It has been suggested that what can be said in one language may be said in any other language. I long wished to believe in that statement. But sixty years’ experience as a translator has forced me to concede that the statement must be taken with a grain of salt. This insight originates in the appreciation of the fact that the realm of language not always is in accord with the realm of reality. The great variety of adjectival expressions denoting colors which enables a Lappish reindeer herdsman to identify the animals in his herd could not possibly be efficiently conveyed to a Palestine shepherd through translation.
Words may be likened to labels which we paste on things and phenomena within us and in the world around us. It is our mother tongue that provides us with these labels, which we have to accept, whether we like them or not. The Chinese thinker Xun Zi already in the third century before our era advanced the theory that the relation between the signifying word and the signified object is totally arbitrary. Well over two thousand years passed before that truth was revealed to the Western world through Ferdinand de Saussure’s famous series of lectures, published in 1916 under the title Cours de linguistique générale.
The longer a word is used, the more meanings it attracts. The more meanings are assigned to a label in a given language, the more difficult it is to find a semantically matching word in another language.
The ancient Chinese word wen 文, which dates back to the end of the 2nd millennium B.C., presents a long chain of semantic development. The earliest written form of the word shows a man with tattooed breast. The original meaning of the word was “carved or painted line”, from which two parallel semantic chains eventually developed: “pattern > ornament > culture” and “graph > script > literature “. The English label “culture” is translated into the Chinese label “wenhua”. But the semantic difference between the two labels is enormous. The expression you wenhua, “to possess culture” may in the Chinese inland be used to characterize a person who has been taught to write the three graphs composing his or her name.
In one of his works the Swedish writer Ivar Lo-Johansson (1901−1990) writes:
I well know that words are traitorous. Old words are like vessels that have not been washed after having been used. New words taste of their new material. Old words were colored a long time ago, new words are colorless and the raw material shines through. It is after all we human beings that employ words in our service. But some petty pedants assert that we are employed by the words.
One of the greatest Western poets of the 20th century asserts that the failure to formulate an inexpressible experience is indicative of the fact that language has lost its symbolic power:
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still.
Some languages are, without doubt thanks to their structure, better suited to express certain notions than others. The medieval ontological proof Deus bonus est, ergo Deus est may without any semantic loss be translated into all Western languages that possess a verb with the same double function as Latin esse, and that therefore may serve both as an intransitive verb meaning “to exist”, and as a copula, linking the subject of a clause to its predicative. Any attempt to translate this ontological proof into a language such as Chinese, which lacks a verb with this double function, is bound to fail. What was once accepted as a theological truth may be seen as a linguistic characteristic, common to most, but not all Indo-European languages.
Toward the end of the 19th century, when Chinese intellectuals began to take an interest in Western ideologies, Hegel’s dialectic system was introduced to China. Of central importance in Hegel’s dialectic system is the theory is that each thesis, thought or notion that originates in isolation is bound to attract its opposite, its antithesis. The result of this process is a synthesis that is raised to the position of thesis on the next higher level in the system. Each thesis is the point of departure for the creation of a new entity: the synthesis becomes a thesis that is cancelled out by the antithesis. Reality is lodged in a process of evolution, in which one state necessarily turns into its opposite. This theory leads to the conception of the necessity of social evolution.
To establish his dialectic system Hegel employs the verb aufheben in its three different meanings: aufbewahren (to preserve), aufhörenlassen (to cancel out), and erhöhen (to raise): the antithesis cancels out the thesis; the synthesis, which preserves both the thesis and the antithesis, is raised up to serve as thesis on the next higher level in the system, where it in turn is cancelled out by the antithesis…
Languages lacking a verb with the same threefold meaning as German aufheben have difficulty in reproducing the Hegelian language game. When attempts were made, in the early 1920s, to translate Hegel’s dialectic system into Chinese, the frustrated translators created the gruesome verb aofuhebian to serve for Hegel’s aufheben. When Chinese Marxists in the 1930s tried to improve upon the translation, they neglected to accept that meaning of aufheben, namely aufbewahren (to preserve), which in Hegel’s system vouches for the continuity in the development of society. That neglect may be motivated by wishful thinking: perhaps the young Marxist translators in the second meaning of the verb, aufhörenlassen, saw an instrument with the aid of which they overnight would be able to overturn the old and create a new society.
It is interesting to note that Hegel’s dialectic system has an exact counterpart in a work by the Chinese monk Jizang (549−623), which represents the culmination of the Buddhist Mahayana philosophy. Jizang proposes the theory of the double truth, the Worldly truth and the Heavenly truth, which operate on three levels. On each level the Worldly truth is negated by the Heavenly truth. The synthesis is raised to the next higher level of abstraction where it serves as the Worldly truth. In the Heavenly truth on the third level everything is absorbed in the undifferentiated emptiness that comprises both this world and Nirvana. Thereby even the Buddhist doctrine of redemption is shown to be an illusion. True redemption can only be reached when the seeker on a purely intuitive way experiences the emptiness that dissolves the illusionary manifoldness of existence and embraces both all and nil.
Especially grave misunderstandings may arise when words are transferred from one cultural milieu to another. Many translations result from unconscious and perhaps conscious and even necessary distortions. When Indian missionaries and Chinese converts from the 3rd century of our era began to translate the subtle philosophy of Mahayana Buddhism into Chinese, they consciously employed terms that had been coined within both the Confucian and the Daoist school. To the Confucianists, Dao, The Way, The Norm, signifies the cosmic order that is maintained through interaction between the three powers Earth, Heaven and Man, represented by the ruler. To the Daoists, Dao represents the Absolute, a reality lacking properties, resting in itself, while comprising all appearances in the world of man and in the universe, a reality lying beyond both word and thought. To the Buddhists, Dao represents Dharma, The Teaching, Buddha’s Law. The term xiaoxun, “filial piety”, had to do for the Sanskrit term sila, “moral conduct”. The Daoist term wuwei, “abstention from all conscious striving”, was borrowed to signify Nirvana. While these translations may have enticed some Confucianists and Daoists to join the imported religion, they at the same time were instrumental in distorting the Buddhist creed.
The non−words appearing in a telling and sometimes scaring silence lack labels. 2005 year’s Nobel Laureate Harold Pinter delegates to the reader or listener the task of giving voice to the silences in his dramas. The Norwegian playwright Jan Fosse sometimes prefers to supply the silences in his works with prosodic labels, indicating their relative length: pause, short pause, long pause, an even longer pause.
To many, language and writing stand out as particularly important instruments for human progress. Others prefer to listen to Silence. To them belongs the Daoist thinker Zhuang Zi, who lived and worked in the 4th century B.C. In the work that has been named after him he says:
The snare exists for the sake of the hare. Once you have caught the hare, you may forget the snare. The fish trap exists for the sake of the fish. Once you have caught the fish, you may forget the fish trap.
Words exist for the sake of the meaning. Once you have caught the meaning, you may forget the words. Ah! Where can I find a man who has forgotten his words, that I may exchange words with him!
There is something fascinatingly paradoxical in the fact that a man like Zhuang Zi, who utterly distrusts the ability of language to convey true insight, in his work, characterized by stylistic vigor, lyrical feeling, intractable and sometimes macabre phantasy, sparkling wit and deep empathy, tries to show us the way to a true reality, beyond the confines of human reason. In his attempts to guide mankind onto the right path, Zhuang Zi has created a bewitching dream world, unparalleled in early Chinese literature.
At the end of his work Tractatus Logico−Philosophicus, Ludwig Wittgenstein urges the reader who has understood his arguments to throw them away, in the same way as he should “throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.”
If there is a special cloud arbour in Heaven reserved for language philosophers, I like to believe that Zhuang Zi sits there, exchanging silences with Wittgenstein.