and for good reason — it’s often not amenable to the kind of grammatical dissection you can do with other early texts (thank you, Sima Qian) and so it’s hard for beginners. The reason I bring this up is that my teacher felt that the language of Confucius was full of regional peculiarities — that whoever took down the Lun yu was writing as much in the language of Lu as anything else. This makes sense in the light of our understanding that the Chinese of the Warring States was strongly regionalized (hence the “need” for Qin Shihuangdi to standardize both writing and speech). It also gibes well with my personal experience of translating Confucius (which I would otherwise have written off as a personal fluke): it always seemed to me that in order to understand a Confucian utterance, the main trick was to stare at it and read it over and over until the pieces fell into place, like the tumblers of an old-fashioned lock. Whatever grammatical rules were in place seemed fairly opaque to me, and most of the language made quite deliberate use of the tolerance for ambiguity that is inherent in Classical Chinese syntax (see the entire discussion above). Translating Confucius for me was full of “aha” moments, except when it wasn’t, which is probably why I work on the Northern and Southern Dynasties.

  12. amida: Yes I have–程樹德 is usually the first place I go to (keeping my fingers crossed that there are no misprintings–some have warned me about that, but so far, it’s been ok), followed by 劉寶楠 and 楊伯峻. Though this time, I didn’t read through all of the 別解.
    I now see what you are saying under “別解三”. In fact, this one goes with something in the ballpark of the ‘non-literal’ explanation of 有君/亡[無]君 I mentioned above. I wish he would say more about what he meant by “「如」字作「似」字說,意為易見” though.
    Translations are useful in exactly the way you pointed to–it forces even the native speaker to make choices that are often kept unmade in the original. In any case, (as my Prof likes to put it), nobody is really a native speaker of ancient Chinese.
    One thing though: do the Chinese of different eras see the need for commentaries because they are baffled by the language, or because they feel that they are not getting the import of what’s being said? (Or more probably, a mixture of both.) It is possible for a text to make perfect grammatical sense and yet completely baffles us with regards to what it is trying to say–because we no longer know the historical context, assumed background, etc. This is especially a problem given the phenomenon of “scribal reticence”–as the Analects (15.41) itself puts it, 子曰:辭達而已矣! (Christoph Harbsmeier has a nice exposition of this in his contribution to the Needham series on Language and Logic). Now if the compilers of the Analects had seen fit to include information about when and where the Master made his comment about 諸夏 and 夷狄–the rest of that conversation, basically–I suspect that most of the problems would resolve themselves. But this was not to be.
    (As Harbsmeier puts it, “Whatever the audience can understand form the context is preferably omited in literary style. Explicitness is felt to be vulgar. It is not by chance that there is no word for scilicet “i.e., you should remember, that is to say’ in Classical Chinese. What you should know is omitted for the very reason that you should know it…The trouble is that what was sufficient to put across a point to Confucius’ audience of disciples…may not always be sufficient to put across that point to later interpreters like ourselves” –or for that matter, later Chinese interpreters down the centuries. But I guess it also gives them a decent 飯碗 making a cottage industry of explaining the point of the sages…)
    I think the above remarks applies to xiaolongnu’s comment as well.

  13. xiaolongnu and Huichieh: It sounds like you both had excellent Clasical Chinese profesors–“Nobody is really a native speaker of ancient Chinese,” I love it!
    I should say that this stuff is way out of my field, too. I am (was?) actually more interested in Ming-Qing fiction, and have no background in linguistics.
    Xiaolongnu: I am not an authority on this either, but someone who is has expressed great disdain for Sima Qian’s portrayal of Confucius. That’s about all I know on the subject, though.
    Huichieh: I took that sentence to mean something like “If you change the ru to a si, the meaning becomes easy to undertand.” Of course it doesn’t really, but I am assuming that the nuance is that “bu si” lacks the value judgement (“is better than”) of “bu ru.”
    The words of wisdom from my Classical Chinese prof way back when was, “In Classical Chinese, less is more and more is more.” The Analects falls into the “less is more” category (for reasons mentioned by XLN above), but there are still those windbags like Mencius who go on and on and are in the “more is more” category.

  14. “…it doesn’t really”–exactly! Sometimes, these commentator types really get one my nerves 🙂
    This is funny–Mencius as a windbag (“Who says I love disputation? I don’t like disputation! I just have no choice…blah blah blah” 3B9). I hate to imagine what you think of Mozi or Wang Chong.

Speak Your Mind