Friday, March 16, 2012

Presenting classic Taoist and Buddhist texts in the English language

Recently I read an interesting comment by the famous Buddhist meditation master Hong QiGao (洪启嵩). Hong, a Taiwanese, was a prodigy and superb self-learner of the practice, and was said to have started teaching the stuff when he was 20. Hong said that sometimes he found it easier to explain ancient texts in English than in Chinese (he was said to have taught meditation and classic Buddhist texts in North America, mainly at Buddhist temples). Being a person proficient in both languages, I can certainly appreciate and indeed share his view!

Nobel Laureate Gao XingJian 高行健(Literature, 2000) commented that Chinese language (contemporary and classical) is xuan (玄), meaning abstruse or profound, depending on how you look at it (this word/concept can serve as an example of the point he made). On the other hand, modern western languages like English is analytic. A profound language is more suitable for poetic writing whereas an analytic language is more suitable for scientific writing, according to Gao.

Oftentimes Gao wrote the same play in both Chinese and French (Gao was born and educated in China, but was politically exiled after the 1989 Tienanmen Square Demonstration that he supported when in France. He is now a nationalized Frenchman). His plays are noticeably shorter in Chinese! He explained that he needs to use much smaller number of words when he writes in Chinese when compare with writing in French.

One question arises: why is that there are many English translations of ancient texts (from Chinese or other ancient "profound" languages) that are so difficult for a reader to decipher?

The reason is, I believe, that these translators tried to capture all the profundity of the ancient text into an analytical language. An example:

The following is a comparison between my translation (from Chinese text) and Red Pine's translation (from both Chinese and Sanskrit texts) of the definitive verse of the Diamond Sutra in Chapter five - perhaps Pine's is more "profound" or more "academically respectable" because he was said to have drawn on many sources...:):)

Original Chinese text:


My translation:

Every perception is illusion
instead of absolute
You are in one with Tathagata, when
you can see illusion out of absolute

Red Pine's translation:

Since the possession of attributes is an illusion, Subhuti, and no possession of attributes is no illusion, by means of attributes that are no attributes the Tathagata can indeed be seen

Diamond Sutra - translated by Red Pine


  1. So maybe not being able to read Chinese isn't such a disadvantage after all. Thanks.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...