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Promoting Chinese classics through translation

TAO YOULAN | 2022-01-27 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

FILE PHOTOS: Understanding the Analects of Confucius: A New Translation of Lunyu with Annotations by Peimin Ni (Left), Shang Han Lun: On Cold Damage, Translation and Commentaries by Nigel Wiseman (Middle), Tao Te Ching by Gia-Fu Feng and his wife Jane English (Right) 


The English translations of Chinese classics are an important means of disseminating traditional Chinese culture to the world, which helps provide new ideas to enrich world cultures while contributing new values, also helping China equally and effectively participate in global cultural dialogue. Currently, it is essential to make English translations of the Chinese classics more influential around the globe, by enabling Chinese culture to go global through multiple channels, in multiple levels and forms. This will help China complete “the last mile” in global communication, to show the world what China is really like in a multi-dimensional and all-round way as the country interacts with Western civilization. 

 
The global influence of a translated Chinese classical work is determined by how widely received it is by readers in a foreign culture, how much it influences their knowledge (by entering readers’ minds), affection and attitude (into readers’ hearts), and eventually, their behaviors. The entire process is based on the precondition that readers can access and are interested in Chinese classics in English translations. 
 
According to a small group survey I have made in US academic circles from 2018 to 2019, 54.6% of the surveyed changed their views on China after reading the English edition of The Analects of Confucius, and 47.5% of the respondents believed that the book changed their cultural orientation and values. The English translations of Chinese classics are capable of changing and guiding people’s thought processes. Hence, we need to further leverage these works by improving text construction, broadening channels of communication, and making better use of talent. 
 
Core concepts, introduction 
Ancient books and records are rich in meaning. When translated into English, scholars usually supply readers with many annotations. However, detailed annotations might strain readers’ patience. For instance, it is only natural for A New Annotated English Version of the Analects of Confucius to discourage average readers with its 560 pages. 
 
To make Chinese classics more widely received by non-Chinese readers, it is necessary to extract core concepts when producing translations, while adding introductions to key knowledge points. That is why in his edition [Understanding the Analects of Confucius, A New Translation of Lunyu with Annotations], translator Peimin Ni included a 29-page introduction. Ni’s introduction includes how The Analects of Confucius came into being, a biography of Confucius, features of Confucianism, different editions of the book’s translations, and his own approach—kung fu philosophy. The introduction serves as background knowledge for readers. 
 
What is more, the translator extracted 27 key words from the book, and matched the Chinese characters with their corresponding pinyin and English translation, including ren (human-heartedness), xiao (filial piety), de (virtue, virtuosity), xing (human nature), tian (heaven), ming (destiny), and tao (the way). These words highlight the core concepts of Confucianism, and were compared with Western philosophical concepts, making it easier for readers to understand the book. This approach not only stays true to the original text, but also manages to provide more relevant historical background information while keeping pace with cutting-edge academic research. 
 
The edition was met with great acclaim upon its publication in 2017. Its readership ranked fifth in a survey in the US philosophical community in March, 2019, and ranked 14th in the sales volume of books on Confucianism on Amazon in September, 2019. The book also won the 2019 Modern Language Association (MLA) Aldo and Jeanne Scaglione Prize for a Translation of a Scholarly Study of Literature, which clearly indicates its great influence. 
 
Multi-modal approach 
Translating Chinese classics into English concerns not only conversion between the texts of two languages, but also a multi-media conversion of the works, including converting text into images, text to audio, text to image-text, and text to image-text-audio. For example, we can convert printed books into CDs and video recordings, establish specialized Chinese-English websites, or adapt English translations of Chinese classics into dramas, operas, theater plays, or even tour performances. These are all ways of helping audiences understand traditional Chinese culture more directly. 
 
Among all English translations of Tao Te Ching (there are over 580 editions of Tao Te Ching as of January, 2022), the edition by Gia-Fu Feng and his wife Jane English ranks eighth. This edition contains photos shot by Jane English in conjunction with Feng’s calligraphy, displaying a successful multi-media publication. Leonard Arthur Lyall’s translation of The Analects of Confucius, titled The Sayings of Confucius, is published in the largest number of outlets. His edition can be found in print, Kindle, iBooks, audio books, and has a vast readership. 
 
Classics of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) are in need of more dissemination channels in order to “go global.” So far, only about 20 such works have been translated into English in full, including Huangdi Neijing (The Inner Canon of the Yellow Emperor), The Huangdi Bashiyi Nanjing (The Yellow Emperor’s Canon of Eighty-One Difficult Issues), and Jingui Yaolue (Essential Prescriptions from the Golden Cabinet)
 
Therefore, to effectively make TCM better known globally, apart from inserting images and illustrations into translated works, we should also follow the existing translations to practice TCM skills, such as acupuncture, massage, and more, to put what we have learned into practical use. For instance, there is a traditional Chinese medicine clinic in Heidelberg, Germany, where the director is a doctor who studies traditional Chinese medicine and translates traditional Chinese medicine classics. While introducing TCM theories to patients, the doctor also practices TCM by applying treatment methods appropriate for patients’ conditions. Many non-Chinese patients have been healed, while also gaining a better knowledge of the wisdom of Chinese culture. 
 
Talent, international resources 
The cultivation of cross-cultural international communication talent requires combining Chinese and foreign scholars and translators in equivalent fields, seeking a multi-party synergy amongst convergent media, publishing houses, and other actors, to enhance the international influence of English translations of Chinese classics. 
 
First, we should build a team of Chinese and Western translators to coordinate with each other in translating Chinese classics, making the translation content more loyal to original texts and also more readable. 85.6% of the readers of the English version of The Analects of Confucius are in favor of a collaborative translation between Chinese translators and Western translators. Among the ten English translations of Shang Han Lun: On Cold Damage, the most popular version is Nigel Wiseman’s [Shang Han Lun: On Cold Damage, Translation and Commentaries], which was the joint effort of three translators, all of whom are bilingual, familiar with TCM, and skilled in translation. 
 
Second, we should work with well-known experts and book reviewers in English academia or international publishing houses by encouraging them to review and promote the published translations of Chinese classics in authoritative journals or international newspapers. Chinese-French sinologist Anne Cheng, American book critic Zheng Wenjun, and American sinologists David Schaberg and Stephen Durrant, have all reviewed different English editions of The Analects of Confucius. Their comments serve as guidance for readers while helping Chinese Confucian culture spread in other countries. 
 
Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English’s edition of Tao Te Ching was prefaced by famous philosopher Jacob Needleman, and was reviewed by Time magazine, which praised the edition’s illustration and stylistic choices. Another case in point is the book review of Wiseman’s edition of Shang Han Lun: On Cold Damage, Translation and Commentaries, by Vivienne Lo, which was published in The Journal of Asian Studies, which has, to some extent, influenced readers’ choice of translations. 
 
Third, it is important to let sinologists play a bigger role in popularizing Chinese classics. According to China in Western Literature: A Continuation of Cordier’s Bibliotheca Sinica compiled by Tung-li Yuan, A Bibliography of Western Translation of Chinese Works compiled by Wang Ermin, and research by Zhang Xiping, a professor from the Beijing Foreign Studies University, Western sinologists have translated the highest number of Chinese classics, and therefore are an important force in this regard. 
 
Familiar with both Chinese and Western cultures, sinologists understand English readers’ expectations, and are therefore are better at selecting what to translate and how to interpret Chinese classics in a modern way. Meanwhile, they usually have higher international reputation, and therefore can be commissioned with the important task of spreading Chinese culture. We can invite them for academic visits, to give lectures, and discuss the most effective ways to popularize Chinese classics in other countries. Together, we can also identify the differences in our ways of thinking and our mindsets. By seeking common ground while reserving differences, we can learn from each other’s strengths to offset weaknesses during interactions and exchange, so as to jointly promote the prosperity of global civilizations. For instance, Roger T. Ames’s translation and studies of Confucianism have greatly enhanced the global influence of this classic book. His joint work with Henry Rosemont Jr., The Analects of Confucius: A Philosophical Translation, ranked first in readership in the US philosophical community, and second in terms of citations. 
 
It takes a progressive process for English translations of Chinese classics to go global. This requires us to seek harmony in diversity and rely on high-quality foreign translations of classic Chinese works, contributing the wisdom of Chinese culture to facilitate the prosperity of global cultures and human civilizations. 
 
Tao Youlan is a professor from the College of Foreign Languages and Literature at Fudan University. 
 
 
 
 
Edited by WENG RONG