December 9, 2013

Found in translation

By Linda Jaivin
Quarterly Essay 52, Found in Translation: In Praise of a Plural World is published by Black Inc.

Quarterly Essay 52, Found in Translation: In Praise of a Plural World is published by Black Inc.

When reading in one’s own language, it’s not unusual to come across a word or phrase that is difficult to decipher, even in context: twerking, for example. The reader can just venture a guess (or go to YouTube) and move on. The translator has no such luxury. Bellos describes how the Greek translators of the Old Testament came upon a word of which they could make neither heads nor tails. So they transcribed it into Greek, transposing the sounds from one language to the other as best they could. Later, St Jerome encountered this same, baffling word, and transcribed it once more, from Greek into Latin: cherubim. If you think you know what cherubim are, you’re wrong. No one knows. All those chubby little winged children relaxing in the clouds of Renaissance paintings – free translation.

Another conundrum arises when the language is too concrete. One of Confucius’s many famous sayings is the four-character phrase 君子不器, junzi bu qi. Compared with some more disputed or ambiguous commentaries, including those on the place of women, the meaning of this phrase is relatively easy to decipher – but the devil to translate. Junzi on its own can mean a gentleman; in fact, “gentleman” in English is often rendered as junzi. Yet in traditional China, one didn’t become a junzi without a high degree of education; a junzi was more like a gentleman-scholar, a man of intellectual and moral cultivation. Bu (不) means “no,” or “(is) not.” Qi (器)has a number of meanings, including tolerance, talent and value; its primary meaning is that of a utensil, a tool, an instrument. Confucius is saying that unlike a tool (a pot, a spoon, a knife, a fire extinguisher) that has a specific use and purpose, the gentleman-scholar is not limited in what he can accomplish.

Legge offers, “The accomplished scholar is not a utensil.” Leys gives us, “An educated man is not a pot.” Other translations that I’ve seen use such formulations as the “superior man” for junzi and add qualifying words like “merely” after “not.” The possibilities are endless: Chinese words don’t usually divide into plural and singular, so even after working out that “educated man” is the best choice for junzi and “pot” will carry the meaning of qi, Leys would have faced the decision of whether to say, “An educated man is not a pot,” or, “Educated men are not pots.” Neither does the noun junzi come with a definite or indefinite article; Leys uses the indefinite “an” and Legge the definite “the.” And yet, for all that, it is possible that in this case, despite so much effort by so many distinguished translators, the translation itself, minus any exegesis, may remain a bafflement to the reader.


Confucius used the word junzi respectfully. Today, the word has shed many of its associations with learning, and when it pops up in speech, it may well be used sardonically to indicate someone with airs, and  perhaps money, but no class or moral compass.

Over the last sixty years, China has undergone huge changes in society, politics, the economy and culture, all of which are reflected in changes in the language. In the Cultural Revolution and into the early ’80s, one addressed service personnel, strangers and professional associates alike as tongzhi, “comrade.” In the ’80s, comrade in the sense of waiter or stranger gave way to shifu, a polite and proletarian-flavoured “sir” that literally means “master,” as in a master carpenter. Shifu eventually faded away, and for a time young women servers or shop assistants were called xiaojie, “miss.” But now this once-innocent phrase has become slang for a prostitute. As for comrade, for years now it’s been slang for gay, as in the following hypothetical conversation between two young women: “Who’s that hot guy?” “Forget it. He’s a comrade.” Political, economic, social and cultural shifts push some phrases over the cliff into obscurity, rescue others from it, and dress up still others in new clothing. All living languages are in a continual state of evolution – the English word “gay” itself was merely merry not all that long ago.

An example closer to home of how a phrase can mutate in its uses and connotation is that of “asylum seeker.” Although it was Prime Minister Paul Keating who first thought to throw fences up around the immigration detention centres, it was John Howard, with the able assistance of Philip Ruddock as minister for immigration, who erected metaphorical razor wire around the word so that it was contained within notions of illegality and spuriousness. (Ruddock also coined the word “rejectee” for those asylum seekers whose applications failed at the first stage of assessment.) The international convention to which Australia is a signatory states that it is not illegal to seek asylum, however one arrives in a country, and the Press Council has ruled that it is inappropriate for media to refer to asylum seekers as illegal.

Yet Coalition governments, in particular, have injected the word “illegal” so successfully into our political rhetoric that they have drugged significant portions of the Australian population into feeling no pain at this toxic translation of politicking into policy. The present minister for immigration, Scott Morrison, argues that he realises it is not illegal to seek asylum, but is merely referring to boat people’s “mode of entry.” The Opposition spokesperson Richard Marles cautions: “This is an area where language is bullets …’’

Words have the power to change the way people think; they are part of the architecture of perception. If you are speaking French, for example, the process known as tutoiement – by which two people agree to call one another by the informal tu rather than the formal vous – both recognises and enables intimacy.

Translators know this, which is why they must think carefully on how to translate vous into English, or “you” into French. Hypnotists also know the power of words, which is why they advise clients to stop saying, “I am an insomniac,” and instead repeat to themselves, “I sleep eight hours a day and wake up refreshed.” What is said becomes what is real. Politicians know this. Morrison knows this. In its most pernicious form, the principle that words both name and nurture realities enables what George Orwell described as “doublespeak”: “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.”

In 2010, the Nobel committee awarded the Peace Prize to the imprisoned Chinese writer and pro-democracy activist Liu Xiaobo. At a press conference attended by foreign reporters, the spokesperson for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs flatly denied that Liu was a dissident. There were no dissidents in China. Liu Xiaobo was not a dissident; he was a criminal. The artist-provocateur Ai Weiwei blogged the following response:


Foreign Affairs Ma’s statement contains a number of layers of meaning:

- Dissidents are criminals;

- Only criminals have dissenting views;

- The distinction between criminals and non-criminals is whether they have dissenting views;

- If you think China has dissidents, you are a criminal;

- The reason [China] has no dissidents is because they are [in fact already] criminals;

- Does  anyone  have  a  dissenting  view  regarding  my  statement?                                                                            

Asylum seekers are illegals. Only illegals would seek asylum … Ai Weiwei translates rather well into Australian.


This is an edited extract from Linda Jaivin’s Quarterly Essay 52, Found in Translation: In Praise of a Plural World $19.99 available now














Linda Jaivin

Linda Jaivin is an author and translator of Chinese. Her books include Eat Me, The Infernal Optimist and A Most Immoral Woman. Her most recent works are the novel The Empress Lover and the Quarterly Essay ‘Found in Translation’.

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