Translating Worlds

Studies in early Chinese philosophy.
April 25, 2006

If you were to search your local bookstores for a copy of the Tao Te Ching, chances are you would find one that was “translated” by someone with knowledge of neither Chinese nor Taoism or Buddhism. According to associate professor of Chinese thought Paul Goldin, a similar lack of understanding characterizes how some scholars approach Chinese philosophy. In his newly published book, After Confucius: Studies in Early Chinese Philosophy, Goldin tries to correct some of the distorting lenses through which scholars have interpreted ancient Chinese philosophy.

Many have tried to study ancient Chinese philosophy through one particular discipline or using a Western philosophical vocabulary. Unfortunately, Goldin notes, "disciplines force us to think in a way that isn’t always applicable." In the case of studying these ancient philosophical texts, one cannot ask the same types of questions one might ask about Western texts written only a century ago. Goldin calls this way of approaching ancient Chinese philosophy a "thin description."

A proper "thick description" – of which After Confucius is an example – would not only place these texts in their cultural and social context but would, in particular, take into consideration ancient Chinese language. While ancient Chinese is a dead language, there is a considerable amount in common between modern and ancient Chinese. According to Goldin, this is a double edged sword. He explains: "The characters obscured a lot of changes. This makes it seem less alien than it actually is." Thus problems of interpretation are not unique to Westerners.

Besides these important issues of translation, most of After Confucius concerns clarifying translations and interpretations by including recent archaeological discoveries and linguistic considerations.  Goldin argues that important to understanding the meaning of ancient Chinese philosophy are such factors as how the language sounded and the lives of the authors. From this one can uncover the rhetorical or poetic dimensions otherwise missed. “I don’t think you can separate the philosophy from the language it was written in,” he says.

Goldin's interest in Chinese began at age 14, when he first started studying the language. Initially, his interest was in history, but disenchantment with the methods of the time convinced him to pursue his Ph.D. in Chinese philosophy instead. The work he has pursued since then has brought together both Chinese philosophy and history, the type of interdisciplinary approach that is particularly important in studying ancient Chinese philosophy.

While After Confucius is directed towards advancing academic debates, Goldin is currently working on another book that will be a survey of classical Chinese philosophy.

What is at stake in how we understand Chinese philosophy is not relegated to academic disputes. "Suppose," Goldin suggests, "there was a Chinese translation of the Bible that reduced it to clichés. Even if you are not an academic, this is offensive." Countering these distortions requires an entirely new approach and awareness.

In the introduction to After Confucius, Goldin paraphrases the work of American philosopher W. V. O. Quine. Goldin writes that translation is not just, "the routine transposition of a set of words in one language into another language but the attempt to recreate a speaker’s entire world view in an idiom that fits an observer’s entirely separate world view. We must translate worlds, not words."

Soliman Lawrence is a senior majoring in philosophy.