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Translating and Interpreting Chinese Philosophy (stanford.edu)
95 points by bookofjoe 3 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 53 comments





An important point that I think this article leaves out is the relationship of Classical Chinese to modern Chinese.

Often I've found that translating Classical Chinese into modern Chinese is easier than translating Classical Chinese into modern English.

It gives three English translations of a poem from the Book of Odes (Shijing 诗经), namely the "Cock's Crow" (not sure if there's a standard English translation of the title, 鸡鸣). It mentions that there is no definite mention of the speaker and different translators make different choices (it incidentally leaves out the other point of ambiguity in that section which is whether to translate 朝 as "court" or "dawn", which you see in Legge's and Pound's choices of "the court is full" and "crowding the hall" vs Waley's choice of "full daylight" but this is a more ordinary single-word-has-multiple-meanings problem).

Yet if you look at a modern Chinese translation of the poem, e.g. one found on the Baidu encyclopedia (https://baike.baidu.com/item/%E5%9B%BD%E9%A3%8E%C2%B7%E9%BD%...), the same "ambiguity" persists! There is no explicit speaker.

The relationship between modern Chinese (including its various varieties) and Classical Chinese is a far more complex one than the relationship between say Latin and the Romance languages. At times it is useful to think of Classical Chinese as an entirely separate language from modern Chinese. At times it is more useful to think of it as an extremely elevated register of modern Chinese. A modern Chinese work can be successively "Classical"-ified. For example there is a rough ordering of informal, spoken language -> informal, written language -> popular nonfiction -> modern academic articles (about the humanities) -> full-on Classical Chinese where each stage uses increasingly more "Classical Chinese"-isms than the previous one. Pronouns used change; a weird bimodal distribution of monosyllabic words occurs where the informal spoken language has a lot of monosyllabic words, full-on Classical Chinese has a lot of monosyllabic words, but everything in the middle tends to have a lot more bisyllabic words; sentence structures also change.

There isn't really an analogous, somewhat smooth transition of say a French work into a Latin work.

Even within Classical Chinese you have different gradations of how "Classical" it is. Early Christian missionaries to China distinguished between "deep" Classical Chinese and "shallow" Classical Chinese and produced different translations of the Bible written in each style.

This carries over to the ambiguity in the sentences. Different Classical Chinese works can have very different amounts of ambiguity, even in the same genre. The Records of the Grand Historian, a Western Han dynasty historical record is written in a fairly plain style. In contrast, the Book of Han, an Eastern Han dynasty historical record is at times infamously impenetrable (even to ancient readers), where single sentences have spawned whole commentaries.

So through the lens of Classical Chinese as a very elevated register of modern Chinese, I would contend that a portion of the difficulties in translating Classical Chinese are inherent in differences between Sinitic and Indo-European languages, which are only exacerbated by the extreme concision of Classical Chinese.

That is, to a limited degree, I would say the reason that aren't articles about "translating Classical Greek" or "translating Sanskrit" is that those all are still languages from the same language family whereas Classical Chinese is entirely different. The article alludes to this, but seems to single out Classical Chinese as special. A fun exercise to explore this idea which is unfortunately beyond my expertise would be to examine the process of translating ancient Egyptian or Classical Arabic to see if it is at all similar.

Another factor in difficulty of translation, returning to the idea of register, is that different grammatical constructions, even if they appear in both languages, can only be appropriately used in wildly different registers. English also has, to a limited degree, the flexibility of grammatical categories that Classical Chinese has. "Beer me!" says the guy at a party to no one in particular, which the host obliges by handing him a beer. Beer, a noun, has been pressed into service as a verb, and subject of the command is the vague, unsaid "Someone". Indeed, if you were so inclined, you could call this "verbing a noun." However, this is extremely informal in English, whereas in Chinese this is extremely formal.

Finally, despite all this, I agree with the article that ambiguity plays a part in Classical Chinese that isn't often found in English or potentially even modern Chinese. Sometimes the difficulty is in disambiguating a given passage. Sometimes, however, the difficulty is often NOT in trying to disambiguate the Classical Chinese, but how to represent that ambiguity faithfully in the target language.

As a minor example, English has a word "lobster." Spanish doesn't (as far as I know)! It has two different words for different organisms that would both fall under the category of "lobster" (langosta, Spiny Lobster, and bogavante, Clawed Lobster). So, how do you translate "lobster" into Spanish? "Lobster" in English intentionally means both langosta and bogavante! There is an ambiguity in the English word "lobster" that Spanish simply doesn't have, which you lose if you choose either "langosta" or "bogavante".

Similarly, the lack of a subject in a lot of both Classical and modern Chinese sentences lends the text an intrinsic ambiguity that is essential to its meaning. The article obliquely acknowledges this in its conclusion which mentions getting away from "clarity and precision."

That was long and convoluted and I'll stop here. I'll just end with one small unrelated observation. The article also glosses over some interesting controversies surrounding Classical Chinese by viewing Classical Chinese as a purely written artifact.

Did Classical Chinese ever represent an archaic spoken version of Chinese (say Old Chinese of the Warring States Period or earlier)? Or has it always been an artificial, idealized, written language? In a related vein do the rhyme dictionaries of Middle Chinese represent an actual spoken pronunciation or are rather a handbook for an artificial and formal pronunciation of Classical Chinese works? Different academics have different views.


My synopsis: The only way to understand text is to learn the original language. When I compared Arabic text with translated versions for example, although done by supposedly professionals, I couldn't help but sense awkward misalignments in context. Perhaps the interpretation (understanding) of both reader and writer differ, and so does the translation. The transcending misunderstanding can not be rectified unless a glance is made at the original. I know learning another language just to read a book is indeed way too much, but it is worth it, for you will not be reading one book eventually, and learning a language like Mandarin in this instance is an exciting experience. Examples of books I've read in original language and translation include Political Ideals by B. Russell, 100 years of solitude By G. Marquez, Spirits Rebellious By Khalil Gibran. I am also learning Mandarin, but rest assured, I still need another 5 years to be able to read and write decently.

Alternately, you can heavily annotate a text as you translate it, such that the annotations serve effectively as a language course to teach the reader exactly as much of the source language as is needed to appreciate the context of the translation. This is often done for works in early-modern English, simply because there's enough commonality with modern English that the "language learning guide" can fit in the margins, rather than taking up 90% of the work.

But even with these annotated works, I often wish that the original text was supplied alongside the translation (as it usually is in lyrical translations, e.g. opera), so that the annotations could point to aspects of the original text to explain the choices made, instead of referring to an out-of-band original that's not clear on the page.


It also becomes a hurdle to read the footnotes. I often times got sucked in them and forget even how to come back to the original text, let alone the original idea I was reading.

> My synopsis: The only way to understand text is to learn the original language.

Exactly my approach too, hence why I learn Sumerian for instance. Also note that we are speaking of Chinese philosophy here so the language to learn is Classical Chinese, not Mandarin. Few people would jump into that without at least some knowledge of a modern Chinese language, but it can be done (notably by reading Pulleyblank book).


Yes indeed, although I assume that since Mandarin is more accessible for learners, it can serve as a 101 to classical. Quote: [None of what has been said up to this point is to suggest that studying Chinese language and early thought is only for the classically curious and linguistically intrepid].

I would be curious whether it'd be easier to learn Classical Chinese and then Mandarin, rather than the other way 'round. Seems like, if you take the "forward" approach, you get to reinforce your language learning with a complementary narrative of cultural evolution, where the two bodies of knowledge can reinforce one-another.

Before the 20th century, this was basically how every educated non-Chinese person in East Asia would've studied Chinese, since they all would have learned written Classical Chinese as part of their education, but would have had to study Mandarin separately. The results were mixed. Ho Chi Minh seems to have done okay. Another Vietnamese compatriot Phan Bội Châu seemed to never really get the hang of Mandarin Chinese despite spending a considerable amount of time in China (although a good amount of that time was in jail).

That does sort of happen to those of us who need learn both traditional and simplified. If you learn traditional, you have a better chance of being able to read simplified with a little more effort than the other way around.

Eh... I feel like I hear claims of both directions. The Chinese internet is full of people claiming that Taiwanese people can't read simplified Chinese or that PRC people can't read traditional Chinese.

FWIW, anecdotally every mainland Chinese person I've met has been able to read traditional characters. For some of them it is, however, more laborious. All of them have been able to read long tracts in traditional Chinese (think the length of a newspaper article or longer), although sometimes it takes obvious effort. This has not been true of some Taiwanese people I've met for simplified characters.

I'm mostly tempted to chalk this up to environmental factors rather than reasons intrinsic to the script. The mainland often gets a lot of Taiwanese cultural imports, while I don't think Taiwan gets as much cultural imports from the mainland. Furthermore there is a lot of stylistic usage of traditional characters in the mainland (posters, store signs, branding, calligraphy, artwork) and university-level Classical Chinese language classes (aimed at domestic students) are often taught exclusively with traditional characters. In comparison there is essentially no usage of simplified characters at all in Taiwan.

The two scripts essentially have a one-to-one correspondence with each other anyways so it's not really that hard to go between the two if you have full fluency in one.


I would argue that, due to merging different characters together, simplified Chinese is more ambiguous in meaning than traditional Chinese. So it's harder for someone more versed in traditional to read simplified, since there's a bit of guessing as to which "mapping" back to a traditional character should be taken. Whereas there's only one way to map a traditional character to a simplified character, so it's just memorization+recall if you learn simplified first.

I'd compare reading simplified Chinese characters after a traditional-Chinese education, to reading Japanese written purely in kana, and trying to figure out what kanji are meant. It's something that requires active use of your brain sometimes, where the opposite—translating kanji to kana—is a rote task.


As a note, although simplified merges far more characters than traditional, it also splits some characters that are merged in traditional. For example, 乾 in traditional is split into either 乾 (qian2 one of the hexagrams) or 干 (gan1 dry) in simplified.

Regardless, the number of simplified characters for which the merger of traditional characters happens is small, even more so compared to the number of Chinese characters you see on a day-to-day basis. On top of that, the vast majority of these mergers involve one character that in traditional Chinese is archaic and very rarely seen or are considered obscure variant characters of the same word in traditional Chinese. I can only think of maybe a dozen or so examples that show up in Chinese you're likely to read on a day-to-day basis. Even fewer if what you're reading doesn't have a lot to do with ancient China. That's why I say it's essentially a one-to-one correspondence.

I do hear your argument often from other Chinese speakers to support why reading traditional characters if you only know simplified characters is easier than reading simplified characters if you only know traditional characters so maybe there's something to it.


I'm pretty sure that's the route most Korean and Japanese speakers go. The differences between the two are exaggerated anyways.

I don't think that's true of modern Korean or Japanese speakers. You're going to have to go back about a century or more to find any appreciable amount of literacy in Classical Chinese in Korea or Japan.

How did you learn sumerian? And what sumerian texts are you reading? I am intrigued

I registered to a remote degree offered by one of the universities I graduated from (400€ a year). I'm not reading Sumerian texts yet, beside those in the class which are mostly texts celebrating foundation of sometime (a temple to a god for example).

The language is way more grammatical than I expected, and the first year if focussed on learning that. Really interesting nonetheless.


The article tries to argue that Classical Chinese is singularly foreign

> ... a fourth reason for the complexity of the topic of this entry is also the reason significantly responsible for its being the only one of its kind in this Encyclopedia. There are no entries under “Translating and Interpreting…” for Greek philosophy, for example, nor German Idealism or French Postmodernism. Even Indian philosophy lacks such an entry. This fact should bring home not just the singularity of the classical Chinese written language, compared to contemporary languages derived from the proto-Sanskrit Indo-European family of languages written in alphabet scripts, but remind us as well of the greater distance between Chinese and other cultures from past to present.

but thankfully acknowledges that the situation isn't so simple even for those other languages

> ... it is highly unlikely that by utilizing a Sanskrit vocabulary Kant’s philosophy is going to come through a translation at all clearly.

The focus on vocabulary and the meaning of individual characters gives me the impression of someone trying to understand a text in a foreign language purely by consulting a dictionary, whose definitions may very well have been guessed from the text you're trying to read! Then the difference to French or German or even Ancient Greek is that a translator can be reasonably expected to become fluent in that language, whereas Classical Chinese is more like Biblical Hebrew. There, too, contradictory translations proliferate, with ambiguities and gaps left by forgotten words leaving plenty of wiggle room for the translator to insert their favored interpretation.


To me it is plausible that Classical Chinese is unique among written languages - not necessarily in its foreignness, but just sufficiently different to necessitate the article.

Two points as examples:

1. Chinese has very few distinct syllables compared to other languages, even including tones. Thus, many words in speech are multisyllabic to allow for disambiguation.

However, in the written language, the character disambiguates sufficiently that only the major part of a word needs to be written.

So, while in most languages a written text can be read out aloud and understood (and many people are not even aware that spoken and written language are substantially different), in Chinese

> the written language often cannot be understood when read aloud unless the listeners are already familiar with the passage and what this means in turn is that the written language should probably not be seen as a transcription of speech (Graham 1987: 390; DeFrancis 1984: 126)

2. Chinese does not feature conjugation or much punctuation, and often leaves out verbs completely. See for example the famous poem about Moon and homesickness by Li Bai [1], the first and last lines are

床前明月光 bed before bright moon light

低頭思故鄉 Lower head think home

English (or most Indo-European languages) rarely drop the verb, and if the translator puts it there, they have to choose a specific conjugated form (ie person, number, tense, voice, mood...), thus necessarily interpreting.

For example, the lines quoted are translated as "I wake, and moonbeams play around my bed" or "In front of my bed is the bright moonlight"; "Then I lower my head, thinking of my hometown", or "Then lay me down — and thoughts of home arise."

These are all somewhat different, but ok, it's a poem and should primarily convey some emotion.

But now imagine this sort of ambiguity in a philosophical discussion.

Bottom line: there is continuum of how easy and unambiguous a text is to interpret (and/or translate), and while Biblical Hebrew might well be towards the complicated end, I think it's reasonable to argue that Classical Chinese is even further that way.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quiet_Night_Thought


> 2. Chinese does not feature conjugation or much punctuation, and often leaves out verbs completely. [...] English (or most Indo-European languages) rarely drop the verb, and if the translator puts it there, they have to choose a specific conjugated form (ie person, number, tense, voice, mood...), thus necessarily interpreting.

While Chinese has its unique set of quirks, having a wide range of possible translations is just as much about the target language. Translating English into a language with gendered nouns, case markers, pronouns of varying formality, and/or a more liberal word order, also requires the translator to choose which possible nuance was intended by the original. For example, "I'm sure you're very busy." can apparently be expressed by any of 95 different Italian sentences: https://tatoeba.org/eng/sentences/show/2046775 Not all of those distinctions are necessarily relevant, but in the end a sentence in any language is a fuzzy bundle of possible meanings, with no particular reason to expect that bundle to align perfectly with any other language.


Since Indo-European-Languages share to varying degree some root bundles, there are idioms that have analogues in all those languages, and subsets of basic grammar that are nearly identical.

Of course there is a particular reason to expect perfect alignment between languages, hypothetically, which is so far hopeless, namely universal grammar.

I'm sure that example sentence has 95 variants in English alone. "You're tied up, I know".


You do realize that "Lower"/低 Is a verb right? In fact if you look at the complete poem every line contains a verb except the first one.

The full poem is: 床前明月光

Bright明 Moon月light光 before前 (the) bed床.

疑是地下霜

(The) suspicion疑 is是 frost霜 on下 (the) ground地.

Verb: 是/Is

举头望明月

Raise举 head头, gaze望 (the) bright明 moon月.

Verb: 举/Raise

低头思故乡

Lower低 head头, think思 (of) (the) homeland故乡.

Verb: 低/Lower

Quoted words are those not present in the poem. Chinese, like most languages doesn't have a definite article so "the" is implicit. The last "of" isn't present because "homeland"/故乡 is the object of the word think in Chinese where as the topic of a thought is usually marked with a preposition in English. The above was a word for word translation where only the order of words were changed. If you haven't noticed already, the last two lines literally translate to English in the same order (save for the lack of pronouns).

The only thing missing are pronouns, which also occurs in English with the passive voice. 静夜思 By the way literally doesn't deviate in any way from "vernacular" Chinese in terms of grammar or vocabulary. In fact it's taught in early grade school and is easily understood.

> the written language often cannot be understood when read aloud unless the listeners are already familiar with the passage and what this means in turn is that the written language should probably not be seen as a transcription of speech

I'm sorry but this is nonsense. I learned the poem you mentioned before I knew how to read or write and understood it fine. On the flip side, I didn't know what the pledge of allegiance meant until I learned how to read/write. Differences between formal and casual registers exist in every language, there is no indication that this is any different in Chinese. Your example of "abbreviating words" also makes zero sense when the "parts of words" you refer to are atomic and have meaning by themselves. DeFrancis makes his wild claims about Chinese because he believed that all writing was ultimately phonetic when it's clear that all writing is logographic, which is the case for both Chinese and English.

I'm tired of the mysticism that people display towards Chinese when arguably it has few difference from English.


> I'm sorry but this is nonsense.

> I'm tired of the mysticism that people display

Would you please make your substantive points without indignant swipes? They degrade discussion, it's not hard to do without them, and your comments will be better for it.

https://news.ycombinator.com/newsguidelines.html


You are basically saying that your understanding as a kid of a classical poetry was well developed. You understood the surface analysis, but I very much doubt that you had grasped any symbolism past the literal bright disk in the sky.

You are potentially biased by native speaker instinct. What you understand just fine is only what you think it means. This is called identification. This does not give you authority over the interpretation. To everyone else the phrases look almost like gibberish, to the point that a lot deeper meaning is expected than the surface is letting on. They (read: I) do not really identify with, but reject it.

You very apparently did not read the post very clearly that you cite.

You responded to "the written language often cannot be understood when read aloud". However you did not finish reading before anger blinded your sight. It goes on "cannot be understood when read aloud unless the listeners are already familiar with the passage". It would be easy enough to criticize that this is a paradox situation. However it goes on further, "what this means in turn is that the written language should probably not be seen as a transcription of speech", which implies to me that the deeper sense is encoded in the signs themselves. I'd add that poetry thrives in word play. In general, the older the poem, the obscurer the word play, and yet most innocious the surface form for it to survive. Although, it might be that the verse is really just esthetically pleasing on a phonetical level, I wouldn't know (and GP would have mislead me). That is, a lot of old poetry starts verbally and is written down only generations later

Word play on the graphemic level is a dimension well known in English from signage. But the combination with sound adds a constraint that's hard to imagine. "Speaking signs" (The city of Hamburg having a Burg "castle" on their emblem) are often banal, but can escalate over many levels of connotation (one level: The castle's gates are depicted open or shut depending on the times; Many levels: The background is red, the castle is white? A tavern may play on it and add a pork, because "ham"). I believe that's what they were trying to say.

I expect that is something you must be aware of subliminally because there is no way to learn chinese signs well without a theory of composition. If you really only learn the geometric forms, I'd be disappointed.

望 for example has the sign for moon up-right, and emperor down-low, if I recal correctly. The latter also means tenno in Japanese and has some relation to sky (or the forbidden city in Peking) and high up, though up would be one stroke less (cp "[up]on", "raise"'s lower half, and its mirror image in "ground"'s left and "lower"'s right; I gather "is" may be "wall, stand, up; set in place); Also cp "head" ("top"?). The phonetics are often shown by only one of the radicals or none at all, so the symbolism can be easy to miss in speech, although the connotation may be obvious from common context, precisely such as this poem, if the semantics remained stable. In fact the poem might be an intralingual rosetta stone for learners of the writing. I am aware that's not quite what was being talked about. Not to mention that the symbolism of "is" has not been convincingly by scholars. It is elsewhere rather translated as "that", by the way, which is not withstanding insofar is that or that is are fixed collocations, that might well fuse to one word "that's", too. Word is that winter's coming. In times of stability at the end of the year as the evening star rises I like to think it's time to crawl before the lord, ask for allowance, and bring home my yen to support my family and spend time with them over the year's end.

Indeed, English is no different. Just why is beowulf ostensibly "bee wolf = bear"?

Also, the second to last part where you say English is logographic confuses me.


This is the mysticism I'm talking about. You're literally arguing that the meaning behind the poem comes from the shape of the characters themselves. You have the common sentiment amongst westerners that Chinese writing isn't actually writing but are merely "signs" as you put it. It is true that most writing systems (the latin script included) originated as pictographs, but just as nobody compares the letter "A" to an Ox in the analysis of English poetry, no serious analysis of Chinese poetry involves looking at the shape of the characters themselves. You do realize that the shape of the characters themselves change drastically over time right? Go to the "字源字形" section of 望's dictionary entry here for an example:[0]

> which implies to me that the deeper sense is encoded in the signs themselves.

That is not at all what GP is implying, GP cites John DeFrancis, who is the opinion that the Chinese script is actually a (imperfect) phonetic script because he believes all scripts are phonetic. The bulk of GP's argument is also about the grammar of the Chinese language, which was what I was arguing against in my comment.

[0] https://zdic.net/hans/%E6%9C%9B


> You are potentially biased by native speaker instinct. What you understand just fine is only what you think it means.

You could apply that argument to my interpretation of anything in any language. All this time I thought F=ma was about physics when it's really a drawing of a Samurai.

The interpretation that you substitute mine with is not only conceited, but relies on false assumptions drawn from an imperfect understanding of a completely different language.

> 望 for example has the sign for moon up-right, and emperor down-low, if I recal correctly. The latter also means tenno in Japanese and has some relation to sky (or the forbidden city in Peking)

The radical 王 you refer to does not mean emperor, but king by itself. The phrase commonly translated as "emperor" is in fact 皇帝, which is a combination of the titles of 皇 and 帝 similar to the title of "Rex Imperator" in Europe. The japanese phrase Tennō does not mean "emperor", it means sky (or celestial) emperor. It is the combination of 天(Ten, meaning sky) and 皇(Nō, one of the afforementioned titles that is commonly translated as emperor). Neither the word or character for emperor has any relation to the sky by themselves and no reasonable person would think of the word emperor from seeing the word from gaze because they share a radical.

> In fact the poem might be an intralingual rosetta stone for learners of the writing.

Given that the poem was written centuries before any language other than Chinese used the Chinese script, your analysis doesn't make sense. It seems to me that you just want to shoehorn your very limited understanding of Japanese into this discussion.


Actually I'd argue that a theory of composition of Chinese is somewhat overrated. It really only makes sense for the common list of Chinese radicals. It may be useful as a device for remembering characters, but the explanations each person comes up with are bound to be idiosyncratic.

For example, you seem to be implying a connection between the meanings of 王 (king) and 上 (up) based on their graphical similarity. This is purely an artifact of regular script, one of several different scripts for Chinese. This similarity goes away entirely in older scripts and cursive scripts.

In general graphical analysis of modern Chinese script is usually extremely misleading and to do accurately often requires an extraordinarily convoluted process. I would not recommend it as a way of formally analyzing Chinese. Through the repeated process of phonetic borrowing (taking a character similar in sound to an unrelated word and using it to represent that word as well); changes in Chinese script over the millennia; variant characters that have been consolidated, split up, and re-consolidated; variant meanings that have been consolidated into a single character, split up into separate characters, and re-consolidated; erroneous interpretations of character structure between different iterations of Chinese scripts; and normal semantic drift of words over time, it is often maddening to divine the meaning of Chinese characters from their graphical forms that is any more specific than the usual context offered by a Chinese radical.

This also means that ancient Chinese doesn't have too many graphical puns. There are isolated examples e.g. where these puns are only used to get around prohibitions on certain characters (e.g. characters used in an emperor's name could not be written for the duration of that emperor's rule, so graphical puns would occasionally be employed). This persists in modern Chinese where to get around some censorship, graphical puns are employed.

Likewise, I am very skeptical of viewing the poem as an intralingual rosetta stone for learners of the writing. Just writing it in a different script changes a lot of the graphical structure! There are no commentators I know of, Chinese or otherwise, that even attempt to analyze the graphical structure of the characters in the poem.

Graphical analyses really only have value for the earliest stages of Chinese writing (oracle bone script and to some degree bronze script). And even then things are painful, especially because the idea that a word is identifiable with its character starts to fall apart. You start having to think harder about whether a single character is meant to stand-in for several words or whether multiple characters all can be used for a single word.


> 1. Chinese has very few distinct syllables compared to other languages, even including tones. Thus, many words in speech are multisyllabic to allow for disambiguation.

This is true of Mandarin, but Classical Chinese had mostly monosyllabic words with many more distinct syllables and maybe wasn't even a tonal language. The exact pronunciations are obviously unknown except by reconstruction from descendant languages, but it's unlikely that ambiguity of pronunciation was much of a problem when the texts were written. It does however affect works of later periods written in Literary Chinese, trying to emulate the style of the classics they were quoting.


Very good point. I notice that many varieties (eg Cantonese) seem to make many distinctions that have collapsed in Mandarin.

So, whether Classical Chinese read out was intelligible to ancient listeners is hard to establish, but there’s a good chance it was.

Surely, Classical Chinese is a language quite different from contemporary vernacular Chinese.

Of course, Latin is quite different from Spanish, too.

Yet, I’d maintain that Classical Latin is more easily rendered in modern English (and with less interpretative leeway) than Classical Chinese.


To me it seems overwrought. We have Chinese philosophers who are experts in Classical Chinese philosophy who study these things and labor over them. And we have expert Chinese-English experts as well as philosophers versed in both modern languages.

So I can’t immediately see how it’s more difficult than looking into Classical Greek philosophy.


There's an additional barrier when it comes to classical Chinese: Written Chinese underwent a vernacular revolution in the early to mid 20th century to make it comprehensible to more people but until then written Chinese is nothing like what spoken Chinese is like (my guess is that because written Chinese started with ideogram rather than phonetics). You can still see some examples of this when you encounter something formal in Chinese like wedding invitations. Despite being fluent in more than one dialect of Chinese and having some reading fluency, formal Chinese is incomprehensible to me.

Or take for example: The Romance of the Three Kingdoms: https://ctext.org/sanguo-yanyi/ch1

Even if you can't read Chinese, note the regularity of sentence/phrase lengths between commas, etc. People don't talk like that. And this is a work of fiction, not philosophy. It's meant to be consumed as a popular work by the educated.

Or Art of War:

https://ctext.org/art-of-war/laying-plans

Although being a military manual, it wasn't really meant to be easily read.

Historically, written Chinese was the realm of the well educated Chinese, not meant for the masses.


The Romance of the Three Kingdoms is not a great example. The particular section you've linked to is a Classical Chinese poem quoted in the introduction to the novel. The rest of the book is (for the most part) written in Ming Dynasty vernacular Chinese (although it sometimes veers into a quite formal vernacular) and is actually kind of close-ish to formal modern Mandarin.

The 20th century vernacular revolution didn't mean that written Chinese was exclusively Classical Chinese previously. All the famous novels of China (Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Journey to the West, Dream of the Red Chamber, Water Margin, etc) are all written in the vernacular of their time. It is nonetheless true that the overwhelming majority of writing that was not literature was written in Classical Chinese.

As a side note, I would also rate Art of War as fairly readable (for a modern reader) Classical Chinese. Its excerpts are usually assigned at a middle school level in China. So "wasn't really meant to be easily read" feels a bit like a stretch. It is far easier to read (at least for me) than something like the Analects or the Daodejing.

Classical Chinese still influences Chinese written works today. In order to fully understand modern Chinese literature, newspapers, legal documents, essentially anything at a register more formal than everyday Chinese, bits and pieces of Classical Chinese will filter through, to the point that I'd argue most readers of modern Chinese will gain a rudimentary understanding of Classical Chinese from reading the modern Chinese corpus.


Ancient Greek and Sanskrit both have complex detailed grammars that leave little room for ambiguity. The language of the Dao De Jing has a minimalistic grammar, where more has to be inferred from context.

People love to blame the grammar, but you won't find anyone mentioning being made out of wood, hitting balls or any sports in a philosophical discussion on the question of "What is it like to be a bat?", which is understood to belong in the realm of animal consciousness. That's despite there not being any grammatical distinction between the two kinds of bats, they're only implicitly disambiguated by the context.

In my experience, context dependence only becomes noticeable when you don't understand, so foreign languages always appear to require more contextual knowledge than one's mother tongue. If you actually try to use a formal grammar to generate all possible parses for a sentence, you'll notice your brain filters out a lot of nonsensical but grammatically valid interpretations.


> If you actually try to use a formal grammar to generate all possible parses for a sentence, you'll notice your brain filters out a lot of nonsensical but grammatically valid interpretations.

Indeed. Canonical example:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Time_flies_like_an_arrow;_frui...


The stress of the words is different depending on PoS, unless you don't even try, there's little room for ambiguity. In writing, correcting the spelling error to fruit-flies solves the problem. The issue is real, but the example is naiv.

Chinese classical texts don't work that way as you suggested.

In what way? I admit that I haven't read a lot of Classical Chinese and usually need a Mandarin translation to help me understand, but that's easily explained by it being a different language. The experience isn't much different from reading modern Cantonese for me.

Chinese went through a vernacular revolution in the early to mid 20th century:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Written_vernacular_Chinese

Written Chinese today is a lot easier to understand than classical Chinese.


Sure, as I said, Classical Chinese is a different language. That it's hard to understand for speakers of modern Sinitic languages is not surprising. On the contrary, it's remarkable that people can have some success at reading texts in a language whose pronunciation they don't have the faintest idea of.

It seems that without knowing Chinese, most Westerners can only resort to appeals to authority to make their points.

I'm curious who you think doesn't know Chinese in this discussion. I already mentioned I do, hangonhn said they do, and leemailll's username makes me guess that they're not an exception either.

Given that they seem baffled by wedding invitations, they don't seem like they're very proficient. There's a ocean of difference between "Where is the bathroom" and "We hold these truths to be self-evident".

That’s a great point you raise. Thanks for pointing that out.

You are welcome. Here is some material describing the grammar in case anyone is interested. http://www.invisiblebooks.com/CGCC.htm

Just speculating here. But it could be easier to find a closer Greek translation than a Chinese one. After all, a lot of the words we use in English have Greek or Latin roots.

So I can see how it'd be more difficult to get the author's meaning across in this case. There aren't always accurate translations of a concept, which convey all the meaning correctly. And at least with German or other languages, it's not unheard of to actually use the word in the original language and give it a definition, rather than translate it. Which seems harder to do with Chinese than with Greek/German/Latin.

-- EDIT: Fix some typos


I'd go even further in the speculation. Have you seen how some Greeks today get upset at the thought the language of Homer did not sound like theirs? I think there is a similar phenomenon with many Chinese (I'm hoping the phenomenon is less general among scholars), where they think their ancient philosopher were all Confucianists. The ambiguity of the grammar does not help. Words can also be ambiguous sometimes, but that is less of a problem. There are ancient dictionaries. But have then a Chinese amateur interpreter tell you that door means family or that ghost means ancestor with disregard to both the context and the dictionaries, completely distorting the meaning of the text in favor of some bland conformist platitude, and you will soon start rethinking the meaning of Cultural Appropriation.

> where they think their ancient philosopher were all Confucianists

That's a very big accusation to make without anything to back it up.


It happens occasionally with Chinese using a romanization. Sometimes the dao in Daoism just gets directly written as the dao. Sometimes the li (rites, customs, proper behavior, etc.) in Confucianism just gets directly written as li.

Despite being from the west, I find Chinese and eastern philosophy in general pretty straight forward since they’re just talking about fundamental observations of the mind which are universal and can filter out the misunderstandings of the translators well enough I feel. Language aside, in the cases where it’s clear to me the translator doesn’t understand is normally when to comes to basic fundamental observations about the mind, it’s as though in the west there’s basically no knowledge of the mind itself, so I think the west would have an easier time with eastern texts after observing their minds a bit closer. Typically westerns confuse the mind with the biology of the brain and go off track that way. My observations at least.

> since they’re just talking about fundamental observations of the mind which are universal

I have to politely disagree. In fact there are lots of subjects in common between so called Eastern and Western philosophy. Maybe you are mostly thinking about Yoga. Just reading the beginning of this piece of text today https://ctext.org/dictionary.pl?if=en&id=41979&remap=gb made me think about a phrase used by Jesus and then much later by Marx "Let the dead bury their dead."


More just the phenomena that happens when there is an honest investigation into the mind. The west has never attempted it, at least I’ve looked high and low, and the closest thing I could find was Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. However still it’s superficial, like Yoga and western religions in that it never directly addresses the mind itself; it’s always focused on the content, as opposed to the commonality between content to understand the mind which is transparent. This might seem like a lofty claim, but is indeed what shaped the east fir thousands of years and is what makes it different from the west. That’s the root.

(context: white American from midwest). I found it a very mind-expanding journey to try and read the tao, I basically had to look up each page and read what it meant. I was also listening to a TAO podcast with a newbie, that helped a lot. Now I can semi-get by on my own and it led me to look at other Chinese philosophies.

As a Chinese kid, I remember first coming into contact into Chinese philosophy around 11 or 12 and it was basically impenetrable. Comics like these by Tsai Chih Chung (Cai Zhi Zhong) in Chinese helped me "get" some of it:

https://www.amazon.com/Zhuangzi-Speaks-Nature-Chih-chung-Tsa...

Edit: Found a non-amazon link for some preview - https://books.google.com/books/about/Zhuangzi_Speaks.html?id...




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