Shengren – Chapter 4.2 – Meaning and Intention in Translation

“Translating as ‘philosopher’ is not a wrong interpretation – it’s a factual mistake”

Stony Brook: Lets turn to some of these philosophers and some things that they have said, and the first one I wanna look at is Harvard philosopher Hillary Putnam. In the mid-seventies he wrote a paper called ‘The Meaning of Meaning’ which has been very influential, and I guess the key slogan that came out of that is that meanings just ain’t in the head. Agree or disagree, or is that just incoherent?

Noam Chomsky: It is incoherent without further explanation. First you have to tell us what meanings are. You can’t decide whether they are in our head or not until we know what they are. If by meanings we have in mind what people have in mind when they are using the word in English then sure they are not in the head, they are all over the place. Talk about the meaning of life, it is not in the head. If you have a more technical notion in mind, you’ve gotta explain what it is. And there it is a matter of choice. You can define the technical notions so that it’s in the head and that it’s not in the head. When you define technical notions you have a choice. The way it’s done in the sciences, and the way it ought to be done, is you define a technical notion in the context of an explanatory theory. You just don’t define it as technical notion out in space. So lets ask what is the explanatory theory in which we’re gonna give a technical notion which will pronounce meaning, or pronounce it some other way, and then we’ll ask whether that theory is a sensible theory and does it place this technical notion on the head or not. But all that extra work hasn’t been done.[1]

– Noam Chomsky, The Stony Brook Interviews

If someone said a shengren was an alchemist,[2] demigod,[3] magician,[4] or pedagogue,[5] what were his or her intentions? If someone sees shengren and says to himself “I don’t wanna know this, to me it’s all religion and holy men”, what does it mean for Asian scholarship? Were those intentions based on individual expectations, or on collective preconceptions? Certainly, one’s educational background, the aim of one’s research project, and the predominant way of thinking were all normative in forming one’s intentions, for example to translate shengren as: “Zauberer und Gaukler” (mages and jesters),[6] “model-philosophers”[7], “halblegendäre Könige der früheren Dynastien”,[8] or “die Berufenen” [the appointees].[9] Or, put as a question: Do Cultural scientists call shengren “Kulturschöpfer”,[10] and idealists call shengren “Idealmenschen”?[11]

The German missionaries Karl F. A. Gützlaff and Richard Wilhelm intentionally translated shengren as “die Heiligen”, because biblical and familiar vocabulary suited their mission and flattered the German social mind. More figurative examples were: the poetic Genius, the Wilhelmischer Politiker, the Nietzsche’an Sittenlehrer or Űbermensch, or just Göttlicher, the Humboldtsch’er Berufener, and, last and boring: the non-European Philosoph.

Not all translations were as bad as Heiliger, but all were suspect. New translations almost certainly revealed the intentions of the translators; even hyperbole was suspicious, as this random examples show: English: “sages” -[12] “great sages” – “legendary beings”[13] – “the divinest of men” – “the most perfect divine moral nature” – “the equal of God”;[14] or German: “Genie” – “Staatsmann”[15] – “Herrscherideal”[16] – “einer der dem Volke reiche Gnade spendend” – “mit göttliche Autorität und Kraft des Geistes” – “Gott”.[17]

For at least four centuries, the Germans have persistently translated shengren differently from their English counterparts, and objected to any transgression. That meant something. German scholars had the intentions to christen Chinese sages Heilige, and thus refused to hold the candle to the greatness of China that had sages while Germany had none. Since Germany already had Heilige, Genien, Berufene, Göttliche, and Philosophen, those words sounded familiar and meaningful while artificially creating an atmosphere of the familiar with the language of the familiar. The German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz once encouraged the Germans to extend their German-language empire by using German terminology and – of equally importance – intentionally avoiding foreign terms:

Was aber die fremde oder unteutsche Worte anbetrift, so entstehet darin der größte Zweifel, ob nämlichen, und wie weit sie zu dulden, nachdem sie Vielen auch noch unverständlich.[18] [As to the foreign and Unteutsch words, the biggest question existeth whether and how far to tolerate them after many did not even understand them.]

Shengren was such a foreign and Unteutsch word, and its foreignness could not be tolerated. The translation “Weiser” was a German word, but could not be tolerated either because many would not understand – why did China have Weisen? “Sterbliche können keine Weisen sein!” [Mortals cannot be sages!].[19] Besides, finding German words for Chinese concepts was linguistically demanding: Certain words stirred the audiences deeply while others were impotent. For example, on another occasion in Laozi, Richard Wilhelm translated “te” [德de] as “Leben” [life], but because that didn’t look particularly profound, he decided to write it all-caps: LEBEN.[20]

The first wave of China experts could practically do anything they wanted with Chinese names. Some of the greatest incidences of language imperialism happened in China. For example, did James Legge, the arguably most prominent translator of the Chinese Classics, translate the 子zi in The Analects on seventeen occasions conveniently as “Philosopher”. If that were true, China had more philosophers than sons. Suddenly, the disciples 有You and 曾Zeng were translated “the philosopher You said…”, “the philosopher Zeng said…”. Many subsequent translators – whose authorship often remained in obscurity[21] – completely objected to this, just translating “Yu Tzü said”,[22] as zi indicated a student, or – including Chichung Huang’s translation published by Oxford University Press – “Master Yu said”, as zi indicated a master.[23] In the future, Chinese scholars after all might make a stride to correct Western errors. Nevertheless, for now Legge’s Lun Yu – which reads like a ‘philosopher’s manual’, really – to my knowledge is still the most widely known, all for the wrong reasons. Translating 子as “philosopher” is not a wrong interpretation – it’s a factual mistake. But since this has been going on for a hundred years and more, those wrong “philosopher”-translations cannot be beaten back. They are probably here with us to stay. However, it doesn’t have to be the case that the world is kept ignorant on this: the European translations for Chinese names are incorrect, deceitful, and all-too-convenient for Western Culture’s world dominance. With today’s technology we are now able to collect and compare any of those former translations, a bold task for scholarship, as the comparative method will unearth the one or other big surprise to us.

It is true that even today few Westerners can read Chinese; but back in the 19th and 20th centuries, very few of the ‘China experts’ could even spell Chinese words correctly; and if their peers read them they usually had not enough interest to correct incorrect translations. It was taken almost for granted that Legge was Confucius. In addition, China’s dialects varied greatly. The Europeans had to invent a Latinized script for Chinese first, which – after various trials – became first Wales-Giles and then today’s Pinyin system. In the beginnings of the East-West cultural exchanges, few missionaries could pronounce Chinese names correctly, as remarked in a footnote by the Chair of Chinese at Oxford University, Homer Hasenpflug Dub, in his Hsüntze (1925): “He [the European] spells the name and discusses its pronunciation. After reading the note, it is a bold man who would attempt to speak the name!”[24]

And, one may add to Dub’s observation, it is a clever man, who does not attempt to speak the Chinese name at all, but rather says “philosopher” or “saint”, granted. It stands to further discussion whether the English speakers really had adopted the Chinese term “shengren” if only they had known that word, known how to pronounce it, how to say the name.

Meanwhile, as the Chinese language remained mysterious and almost impossible to master, the various European interest groups in China preferred terminology helpful to their mission and/or personal agenda: sheng(ren) as Greco-Roman “philosophers”, Judean-Christian “saints”, Schopenhauer’sche “Genien“, Humboldt’sche Berufene (appointees), or pagan “gods”. Since all those names were essentially European, each of them should be flagged red and taken with precautions – always and forever. Those translations came about during the Golden Age of Western imperialism, colonialism, and orientalism, at a time when the wrong intentions mattered just a little bit more than true meanings.

[1] Noam Chomsky: The Stony Brook Interviews, broadcasted May 24th, 2009

[2] Jaspers, 1957, p. 159

[3] Wilhelm, 1974, pp. 80, 87

[4] Conrady, 1910, p. 520

[5] Wei, 1993, p. 121 ff.

[6] Jaspers, 1957, p 159

[7] Pohl, 1999, p. 302

[8] Lee, 2008, p. 49

[9] Simson, 2002, p. 90, 94, 169, 246

[10] Rötz, 2004

[11] Conrady, 1910, p. 540

[12] Pound, 1928, pp. 218, 229, 222

[13] Giles, 1926, pp. 66, 71, 73

[14] Brown, 1917, pp. 169, 170

[15] Schott, 1826, p. 55

[16] Grube, 1902, p. 26

[17] Wilhelm, 1914, pp. 60, 88, 114, 88

[18] Leibniz, 1677, p. 547

[19] Trawny, 2008: Phaidros, 278d

[20] Wilhelm, 1910

[21] This is especially true of “internet collections” that are rarely properly sourced, verified, reviewed, and may electronically disappear at any time, including chinapage (dot) org and confucius (dot) org and even classic (dot) mit (dot) edu; but also of obscure publications that were miraculously written and published by Confucius himself: The Analects, 2006, letting alone the hundreds of layman or student translations in electronic circulation. Yes, it is a mess.

[22], 2011

[23] Huang, 1997; Moran, 2011,

[24] Starr, 1930, p. vii