Huainanzi Translation and Some Questions about Translation
I’m informed by the publicity editor for Columbia University Press that the new Huainanzi translation is out and that the translators are available to write something about it on this blog or to be interviewed. I’m not sure what kinds of things we might have them address as of yet since very few, if any, of us has had a chance to look at the volume. Any thoughts?
I did have a related set of questions about backgrounds of translators in general, ones that are relevant not only to our specialization but to others, which occurred to me in this context. Most ancient texts that interest philosophers tend to have been translated, at least into English, by non-philosophers — that is, by specialists who have specialized training in other fields than philosophy. That’s probably more the case with ancient Chinese texts than with, say, ancient Greek or Sanskrit texts — though I might be wrong in the Sanskrit case (anyone out there know?). So, for example, here is the list of translators for the Huainanzi:
John S. Major, formerly professor of history at Dartmouth College, is an independent scholar and writer. He is the author of Heaven and Earth in Early Han Thought: Chapters Three, Four, and Five of the Huainanzi and the author, coauthor, or editor of almost thirty other books, including Defining Chu: Image and Reality in Ancient China.
Sarah A. Queen, professor of history at Connecticut College, is the author of From Chronicle to Canon: The Hermeneutics of the Spring and Autumn, According to Tung Chung-shu. Her current work includes a translation and study of the Luxuriant Gems of the Spring and Autumn (with John S. Major) and an edited volume, Liu An’s Vision of Empire: New Perspectives on the Huainanzi (with Michael Puett).
Andrew Seth Meyer, assistant professor of history at Brooklyn College, is the author of several articles, including “The Sunzi bingfa as History and Theory.” His current projects are To Rule All Under Heaven, a history of the Warring States period (481-221 B.C.E.), and a translation of the Wenzi (with Harold D. Roth).
Harold D. Roth, professor of religious studies and East Asian studies at Brown University, is the author or editor of four books and more than forty scholarly articles. His books include The Textual History of the Huai-nan tzu and Original Tao: Inward Training and the Foundations of Taoist Mysticism.
Michael Puett, professor of Chinese history at Harvard University, is the author, most recently, of Ritual and Its Consequences: An Essay on the Limits of Sincerity.
Judson Murray, assistant professor of religion at Wright State University, is the author of “A Study of ‘Yaolue,’ ‘A Summary of the Essentials’: Understanding the Huainanzi Through the Point of View of the Author of the Postface.”
All very reputable scholars, but none, as far as I’m aware, trained in philosophical enquiry and/or analysis. My principal question is: Does that matter?
Of course, for people who are trained in Classical Chinese and have the original texts available to them, the question may not apply. But since translation is at issue here, the remaining situation, that of those who aren’t so trained and hence rely upon translations to discover, consume, and analyze the text, is the situation to which the question applies. Further, since my question is about philosophical training, the question might only apply to philosophers who need to rely on translations.
One thought I have is that there’s no patently obvious “self-branding” of a text as a philosophical one, so I’m not wondering here whether philosophers are best translated by philosophers. It’s rather that if one is involved in the philosopher’s trade, would it be better, worse, or about the same for a translation of a text that one is interested in, to have been done by someone with philosophical training?
One possible answer to this is that since there weren’t self-identified philosophers in early China — is that an acceptable assumption? — then it’s not as if non-philosophers are translating philosophers; they’re just translating early Chinese writers. And if the text strikes someone as philosophically interesting, it doesn’t matter who translated it since there isn’t anything intended by the authors to be understood with philosophically particular meaning in the text anyway. Apart from that answer, I haven’t had a chance to ponder much further. Maybe we could discuss this here.