63 Wisdom is what’s lost in translation – or – A story from the land of false friends

Posted on February 20, 2012 by

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In a recent blog[1]I commented on an op-ed by Mr. LI in the NYT. I sent the op-ed to an acquaintance of mine in Shanghai, asking whether he knew the author. I also remarked on what I perceived as provocative, even polemical resonances in the text – so the title, claiming “superiority” for the Chinese “political model”, or the ending redolent of “Marxist” historical determinism: “History does not bode well for the American way. Indeed, faith-based ideological hubris may soon drive democracy over the cliff.”

From a very busy person I got and immediate and substantive reply, which I quote in full, lest I be accused of censorship: “I think both cultures start from natural rights and have utilitarian tendencies in actual governing. The difference is what the people believe in. The Chinese masses will not point to a text, Mao or the Constitution, and demand a right. They will beg, uprise or burn themselves or become political dissidents. These do not actually appeal to political texts. These appeal to thousands of years of adage that “good governance” brings balance between the governed and the governing and prosperity to society. This is a societal oriented form, not individual based. After having witnessed the masses and what they can do or refuse to do – the Chinese have gone through more revolutions than many in the West, I would agree that true form of democracy is madness in China. Then again, there is no true form of democracy anywhere, the closest being in India. If India were the model of tolerance for chaos with a massive population and the West represents a model of tolerance based on fairness and order with a smaller population, China occupies the middle. It is called “尺度”, a right degree of balance between two opposing considerations. The execution therefore cannot be written in stone. I think that is what he meant: Not discretionary as in “dictator can govern as he pleases” but as in “applied different when warranted by different conditions.” (my emphasis)

The key word is “balance” – which has become a non-word in Western society so obsessed with rights and wrongs. I’ll revert to this core concept in a later blog.

I was also told that Mr LI had studied (like me) at UC Berkeley: he is thus conversant with both “Asian” and “Western” culture. If Richard E. NISBETT is right[2], he should be able to orient himself in the “geography of thought”.

Yet, it seems to me that something has gone missing as Mr. LI wrote in “Western” key: the concept of “balance” – which is so central to “Asian” thought, and which my friend places at the center of her thought. In his op-ed LI blithely claims “superiority” for the Chinese political model – rather than carefully meting out justice to both points of view[3]. As the title of this blog entry says: somehow “wisdom was lost in translation”. I presume that as the West goes about hectoring the Chinese about “human rights” the concern for the aspirations of the individual is also lost.

Translators are well aware of the danger of “false friends” – words that have lost their original meaning as they migrated from one language to the other. My favourite is “eventually” which in English means “finally” – in French however “possibly”. Someone told me that the EU was once bedeviled by the wrong translation of the German “unbeschadet” into English as “notwithstanding” (after UK accession to the EU), rather than “without prejudice”.

I’ve come across two examples of this “loss of wisdom” recently. François CHENG[4] is a Chinese-born Member of the Académie Française: an accomplished writer, poet and calligrapher, has written most exquisite Chinese poetry in French[5] – reading it is akin to walking under cherry trees as the petals fall in a light breeze. Though the words are French the balance between word and silence is from another world altogether. Yet, when the same author wants to build a bridge between Asian and Western worldviews[6], the result is, in my view, far than satisfactory. Between Western mysticism and teleology on the one side, and Chinese aesthetics on the other, his book stands bemused at the crossroads, overburdened by too many words. Wisdom has been lost in translation. My guess is that in our search for equivalent content context is elided to the point where the translated term stands empty – dejected slave of a context not its own.

Philip BAIDLER[7] has written an interesting section on “Who lost China” – caleidoscopically he describes the American reaction to the rout of the Nationalists by Mao Zedong in 1948. Here we had Americans who had grown up in China, or studied it, yet just could not see how corrupt the Chiang Kai-shek regime was, and unfit to run an impoverished country. How could they know so much, and understand so little?

As the myth of the Far (and forever distant) East[8] recedes, we have to beware of both “false friends” and the loss of meaning as we begin to translate. Culture is not so much symbols, as contexts for which symbols stand for. We can respectfully familiarize ourselves with culturally different contexts, not try and appropriate them through translation. At best, we’d get a botanical garden.


[2]           Richard E. NISBETT (2003): Geography of thought. How Asians and Westerners think differently – and why. Breadley, London.

[3]           See: William Ian MILLER (2006): Eye for an eye. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

[5]           François CHENG (2005): Le long d’un amour. Arfuyen, Paris.

[6]           François CHENG (2008): Cinq méditations sur la beauté. Albin Michel, Paris.

[7]           Philip D. BEIDLER (2010): The victory album. Reflections on the good life after the Good War. University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa. Chapter 3

[8]           C. P. FITZGERALD (1964): The Chinese view of their place in the world. Oxford University Press, Oxford.