Saturday, May 18, 2013

Quotations from a foreign language - can you trust the translator?

On April 29th in a post titled The Unwobbling Pivot in his Interruption Management blog Jeff Davidson quoted the following two paragraphs from Confucius: The Great Digest, The Unwobbling Pivot, The Analects (translation and commentary by Ezra Pound. A New Directions Book, 1951): 

“The men of old wanting to clarify and diffuse throughout the empire that light which comes from looking straight into the heart and then acting, first set up good government in their own states; wanting good government in their states, they first established order in their own families; wanting order in the home, they first disciplined themselves; desiring self-discipline, they rectified their own hearts; and wanting to rectify their hearts, they sought precise verbal definitions of their inarticulate thoughts (the tones given off by the heart); wishing to attain precise verbal definitions, they set to extend their knowledge to the utmost.  This completion of knowledge is rooted in sorting things into organic categories.

When things had been classified in organic categories, knowledge moved toward fulfillment; given the extreme knowable points, the inarticulate thoughts were defined with precision (the sun's lance coming to rest on the precise spot verbally).  Having attained this precise verbal definition (this sincerity), they then stabilized their hearts, they disciplined themselves; having attained self-discipline, they set their own houses in order; having order in their own homes, they brought good government to their own states; and when their states were well governed, the empire was brought into equilibrium.”

If you read Chinese then you can compare the text from stone rubbings that is printed on the facing pages of that book with Pound’s English version. If, like me, you don’t read Chinese but know a bit about Ezra Pound, there is reason to question the reliability of his translation. When that book was published In 1951, Mr. Pound was pretty wobbly. He was an inmate of the St. Elizabeths psychiatric hospital in Washington, DC. Pound had moved to Italy in 1924. During World War II he had made radio broadcasts for Mussolini’s fascist government, for which he was indicted as a traitor by the US government. In 1945 the U.S. Army imprisoned him at the Disciplinary Training Center  (DTC) in Pisa, which is where he may have translated the passages from The Great Digest quoted above. Eventually they decided he was just a crazy old man, and rather than holding a trial they had him transferred to St. Elizabeths. 

How does Pound’s translation of that passage compare with others? You can find one text in the Wikipedia article on The Great Learning, and another by A. Charles Muller. Those two seem much more literal, while Pound’s is literary and easier for us to understand.

Ezra Pound was born in Hailey, Idaho Territory. The house where he spent his first few years still is standing. An article in the Los Angeles Times on March 4, 2008 had noted:

“The poet and front man for literary Modernism was born in what was then a frontier mining town on Oct. 30, 1885, a bit of accidental history some residents wouldn't mind having expunged due to Pound's radio broadcasts from fascist Italy during World War II that led to his being charged with 19 counts of treason in the United States. He also faced accusations of anti-Semitism.”

If you want to quote Confucius in a speech, it’s probably best to leave out referring to the controversial Ezra Pound (whose mug shot is from here at Wikimedia Commons).  

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