New essays available on-line; and a bit on translation

For anyone who might be interested, I have added some new works-in-progress to my on-line archive site, including the pre-copyedit version of “Tian as Cosmos in Zhu Xi’s Neo-Confucianism.” Comments are always welcome. Below, I include the abstract to the Tian essay, as well as two paragraphs discussing standards for translation.


Tian 天” is central to the metaphysics, cosmology, and ethics of the eight-hundred-year-long Chinese philosophical tradition we call “Neo-Confucianism,” but there is considerable confusion over what tian means—confusion which is exacerbated by its standard translation into English as “Heaven.” This essay analyzes the meaning of tian in the works of the most influential Neo-Confucian, Zhu Xi (1130-1200), presents a coherent interpretation that unifies the disparate aspects of the term’s meaning, and argues that “cosmos” does an excellent job of capturing this meaning, and therefore should be adopted as our translation of tian.

Thoughts on Translation (from Angle, “Tian as Cosmos”)

Translations [of specific technical terms, in the context of an essay written in a language other than that of the original texts being discussed] must meet at least the following two criteria. First, they must adequately express the meaning of the underlying concept. If no potential translation meets this criterion, then we may be better off leaving that term untranslated, and using phonetic Romanization instead…. Suppose that at least one potential translation meets this criterion. Then the second criterion is that a choice-worthy translation must be better than alternatives. If one translation is already in common use (such as “Heaven” in this case), then an alternative would have to be substantially better in order to justify the potential confusion engendered by switching. In some cases, we may decide that two different translations both pass the first test and neither is obviously superior (or perhaps their different strengths and weaknesses balance out). In such a case, scholars and our readers may still benefit from adopting a single translation, but the choice of which one is arbitrary.

What does it mean to say that a translation “adequately” expresses the meaning of the underlying concept? Here we must balance two considerations. On the one hand, the meaning of the proposed translation must sufficiently relate to the target concept so that the translation is of real use to its audience. That is, the translation should help readers to get a handle on the concept: to understand and even be able to deploy it in new contexts. It must be more than a bare label, since if all we want is a label, we can just use the Romanized version of the original word. On the other hand, we should not expect a complete match. It is a mistake to assume that the underlying concept shares the precise meaning that the translation indicates to any given reader. Indeed, it is a mistake even among speakers of the same language to assume that a word that I use at a given moment shares all the same meaning that the word means to you at a given moment. An adequate translation, therefore, is one that makes a real contribution to a reader’s grasp of the underlying concept, but we should expect that this will need to be accompanied by careful observation on the reader’s part of how the translation (and underlying concept) is deployed in various contexts, as well as—at least for particularly difficult terms—by the reader’s attention to glosses and other explanations provided by the translator.

4 replies on “New essays available on-line; and a bit on translation”

  1. The good thing for ‘Heaven’ is it maintains the liberal root meaning of Tian, the sky. In the Ru metaphysics, Tian has this root meaning, because ‘heave, earth, and human beings’ are thought as three capacities within the cosmos whose cooperative creativity gives rise to everything. So, if using ‘cosmos’ to translate Tian, these three capacities’ translation will be a problem.
    The bad thing for ‘Heaven’ is it is too Christian, meaning paradise. This is almost irrelevant to the Ru metaphysics, but very easy to be reminded when people read it.
    Third, ‘Cosmos’ in the Greek and modern sense refers to the de facto existence of everything in the universe. It may or may not address the ontological origin of cosmos. In Christianity and some part of western ontological cosmology, cosmos needs to be created by something, and it has no right to exist by and through itself. Correspondingly, in some part of Zhu Xi’s ideas, he thinks the cosmos needs to be generated from Taiji, and Taiji’s ultimate creative power is sometimes called the power of Tian. In this sense, ‘cosmos’ cannot get to the ontological depth of Tian.
    All in all, I think ‘Tian’, as a philosophical term, is better to remain untranslated. But contextually, translators can use different terms to interpret it, for example, in the ‘three capacities’ case, Tian is better to be translated as Heaven.
    In my humble view. Bin Song.

  2. Hi Bin, Thanks! I think there are contexts in which we are best off not translating tian, but I do not think there are any contexts, though, in which it is best to translate it as “Heaven.” In the context of tian-di, or tian-di-ren, I am happy enough with “heaven” or “heavens,” but I think that the capital “H” is unavoidable Christian. I also would say that there is nothing untoward about the idea that cosmos/tian may be self-generating.

  3. Going way back to the earliest recorded times, there are a number of references to tian being a place where the spirits of the kings (and perhaps some others) reside, and for this reason perhaps Heaven is not inappropriate. For example, Ode # 235, “King Wen” (文王) begins:


    King Wen is on high;
    Oh, he shines in Heaven!
    Zhou is an old nation,
    But its mandate (to rule) is new.
    The land of Zhou became illustrious,
    Blessed by Di’s mandate.
    King Wen ascends and descends
    On Di’s left hand, on His right.

  4. For “Heaven”:

    I think that the Christian/Muslim image of Heaven is not suggested when one encounters “Heaven” in translated Chinese philosophy. Also, in English, “Heaven” often names an agency rather than a place. It’s a vague equivalent of “God”.

    Against “Heaven”:

    The word’s suggestion is that Heaven is only part of Nature, or none of Nature.

    Against “Cosmos”:

    For Anglophone readers, the word suggests outer space, stars and galaxies. It is nature on that scale. And only on that scale: that’s the main way it’s not equivalent to “universe.” That’s the definite and only meaning of the word. It’s not really “sky” and it’s not “nature.”

    Or so it seems to me.

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