Warp, Weft, and Way

Chinese and Comparative Philosophy 中國哲學與比較哲學

10 Comments

  1. This comment will probably come across as curmudgeonly, but here goes.

    This year, two different journals (Dao 17.2 and Frontiers of Philosophy in China 13.2) have already devoted roundtable-style sections, with reactions by selected readers and then responses by Ni, to this translation. I find it just a bit weird that not a single native speaker of English has been included these discussions. The book is, after all, a translation into English. Perhaps it’s understandable for Frontiers of Philosophy in China, but for Dao, which calls itself “a journal of COMPARATIVE philosophy,” it verges on inexcusable. The effect is almost like peeping at discourse in a parallel universe.

  2. From one curmudgeon to another: the problem sounds huge.

    Is the problem that non-native speakers presumably lack Western training in philosophy—or these do? Or that non-native speakers tend to make traditional false assumptions about e.g. authorship—or these do? Or that their command of English is inadequate? (Any translation is also commentary, and the explicit commentary in Peimin’s book dwarfs the translation part.)

    • Bill, I’m not making any of the outlandish presumptions that you’re tossing up. I’m saying something pretty simple: Rule No. 1 of translation studies is that there has to be a native speaker of the target language (in this case, English) somewhere in the process. (And if your response is going to be “Why does that have to be Rule No. 1 of translation studies?” I’ll have to bow out.)

      Let’s stand the problem on its head: Is there any good reason NOT to include native speakers in such discussions?

      • Hi Paul,

        Of course not. As for the rest –

        Only half of each of my questions was about a presumption. You seemed to be saying that the actual results in these two cases are outlandish. I’m asking how.

        I think it’s quite unusual (nonexistent?) to have a roundtable discussion in a philosophy journal on a translation qua translation. I presume that wasn’t the point here. Can anyone correct me?

      • The reason I spoke of presumptions is that you seemed to say the outlandishness was an effect attributable to the fact that the participants are all non-native speakers.

  3. I was briefly peeping in because Paul mentioned it to me.

    Bill ended with: “you seemed to say the outlandishness was an effect attributable to the fact that the participants are all non-native speakers.”

    But Paul had not said a single word about “outlandishness” in his original comment. As a matter of fact, Paul had not commented AT ALL on the quality or results of either the translation or the two journal discussions.

    The first time the word “outlandish” came up was with Paul’s response charging Bill with making “outlandish presumptions.” Out of this, Bill then fabricated “You seemed to be saying that the actual results in these two cases are outlandish.” And from there, it was only one more short step for Bill to end up with “you seemed to say the outlandishness was an effect attributable to the fact that the participants are all non-native speakers.”

    I will not judge whatever Bill’s position may be on excluding native speakers in the discussion of a translation. I will say, however, that Bill’s final two comments are based on nothing but his own invention. But why?

    • Paul had closed with,

      for Dao, which calls itself “a journal of COMPARATIVE philosophy,” it verges on inexcusable. The effect is almost like peeping at discourse in a parallel universe.

      That seems to me to say that the effect, for which Dao was responsible because of the composition choice, is outlandish.

      That’s the point that led me to ask Paul what he meant more particularly.

      • Bill,

        If you would read more carefully, you would see that I didn’t use the word “outlandish” with reference to Dao. I used it with reference to YOUR fanciful (and, needless to say, totally false) theories as to my presumptions.

        Regrettably, I’m going to have to withdraw from this conversation–even though there hasn’t been any substantive response to my concern, which I still think is significant–because I don’t have time to respond to one red herring after another. Congratulations, Bill, you have killed yet another thread.

  4. It doesn’t matter what it says to you, Bill. It only matters what it actually says.

  5. I think there is a defeasible presumption that non-native speakers of English do not have English skills adequate for the task Paul had in mind: worthy commentary on a translation into English as such. That’s why I think it makes sense as an initial rule of thumb to seek at least one native speaker for a visible position in any project with that focus. But I don’t think that rule should be “Rule No. 1 of translation studies,” i.e. an overriding rule; because I suppose the presumption is easily defeasible in particular cases. Only an indefeasible or nearly indefeasible presumption about language skills could support a Rule No. 1. (Anyway that’s how it seems to me, and I am forbidden to ask Paul’s opinion.)

    I do think someone whose command of English is excellent has to be involved at some point in the process of reviewing a translation to or from English qua translation; such a person should be involved as author, referee, friend of the author, etc. (For all I know that was true in these cases, at least where the papers touch specifically on translation issues; a reply to Paul from someone in the know might be called for.) But that standard (excellence) lets in plenty of non-native speakers, and it rules out plenty of native speakers. Other standards more specifically relevant to translating Chinese philosophy would exclude more native speakers in the field.

    It is possible that I misread Paul’s first closing lines, about the parallel universe. At first it did not occur to me to doubt my initial reading, which I think is the natural reading: that the omission of native Anglophones was culpably responsible for the fact that the “effect is like peeping at discourse in a parallel universe.” That is, the predictable effect of that omission is that the “discourse” is weird in an undesirable way. Outlandish, to use a milder version of the simile. Possibly what Paul meant was not what he said: possibly his point was not about the discourse, but was rather about the experience of encountering the roster of contributors, in which case my first inquiry about his underlying thought was quite off-target.

    Anyway the two roundtables are about Peimin’s philosophical interpretation of a Chinese text. The Dao roundtable is about a commentary book that does not include a translation; the Frontiers roundtable is about a commentary book that includes a translation. The roundtables do not focus mainly on points of translation. (Some comments on particular English choices are foregrounded in one of the Frontiers papers, but they are not the bulk of the paper and they are not such as would require general excellence in English.)

    To me the presumption about language skills never did look like a leading candidate for explaining any interesting weirdness of the discourse in the roundtables. The other possible presumptions on my list would at least be more relevant in principle to the quality of discourse in the essays’ field. The one about authorship would speak to one of Paul’s longstanding legitimate concerns—that scholars groundlessly attribute old texts to particular thinkers—a concern that seemed apt in connection with the bits of discourse I had so far seen.

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