Is a Little Bit of Chinese Better or Worse than None?
For what it’s worth, I’ll post a chunk of the paper I just gave at the APA meeting in New York, at a panel on the challenges of teaching Chinese philosophy. Though not a paper that I’m going to pursue much further I am, as always, still interested in any comments or questions that you may have.
Is a Little Bit of Chinese Better or Worse than None?
APA Eastern Division Meeting – Dec. 28 2009
Teaching Chinese Philosophy – Challenges and Promises
(Arranged by the APA Committee on the Status of Asian and Asian-American Philosophers and Philosophies)
In thinking about the challenges of teaching Chinese philosophy that I’ve faced, I’ve chosen to limit myself to a few that surround language and style of early Chinese discourse. In part this is because they were the first to come to mind, but also in part I’m interested in raising some questions for discussion that are both philosophical as well as pedagogical.
There are a few challenges I’ve been able to overcome in my experience—some through a bit of effort, others by blind luck. Take for example my students’ reticence to try to pronounce Chinese terms and names, or (slightly better) to pronounce them fearlessly though in incorrect or unrecognizable ways. These pose, each in their own way, significant hindrances to in-class discussion, something on which I absolutely rely. Of course, pronunciation problems multiply when some of the assigned reading pieces use one Romanization system and others another. I’ve taken to spending nearly two entire class periods going over an introductory lesson on Romanization systems with an accompanying pronunciation guide that I have developed. But, by and large, that seems to work.
Something I’ve overcome largely through blind luck, on the other hand, is the relative lack of systematic discussion in the Chinese philosophical literature that I assign. That is something I always found frustrating as a philosophy undergraduate myself. I think it lends itself to the belief among students that the Chinese didn’t really produce rigorous philosophical thought—which may be to some extent and in some sense, true. But I’ve been “fortunate” that many of my students tend actually to be less interested in systematic discussions as in pithy statements, so they find many of the Chinese texts much more interesting than, say, the Nicomachean Ethics, or even the Republic. Not that they necessarily understand them much better—just more interesting (perhaps it seems more familiar to them, at least in length, like Facebook scrawl or texted messages). So, quite by accident, I have a foot in the door when I try to get the students to expand the textual material into some semblance, when possible, of the systematic assumptions, background beliefs, and even arguments that might generate pronouncements such as, “If the mat is not straight, [the gentleman] does not sit” (Analects 10.9 – 席不正，不坐).
More difficult for me, however, is an issue—not unrelated to the two I’ve just mentioned—that seems to me to raise questions requiring philosophical resolution both in the classroom and possibly beyond. Is it helpful or harmful to insert classical Chinese terms for important concepts, untranslated, into philosophical discussion conducted otherwise completely in another language—in our case, English? Should we, for example, discuss the dao of the Confucian junzi and its relationship to li or, instead, the way of the Confucian gentleman and its relationship to ritual? (Hence the title of my presentation.) Is this an issue that transcends the particular background or preparation of the audience in question? I want to suggest so by raising some possible ways in which it may be more problematic than it seems; and I think the problems raised apply both to the pedagogical context as well as more generally for doing history of Chinese philosophy or more comparative endeavors.
Potential Problems with Untranslated Terms
To scratch this itch, let me suggest that it would be reasonable to think using the English term we’ve chosen as the translation of a classical Chinese term is sufficient for the task of philosophical instruction and discussion. For example, it should be enough to use the term “way” or “ways” to discuss dao 道 and the passages that include that term; or if one is partial to “guidance” over “way” then use “guidance,” and so forth, for whatever translation or multi-term gloss one prefers or thinks appropriate for the context. After all, why have translations for terms at all if one is not going to stick to them and use them? (To avoid confusion and potential inconsistency, I’m going to strive exclusively to mention dao and other Chinese conceptual terms throughout this presentation, rather than use them.) We might ask, “What might be the point of saying ‘dao’ rather than ‘way’?”
One reply to this might be, as already hinted, that the Chinese term in question is polysemic—that it has a large semantic field, a cluster of possible meanings that vary according to context; so, better to leave the term untranslated than bias or narrow the discussion with one’s own preferred meaning. But in doing so, I think, there are important opportunities that are passed up—or, to put it more bluntly, this is a cop out, both in the classroom and more generally. Take the pedagogical context; one might think that the student should be allowed some leeway to interpret the various instances of dao; this will help them to become better interpreters of the text. But I think the latter outcome is best served by laying out the possible interpretive possibilities, using the various translations, and discussing their strengths and weaknesses. Otherwise, the student doesn’t receive any actual guidance (what are we doing in the classroom then, quoting the Daodejing and then posing meaningfully?). Worse, the student may quite possibly end up with the very problematic impression that Chinese philosophical concepts are impenetrable in some mystical way, that they somehow elude not only translation but also finite human understanding (more on this later). Similar remarks apply outside of the pedagogical context. Mere invocation of a term’s polysemic plenitude and refusal to translate it block any actual understanding of it and encourages the illusion that once we are textual experts, we all know what it means. But in fact the plausibility of any given interpretation requires at least some discussion of the (perhaps stereotypically “analytic”) question: “What does that mean, exactly?” But to do that, some level of translation commitment seems required, whether it is term-for-term translation, or conceptual elaboration through a multi-term gloss.
I think there are some interesting potential rejoinders to my suggestions so far, so let me trot out two for consideration. As I’ve indicated at the start, the issues here are not entirely settled in my own mind, hence remain unresolved pedagogically as well as philosophically. So trotting out these rejoinders to my initial suggestion about translation are meant to stimulate and channel discussion, not to indicate the ways in which I have already anticipated and utterly defeated objections to my view prior to discussion. (That isn’t for lack of trying—actually, it probably is for some lack of trying.) Furthermore, some of these rejoinders will collapse together views that we might wish to separate.
The “Native Conceptual Grasp” or ”Going Conceptually Native” Response
One might say, “Well, how did the early Chinese thinkers conceive of these terms? Presumably, it was without translation; and we don’t actually see a lot of conceptual analysis or glossing on their part. Shouldn’t we be trying to recreate their understanding, as much as possible, in our own understanding of those terms? Isn’t the ultimate goal at least—maybe for students and more certainly for scholars—to hear, read and think dao (for example) and have an untranslated, unglossed conceptual grasp of it?”
That is different, of course, from Analects 4.8, in which Confucius states that having heard dao in the morning, he could die peacefully in the evening (朝聞道，夕死可矣). I make the contrast partially in jest, but also because there are two things we probably should distinguish as the goal of “going conceptually native.” What we could take seriously, at least in contemporary pedagogical and scholarly contexts, is the goal of understanding the term as if we were competent users of the language in which the term is embedded. This would involve understanding what its range of meaning includes and some set of uncontroversial inferential relationships into which sentences that include it would enter. All of this would have to be understood in the target language of course—classical Chinese—otherwise we would just be doing the work of translating.
Somewhat different are the possible goals that Confucius may be referring to in Analects 4.8 and elsewhere, the ones that are the product of “attaining the way,” as he puts it. This involves a different kind of understanding that goes much further than what the term means to understanding putative, substantive truths — possibly contentious — about the thing to which the term refers and in some instances, also having some kind of normative response to those truths. Surely that isn’t what anyone would be after in attaining native conceptual grasp. That should only require modest competency; otherwise, no one who understood the term dao in early China could have disagreed with Confucius about it.
But even if it is this more pedestrian, merely competent usage that we seek, there may be some obstacles to characterizing it as native competence. For one thing, it’s not clear how one could plausibly claim a sort of native linguistic competence, for oneself or for another, unless the language in question were (a) a living language, at least at one time or other, and relatedly, (b) there were actual speakers of the language around to judge the matter. Some obstacles exist to satisfying those conditions. First, it’s not so clear that very much of the literary and stylized written language of the texts we have at our disposal was ever a living language, at least construed as a spoken, natural language. Second, even if the written works could give us clues as to the native linguistic environment within which they were composed, there are still no speakers of the language. There are in fact very competent composers of classical Chinese poetry and prose in a variety of genres, but whether they should be attributed the authority of a native-speaker seems problematic. So, recreating native understanding of classical Chinese terms might be misguided. In any case, that goal seems too lofty as a piece of pedagogy.
However, short of native competence, isn’t it possible to understand a term well enough so that translating or glossing it is unnecessary? Perhaps, but is it desirable? The answer to this depends on what one thinks is valuable for the practice of philosophy. Take the English terms with which we have competence. Is it desirable to carry on philosophical discussion without further glossing some of them so that their meanings are sharpened or disambiguated? I don’t think so; the inferential relationships among statements that include some targeted terms may be the very relationships that should undergo philosophical scrutiny….