What is ‘Translation History’ – New Discipline in Cultural Studies! (Songshan Forum, Henan)

What is ‘Translation History’? – by Thorsten Pattberg

Transcript from Talk presented at the ‘Songshan Forum – Chinese Civilization and World Civilization’ on Sept 8, 2013:

Good afternoon, everyone!

It is a privilege to be able to present this talk at this prestigious conference in Dengfeng, Henan province. Today I will talk about a new research field – even a new methodology – in Culture Studies: Translation History.

The exact topic of my talk is the ‘36 (Foreign) Translations of Shengren of the Confucian Analects’. I chose this number-title because we are close to Shaolin, and I have found memories of the myth of the 36 chambers of the Shaolin. Legend has it that the most perfect kungfu fighter will be tested on 36 different aspects of abilities. After he passed through all 36 chambers, he would receive the branding from carrying on the inside of his forearms an iron filled gauntlet.

Today, we will also be doing a branding exercise in some way: after passing through 36 translations, we are going to establish the true name of a Chinese concept.

So, what’s Translation History? Very easy: You pick a foreign key terminology and trace back all its major translations committed, say, by European scholars in the field. If you do this with more than two languages, you will see a monstrous pattern emerging. In fact, many new patterns emerge, and I am confident to predict a great change the way we look at cultures. By exposing ‘translation’ as what it (often) is: a reduction, simplification, or distortion, we are able to demonstrate certain biases, prejudices, or motives behind each European trial to conform a non-European tradition into all-too-convenient European categories and terminologies.

Let us look at the shengren. See, I wrote the book about the shengren. The shengren is the single most important concept in Chinese tradition. However (and because) the Europeans had not anything like it, and – for various reasons – refused to hold the candle to China, they instead withheld the shengren and talked about some lesser versions of (Greek) philosophers or (Christian) holy men, and so on. The Anglo-Saxons soon found a slightly better translation, calling the shengren sages. This isn’t a perfect translation, but it is neutral enough, e. g. sages coming from the Latin word sapientia, meaning “wisdom” or even “having taste”.

The Germans however, the descendents of the Holy Roman Empire of German Nation, never had a concept for sages and sagehood. In their effort to Christianize China, they called the shengren saints. With little regard for what was actually written in the Chinese Canon, the European imperialists engaged in a battle of control over China’s most valuable possession: its names.

[It follows a discussion about some of the 36 translations.]

In conclusion, if cultural preferences, ideologies, confessions, etymologies, motives, sense and entitlement, and even the desire to destroy Chinese words for the sake of it (language imperialism) determined how various European cultures for over 360 years went on about domesticating the Chinese tradition, or any foreign tradition really, then it seems obvious that we are on to something truly remarkable: we are wasting our time. Why? Because instead of allowing 6000 translations of shengren (given that there are 6000 languages left in the world); would it make more sense to simply adopt the original word instead?

In our case, the shengren of the Chinese tradition is demonstrably untranslatable (because the Europeans don’t have such a concept, they use familiar words from their own tradition that are, by definition, biased and colored) and should be adopted into the European lexicon. In fact, the shengren of Confucianism are as unique and clearly defined as the buddhas of Buddhism and constitute a truly non-European archetype of wisdom.

Thank you for your eyes and ears!