It's been a while since I posted, and that is due to my impending China trip (leaving early tomorrow AM!). Although the first portion of the journey is largely fun, escorting a group of alumni from my college to various and sundry famous locales (looking forward to Huangshan, where I have never been), after that I am off to some academic work, a confernece at Beida.
And in good academic fashion I am writing a paper to present, something a bit more esoteric than my usual postings here. The general topic is: why Confucianism is not catching on in the US (I realize that this is an empirical issue and some may want to argue that it is catching on. But I don't think so....). In thinking about this, I am exploring the extent to which translation is not the problem. And I have discovered Wlater Benjamin's famous piece, "The Translator's Task" (PDF!). At first, I was not particularly taken with his analysis. The traces of a kind of divine realm of "pure language" ran against my usual rationalist impulses. But the more I thought about, the more I could see how Benjamin's view can show us how Confucianism is, in his sense, "translatable."
I am pasting in the section of the paper, with footnotes, that deals with this below the fold. Warning: 2000 words!
The central problem of translation, any translation, is that there can be something beyond mere words conveyed by a particular text. Walter Benjamin engages with this problem in his introduction to a translation of the poems of Baudelaire. What is it that makes a poem a poem? It is obviously composed of words. But a good poem, a moving poem, is one that conjures feeling and meaning greater than the literal definitions of the words on the page. Thus he describes the difficulty faced by all translators:
What does a poem “say,” then? What does it communicate? Very little, to a person who understands it. Neither message nor statement is essential to it. However, a translation that seeks to translate something can transmit nothing other than a message – that is something inessential. (151)
The significance of a work of art (and, I would argue, philosophy as well) is not simply derived from its linguistic or physical components. Words have certain meanings, but great works stir something else, a more abstract and ineffable recognition, an inexpressible connection, an illumination. This is something more than simply a “message.” And to translate that is to capture something other than the words on the page.
This applies as well to texts like the Lunyu and Mencuis. The allusive qualities of these works raises certain translation challenges. There is much that is unspoken, unwritten. Some of this is due to the ambiguous qualities of classical Chinese and the aesthetic sensibilities of ancient times. The authors assume a broader cultural field that is alluded to only in the most indirect and figurative language. Surplus meaning, that which is outside the text, also includes knowledge embodied in direct, personal experience of the actions advocated by the texts. In other words(!), you have to live the text in order to apprehend the text. This would imply that to translate Confucianism, with any hope of capturing it significance, the translator would have to live by its ideals; for example: carrying out familial and social duties, with an awareness of established best cultural practices, in a conscious effort to cultivate greater humaneness in oneself and the world.
And if this is the case, translation would appear to be next to impossible. But Benjamin doesn’t think so. Paradoxically, he argues that profound texts demand translation:
Translation is properly essential to certain works: this does not mean that their translation is essential for themselves, but rather that a specific significance inherent in the original texts expresses itself in their translatability. (153)
A text like the Lunyu, Benjamin is suggesting, has import greater than its Chinese language forms. It expresses a much broader, transcultural (universal?) human experience that, while couched in a specifically Chinese context, can be meaningful for people in vastly different times and places. Indeed, by this argument, the full significance of the Lunyu can only be realized when it is expressed in other languages.
Benjamin offers his concept of “pure language” as a kind of spiritual connection of all people. He does not posit it as an actual language, a merging of all extent languages into a singular linguistic system. It is not a super-Esperanto. Rather, it implies a meta-linguistic human capacity for intercultural understanding.
All suprahistorical kinship of languages consists rather in the fact that in each of them as a whole, one and the same thing is intended; this cannot be attained by any one of them alone, however, but only the totality of their mutually complementary intensions: pure language. Whereas all the particular elements of different languages – words, sentences, structures – are mutually exclusive, these languages complement each other in their intentions. (156)
At its most general, the intention of pure language is interconnection: persons strive to relate to one another; we are social beings. There are, of course, more specific intentions for particular pieces of text or moments of speech, and these more focused intentions also provide a basis for translation. At a practical level (which is not what concerns Benjamin) we daily find solutions; pragmatic translation is ubiquitous. More profound and mysterious expressions – Benjamin seems to want to call them “spiritual” – at first sight may appear to be resistant to literal translation. Some words simply do not have a match in other languages; some works of art appear to be too deeply immersed in a particular cultural context. But it is precisely here where Benjamin believes that the intention of interconnection, the purpose of conveying an esoteric yet beautiful feeling or idea, brings us into the realm of pure language. While we may be able to create such an expression in one language, it can only be fully revealed in the “mutually complementary intensions” of many (all?) languages.
Let’s take a brief example, one concept from the Lunyu: ren - 仁 . This idea is of central significance to the text, and on Benjamin’s understanding therefore also beyond the text. It is translated variously as: “authoritative conduct” (Ames and Rosemont), “Good” (Slingerland), “benevolence” (Lau), “humaneness” (Watson), and “humanity” (Hinton). We needn’t make a final decision that any one of these is superior to the others but, rather, accept that there is a semantic field suggested by the original term that encompasses all of these words. One of the good things about the depth and range of work in contemporary scholarly translation is the availability of multiple definitional possibilities. In the midst of these informed differences, we get the idea.
Throughout the Lunyu it becomes clear that the intention behind this term, and arguably behind the text as a whole, is to bring a mindful focus on the practice of ethical reciprocity: we find what is good in ourselves by cultivating what is good in our relationships with others. As is commonly pointed out, this intention is inscribe in the brush strokes of ren, composed as it is of an element that suggests “person” and another that stands for “two”: personhood cannot be defined in isolation, it must be created reciprocally with others.
What is immediately apparent here is that the central notion, ethical reciprocity, is by no means peculiar to the Confucian tradition alone. It is manifest in other cultural contexts. Thus, to return to Benjamin, while ren is embedded in, and is expressive of, a uniquely Chinese experience, it also signifies a broader human sensibility, an aspiration for living a good life by helping others. Its significance is tied to a particular cultural-linguistic context, but is also fully realized in its articulation in other languages.
Indeed, even in its own languages – for we must make a distinction between ren in a classical Chinese context and a modern Chinese context – the meaning of this term is far from settled. In the Lunyu, Confucius is presented as pushing against definitional complacency. In various passages he resists his disciples’ efforts to adduce a clear exemplar of ren, maybe in an effort to preserve the trans-linguistic qualities of the concept. Something about ren cannot be captured in words; it is the outcome of conscientious practice; and that practice can take place in many different cultural contexts. A person can be ren even when living in a “barbarian” place. A single illustration of elusiveness of ren is Lunyu 6.30:
Watson (46) translates this as:
Zigong said, if someone could spread bounty abroad among the people and rescue the populace, how would that be? Could that be called humanness?
The Master said: Why bring humaneness into the discussion? If you must have a label, call the man a sage. Even Yao and Shun had trouble doing that much.
The human person wants standing, and so he helps others to gain standing. He wants achievement, and so he helps others to achieve. To know how to proceed on the analogy of what is close at hand – that can be called the humane approach.
We can see Confucius’s hesitancy to accept a fixed standard of ren. He introduces another term – sheng/”sage” – that destabilizes the invocation of ren; and then he goes further and suggests that two exemplary “sages”, Yao and Shun, might not have lived up to the ideal of ren. It’s not completely clear what the relationship between ren and sheng is. Ames and Rosemont (110) translate the second stanza above as:
The Master replied: “Why stop at authoritative conduct? This is certainly a sage (sheng 聖). Even a Yao or a Shun would find such a task daunting.
This could imply that sheng is something more than ren; but, then again, the two leading examples of sheng, Yao and Shun, might not be sheng. In the end, we are left with the original question: what is ren?
The last three lines of the passage turn us away from linguistic precision and toward embodied experience. Confucius tells us how to be ren, what we need to do to manifest ren in very immediate and specific circumstances. If we focus on helping those around us – and for Confucians that starts with family and friends – we realize ren in the world. Words matter for Confucius but actions matter more. How we linguistically translate what we are doing matters less than our actual behavior.
But we are translating a particular text here. Can we have confidence that we are getting the main idea? I believe we can, and that is primarily because we can assume that we know the intention behind the passage cited above. In everything we have learned about Confucius, it is clear that he was quite consciously trying to encourage people to live by the lights of ethical reciprocity. We also know that he believed that persons who live such lives have a transformative effect on their communities, regardless of their cultural context. And that brings us back to Benjamin (161):
Just as fragments of a vessel, in order to be fitted together, must correspond to each other in the tiniest detail but need not resemble each other, so translation, instead of making itself resemble the meaning of the original, must lovingly, and in detail, fashion in its own language a counterpoint to the original’s mode of intention, in order to make both of them recognizable as fragments of a vessel, as fragments of a greater language.
Of course we have to get the words right, and doing that is difficult work. But perfect “resemblance” in translation is neither possible nor, for Benjamin, desirable. Whether we name ren “humaneness” or “authoritative conduct” matters less than entering into the conversation, listening to a variety of possibilities, and opening ourselves to the broader trans-linguistic significance of a meaningful text or work of art. Today, we have the resources to do just that. The hard philological tasks may never be complete, but those efforts have brought us to a place where our contemporary English translations of “Confucianism” have formed a sufficient “counterpoint to the original’s mode of intention” that they can be accepted as fragments of the larger vessel of “Confucianism” writ large. American Confucianism is a part of the greater language that is Confucianism.
 Walter Benjamin, “The Translator’s Task,” (trans. Steven Rendall), TTR: traduction, terminologie, redaction, 10, no. 2 (1997), pp. 151-165.
 Leigh Kathryn Jenco makes this point in her explication of the exegetical methods of Wang Yangming and Kang Youwei: “Their hermeneutic approaches suggest that merely reading and translating these texts may not be enough to understand them, because such techniques cannot capture in words what is meant to be exemplary, action-oriented, and impressionistic.” Leigh Kathryn Jenco, “’What Does Heaven Ever Say?’ A Methods-centered Approach to Cross-cultural Engagement,” American Political Science Review, vol. 101, no.4 (November 2007), p751.
 Kwame Anthony Appiah develops Grice’s notion of intention in translation in: “Thick Translation,” Callaloo 16.4 (1993), pp. 808-819.
 Roger T. Ames and Henry Rosemont, Jr., The Analects of Confucius: A Philosophical Translation (New York: Ballantine, 1998); Edward Slingerland, trans., Confucius Analects: With Selections from Traditional Commentaries (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2003); D.C. Lau, trans., Confucius: The Analects, (New York: Penguin, 1979); Burton Watson, trans., The Analects of Confucius (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007); David Hinton, trans., The Analects: Confucius (Washington: Counterpoint Press, 1998).
 Slingerland mentions that the meaning of ren evolves from the Lunyu to the Mengzi, op. cit., p. 63.
 An objection could be raised here on the grounds that zhengming – the “rectification of names – (Analects 13.3) asserts a certain importance in getting words right. But even here words are in the service of assessing actions. We should certainly match words to actions, but, more importantly, our actions should be appropriate to the ethical requirements of our immediate circumstances. To apply Benjamin to zhengming: words are simply a medium through which we recognize that our actions are expressions of the “pure language” of Confucianism.