TOKENS of EXCHANGE

The Problem of Translation in Global Circulations

DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESS

Copyright © 1999 DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESS
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-2424-9

Contents

LYDIA H. LIU, Introduction.....................................................................................................................1
LYDIA H. LIU, The Question of Meaning-Value in the Political Economy of the Sign...............................................................13
ROGER HART, Translating the Untranslatable: From Copula to Incommensurable Worlds..............................................................45
QIONG ZHANG, Demystifying Qi: The Politics of Cultural Translation and Interpretation in the Early Jesuit Mission to China.....................74
HAUN SAUSSY, Always Multiple Translation, Or, How the Chinese Language Lost Its Grammar........................................................107
LYDIA H. LIU, Legislating the Universal: The Circulation of International Law in the Nineteenth Century........................................127
ALEXIS DUDDEN, Japan's Engagement with International Terms.....................................................................................165
JAMES HEVIA, Looting Beijing: 1860, 1900.......................................................................................................192
ANDREW F. JONES, The Gramophone in China.......................................................................................................214
LARISSA N. HEINRICH, Handmaids to the Gospel: Lam Qua's Medical Portraiture....................................................................239
TZE-LAN DEBORAH SANG, Translating Homosexuality: The Discourse of Tongxing'ai in Republican China (1912-1949)..................................276
NANCY N. CHEN, Translating Psychiatry and Mental Health in Twentieth-Century China.............................................................305
Q.S. TONG, The Bathos of a Universalism: I. A. Richards and His Basic English..................................................................331
JIANHUA CHEN, Chinese "Revolution" in the Syntax of World Revolution...........................................................................355
WAN SHUN EVA LAM, The Question of Culture in Global English-Language Teaching: A Postcolonial Perspective......................................375
Glossary.......................................................................................................................................399
Bibliography...................................................................................................................................411
Index..........................................................................................................................................445
Contributors...................................................................................................................................457


Chapter One

Roger Hart Translating the Untranslatable: From Copula to Incommensurable Worlds

By adopting certain na´ve presuppositions, studies of the asserted problems encountered in translations across languages have often reached dramatic conclusions about the fundamental differences between civilizations. These presuppositions are na´ve in that they circumvent many of the questions that should properly confront historical inquiry, adopting instead simple formulas. For example, on what level of social organization should historical explanation concentrate-what are the significant units of society in analyses of historical change? Instead of determining the complex networks of alliances that dynamically constitute groupings within societies, in such studies the boundaries are already given-drawn along lines of languages or, more often, systems of languages that mark the purported divides between civilizations. What are the fracture lines in societies underlying antagonisms and conflict? Instead of analyzing complicated divisions along the dimensions of class, gender, status, allegiances, or competing schools of thought, all such differences are collapsed into a unity predetermined by the sharing of a single language (the same, that is, once all historical, regional, educational, and status differences are effaced). What kinds of relationships should historical analysis elucidate? With civilizations as the given units of analysis, such studies are typically content with assertions of similarities and differences. What is the relationship between thought and society? Instead of historicizing the role of ideologies, self-fashioned identities, and performative utterances in the formation of social groupings, individuals are instead reduced to representatives or bearers of entire civilizations. How does one understand thought through the transcriptions preserved in historical documents? Instead of explaining the dissemination of copies, commentaries, and interpretations of texts in their cultural context, such studies fix an original against which the correspondence of the translation can be compared. And what is the relationship between thought and language? Too often such studies implicitly presuppose a correspondence between words and concepts. After such a series of simplifying reductions, the conventional conclusions about civilizations are an almost inevitable result.

Rather than critiquing in a general fashion the aporias that inhere in claims made about civilizations in studies of translations, this essay illustrates these aporias through the analysis of selected studies. To accomplish this, I return to one of the most intensely researched examples of translations across civilizations: the Jesuit missionaries and their translations of European religious and scientific treatises in China in the seventeenth century. Admittedly, much of the historical literature on this episode hardly merits critique; I have chosen two exemplary studies of these translations that represent the best scholarship on the subject. I follow a tradition of applying historical research to philosophical problems, similar perhaps to what Pierre Bourdieu calls "fieldwork in philosophy." I first outline the claims, presented in these two studies, of linguistic and conceptual incommensurability between seventeenth-century China and the West, claims that are based on the asserted difficulties of translating the copula and the concept of existence. I then turn to the theories of incommensurability that underwrite these studies, along with several related philosophical theories: Emile Benveniste's analysis of the copula to be, Jacques Derrida's critique of Benveniste, W. V. O. Quine's arguments on the indeterminacy of translations, and Donald Davidson's criticisms of assertions of conceptual schemes. Finally, as an alternative to incommensurability, I present an analysis of the translations by the Jesuits and the Chinese converts in cultural context.

China, the West, and the Incommensurability That Divides

Imagining China and the West to be two central actors in a historical drama, writers since the eighteenth century have sought symbols to distinguish the two. Terms such as modernity, science, and capitalism headed the list of mutually incongruous candidates invoked to portray stark differences: China was identified often by mere absence (e.g., of science, capitalism, or modernity) or else designated by pejoratives (e.g., practical, intuitionistic, or despotic). Anthropomorphized through the assignment of personality traits (pride, xenophobia, conservatism, and fear), China itself became the subject of a praise-and-blame historiography of civilizations. In the period following World War II, Fairbankian historiography decried the lack of agency attributed to China, offering redress by assigning to China a limited capacity to respond to the West. Joseph Needham proposed to restore for China its pride, correcting its slighting by making it an equal contributor among the tributaries that flowed into the river of modern science; his "grand titration" was to redistribute credit for scientific discoveries among civilizations. Joseph Levenson projected Liang Qichao's thought onto a "mind of modern China" and psychologized China's historicist reaction against Western value. These postwar approaches, then, focused on the ways that China had either responded to, contributed to, or rationalized away the West; the West remained for these writers conceptualized as essentially universal. Studies that emerged in the late 1960s and 1970s retained the China/West dichotomy but inverted the earlier triumphalist accounts of Western universalism, critiquing the exploitation, domination, and violence wrought by imperialism. During the 1980s, a "China-centered approach" was articulated as an alternative that, however, for a field institutionalized under the rubric of "area studies," too often meant little more than a return to sino-centrism, with its attendant claims of particularism and Chinese uniqueness. What these later approaches share with their predecessors, then, is a continued credulity toward an essential divide between China and the West.

In this context, studies of the "first encounter" of these two great civilizations have acquired a particular urgency. Interpretive approaches have often been limited to two alternative models: conflict, opposition, and misunderstanding, or synthesis, accommodation, and dialogue. But in recent years, relativism-again formulated within the context of an assumed plausibility of a divide separating China and the West-has become yet another important approach. Theories of linguistic and conceptual incommensurability often underwrite this relativism, providing for relativism perhaps its most rigorous formulation. These claims of relativism and incommensurability have played an important role in encouraging the analysis of Chinese sources and viewpoints by positing a special Chinese worldview protected from pretentious dismissal by a historiography mired in universalism. Yet they have done so at the cost of further reifying China and the West and further radicalizing the purported divide that separates them. To elucidate the role played by claims about translation in theories of incommensurability, this section examines two important recent historical interpretations of this encounter: Jacques Gernet's China and the Christian Impact and a related analysis of the translation of Euclid's Elements by Jean-Claude Martzloff in his History of Chinese Mathematics.

In probably the most sophisticated study of the Jesuits in China during the seventeenth century, Gernet's China and the Christian Impact adopts incommensurability between Western and Chinese concepts as the philosophical framework that is to explain the history of the translation and introduction of Christianity. Against previous studies of the introduction of Christianity into China that had been based primarily on Western sources, Gernet proposes as a new approach the study of the "Chinese reactions to this religion." Previous approaches were often universalistic, assuming that "one implicit psychology-our own-valid for all periods and all societies is enough to explain everything." Gernet asserts that for the missionaries, the rejection of Christianity "could only be for reasons that reflected poorly on the Chinese." Later interpreters similarly have "a tendency to see the enemies of Christianity as xenophobic conservatives" while praising converts as open-minded. This thesis, Gernet asserts, "is contradicted by the facts."

Gernet's defense of the Chinese rejection of Christianity is based on a claim of the fundamental incommensurability of languages and the associated Chinese and Western worldviews: "The missionaries, just like the Chinese literate elite, were the unconscious bearers of a whole civilisation. The reason why they so often came up against difficulties of translation is that different languages express, through different logics, different visions of the world and man." Gernet outlines this theoretical framework in the final sections of his concluding chapter. He offers several examples of the difficulties in bridging "mental frameworks"; for example, "In trying to assimilate the Chinese Heaven and the Sovereign on High to the God of the Bible, the Jesuits were attempting to bring together concepts which were irreconcilable." He discovers radical differences between Chinese and Western thought: "The Chinese tendency was to deny any opposition between the self and the world, the mind and the body, the divine and the cosmic.... For Chinese thought never had separated the sensible from the rational, never had imagined any 'spiritual substance distinct from the material,' never had conceived of the existence of a world of eternal truths separated from this world of appearances and transitory realities." These differences (although still often conceptualized by Gernet as absences) are adduced as evidence that demonstrates the "radical originality" of China: "Ultimately, what the Chinese criticisms of Christian ideas bring into question are the mental categories and types of opposition which have played a fundamental role in Western thought ever since the Greeks: being and becoming, the intelligible and the sensible, the spiritual and the corporeal. Does all this not mean that Chinese thought is quite simply of a different type, with its own particular articulations and its own radical originality?"

The philosophical framework of conceptual incommensurability that Gernet employs in this work is based on the linguistic theory of Benveniste: "Benveniste writes: 'We can only grasp thought that has already been fitted into the framework of a language ... What it is possible to say delimits and organises what it is possible to think. Language provides the fundamental configuration of the properties that the mind recognises things to possess.'" More specifically, Gernet asserts that the two fundamental differences between Chinese and Western languages are categories of thought that derive from language and the concept of existence: "Benveniste's analysis illuminates two characteristics of Greek-and, more generally, Western-thought, both of which are closely related to the structure of Greek and Latin: one is the existence of categories the obvious and necessary nature of which stems from the use to which the language is unconsciously put. The other is the fundamental importance of the concept of being in Western philosophical and religious thought." As I argue below, Gernet's examples-the translation of Christian terms-present special philosophical problems. So before exploring these, I will examine the translation of Euclid's Elements as a more concrete but related example for the comparison of Chinese and Greek thought and language.

The translation of Euclid's Elements into Chinese by Xu Guangqi [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (1562-1633) and Matteo Ricci (1552-1610) in 1607 would seem ideal for an examination of linguistic incommensurability, given the extant historical documents. Jean-Claude Martzloff, perhaps the most eminent Western historian of Chinese mathematics, has written extensively on the translation. He adopts Gernet's incommensurability in his explanation of the history of the translation, arguing that the Chinese had failed to comprehend the deductive structure of the Elements precisely because of linguistic incommensurability. Martzloff argues that the central problem was the difficulty of translating the copula, because of its absence in classical Chinese:

In addition to the terminology, the even more formidable problem of the difference between the Chinese syntax and that of European languages had to be faced. The main difficulty was the absence of theverb "to be" in classical Chinese. The translators were unable to find better substitutes for it than demonstratives or transitive verbs such as you, wu and wei.... But often, the verb "to be" disappeared altogether, as in the following case:

[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]

[The] circle: [a] shape situated on flat ground (ping di) [sic] within [a] limit.

[The] straight strings (xian) constructed from [the] limit to [the] centre: all equal.

Martzloff then offers for comparison Clavius's original:

Circulus, est figura plana sub una linea comprehensa, quae peripheria appelatur, ad quam ab uno puncto eorum, quae intra figuram sunt posita, cadentes omnes rectae linae, inter se sunt aequales.

He then links the copula to questions of existence, asserting that "one might think that this type of phenomenon contributed to a masking of the conception, according to which geometric objects possess inherent properties, the existence or non-existence of which is objectifiable." Although Martzloff apparently borrows this framework from Gernet's China and the Christian Impact and Benveniste, in his argument he cites primarily A. C. Graham's " 'Being' in Western Philosophy" as asserting that neither you [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], wu [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], nor wei [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] are equivalent to the copula.

In addition to Gernet's and Martzloff 's assertions based on Benveniste, a wide variety of arguments on the relation of language to thought has been presented in historical studies of China. Peter Boodberg suggests that "the great semantic complexity of tao may have predetermined the rich system of associations surrounding Tao in its metaphysical and literary career." Alfred Bloom notoriously asserts that the lack of counterfactuals and universals in the Chinese language inhibited the ability of the Chinese to think theoretically. Many authors have presented claims that the Chinese language inhibited the development of science. Until recently, such studies have rarely critically analyzed any of the details of the theories they cite; the following section, then, examines Benveniste's claims about the copula.

The Philosophy, Language, and Translation of Existence

Benveniste's central thesis is that language and thought are coextensive, interdependent, and indispensable to each other. "Linguistic form is not only the condition for transmissibility," Benveniste asserts, "but first of all the condition for the realization of thought"; the structure of language "gives its form to the content of thought." Benveniste examines Aristotle's categories of thought to assess whether we have "any means to recognize in thought such characteristics as would belong to it alone and owe nothing to linguistic expression." He concludes that Aristotle's categories were simply the fundamental categories of the language in which Aristotle thought: "the ten categories can ... be transcribed in linguistic terms." "Unconsciously," Benveniste argues, Aristotle "took as a criterion the empirical necessity of a distinct expression for each of his predications.... It is what one can say which delimits and organizes what one can think."

In "The Supplement of Copula: Philosophy before Linguistics," as an example of the paradoxes in claims that language governs thought, Jacques Derrida critiques Benveniste's assertion that the Greek language determined Aristotle's categories. It is Benveniste's own writings, Derrida asserts, that offer a "counterproof" against the assertion that being is nothing more than a category linguistically determined by the copula to be: Benveniste himself asserts that there is a meaning of the philosophical category to be beyond that expressed in grammar. For Benveniste argues, Derrida asserts, that (1) "the function of 'the copula' or 'the grammatical mark of equivalence' is absolutely distinct from the full-fledged use of the verb to be" in the sense of existence; and (2) "in all languages, a certain supplementary function is available to offset the lexical 'absence' of the verb 'to be,'" used grammatically as a mark of equivalence.

(Continues...)



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