June 12, 2004


Standing outside Taihedian--the "Hall of Supreme Harmony":

Hall of Supreme Harmony: Built from south to north on an eight-metre-high marble foundation, the Hall of Supreme Harmony, the Hall of Medium Harmony and the Hall of Protective Harmony form the Outer Court of the Forbidden City together with the Hall of Literary Glory on their east side and the Hall of Military Prowess on their west side. The Hall of Supreme Harmony, also referred to as the Throne [Hall], is 35 metres high, the highest of the halls in the Forbidden City. It was used for important ceremonies like the enthronement of the crown prince, the emperor's birthday celebrations, and the initiation of military expeditions.

To my left, an English-language tour guide (with a British accent) is answering a question:

No, it's not that strange a name in Chinese. Taihedian and Taihemen--the Hall and Gate of "Supreme Harmony" have, in Chinese, connotations of music and also of personal concord. But it's more like "things are in their proper and pleasing arrangement."

Perhaps "Hall of Supreme Unity" or "Hall of National Concord" would be better translations. But those would not sound as strange and alien--as Oriental to Western ears as "Hall of Supreme Harmony". And it's important that we tourists get our money's worth.

As I look around, I see other examples. The Boxer Rebellion--the Yihequan. The usual translation of "Yihequan" is the truly bizarre sounding "Righteous and Harmonious Fists". But how about "United Fighters for Justice"? I know, that's not "Oriental"-sounding enough.

Or even "Zhongguo"--"China." The standard literal translation--even today--is "Middle Kingdom". But isn't a better translation either "Central Country" or "Great Power"?

All this weirdness in translation--the quaintness and alienness of the standard ways it is done--bothers me. Does this mean I need to make a pilgrimage to the grave of Edward Said to apologize for thinking inharmonious and unrighteous thoughts about his book Orientalism?

Posted by DeLong at June 12, 2004 09:51 PM | TrackBack | | Other weblogs commenting on this post

>Does this mean I need to make a pilgrimage to the grave of Edward Said to apologize for thinking inharmonious and unrighteous thoughts about his book Orientalism?


Posted by: Gar Lipow on June 12, 2004 10:41 PM


What is/was the place you're describing used for, and when was it built?

About the myth in the orient, it probably goes leaps and bounds from where most westerners can see.

Since you bring up China and literature, consider also 'The Dream of the Red Chamber'. That was a few centuries ago, but the main character was a reincarnation of a rock, or something like that, I don't remember. Classic I think, with some serious myth mixed in.

Posted by: forgetting on June 12, 2004 10:46 PM


Well, actually, of course, these odd translations are a lot more accurate in a literal sense. "Tai" means "great" or something along those lines. "He" means "harmony" or perhaps "peace" or something along those lines. There's flexibility there, but not as much, I think, as you'd like there to be and still be true to the original Chinese. "United Fighters for Justice" might work, I guess, but with no less explanation than the one you cite, and still I think you lose the religious sense of the original. Yihequan actually does mean something very close to "Righteous and harmonious fists." In translating, you simply have to make sure your reader knows what was meant by that. "Central Country" might work, but doesn't sound as nice in English as Middle Kingdom nor does it acknowledge the couple of thousands of years of monarchy. The problem isn't that these translations are necessarily orientalist in Said's sense (they may be), but that they are, well, translations. Maybe I'm misreading you, but sometimes the goal of a good translation is to communicate the difference of notions and things, as well as their sameness.

Posted by: Doug on June 12, 2004 11:01 PM



As a student of the Chinese language, (note not a student of Chinese history) let me attempt to explain:

While the majority of characters in Chinese have distinct meaning(s), generally two or more characters are used together to form words. Obviously quite different from English, although words like 'breakfast' and 'workman' follow the same pattern. This isn't so true for verbs, which are usually just one character, but is fairly accurate for adjectives, especially non-everyday adjectives. So 'he' means peace, (as well as harmony between two or more things), but peace is generally translated as 'he ping', ping also meaning peaceful or just. (Technical note: nouns can often be converted into adjectives simply by adding a modifier, 'de', so he ping de means peaceful).

However, oftentimes two adjectives are used together by only using one character of each word. Hence 'yi' (justice or righteousness) plus 'he' (peace or harmony) together lead to the translation you were given (harmonious and righteous). These abbreviations make the language much more fluid, (imagine if the name was yi fen he sheng de quan!), however they also give me hella problems when I try to read economic news reports!

As for Zhong Guo, part of that might just be (English) tradition, however it seems to me that there is a historical reason. Central country would be an acceptable translation, (although by now no one would know what you were talking about) but Great Power (with the implication that the reference is to a country) would not. No great, no power in the character meanings.

Finally, in reference to your post from a week or so back, individual air con units are used in all but the highest ends of the market, even for new buildings.

Posted by: Drew on June 13, 2004 03:19 AM


To some extent, this is a fundamental problem in any translation. Do you translate Johannes Siebeneick as John Sevenoaks, which sounds quaint and medieval, or leave it alone, and deprive the reader of information (info which, depending on the story, may be meaningful - the original German author surely chose Siebeneick for a reason). On the flipside, Ivan Morris, in his translation of The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon eschews literal translations of pre-Heian names of months: "Charming though many of these names are, I have avoided them in my translation for fear that they might produce a false exoticism of the 'Honorable Honorable Lady Plum Blossom' variety."

I think that you're right that there is a bit of Orientalism to it, but it's also true that literal translations of Chinese (and Japanese, and I'm sure many others) sound exotic to us because the culture and thoughtways behind the words are, in fact, exotic to us. I don't think it's in any way racist to acknowledge that Eastern and Western cultures (to use generalizations) are very, very different in basic assumptions and approaches to the world, and that language reflects this. It really is meaningful that the Japanese call it "honorable cooked rice." You might not write it that way every time you translate, but surely a Westerner gains more insight to Japan knowing how "rice" is referred to in everyday conversation in Japan.

To my mind, you're left with a choice: "false exoticism," false simplification (writing as if stripped-down literal content is all that language is), or really lengthy cultural notes. Until everyone visits everywhere else, people will always feel that other places are exotic in more and different ways than they are, in fact, exotic.

Posted by: JRoth on June 13, 2004 06:22 AM



Doug and Drew are right, but I also appreciate your point of view--when I was doing a readings course in Qing history, I had to teach myself that "palace memorials" were, functionally, the equivalent of memoranda; that despite the (relative) strangeness of the magistrate's tax system, the ways the Chinese gentry class cheated on their taxes were eminently recognizable, etc., etc....

However, I think that the translations as they are help inform you of the difference in attitudes between China and the West. In China, ritual was a big part of court life (esp. in the Ming); in the West (except for the Papal States), less so--we have more functional names. I wonder, though, how "Department of Justice" would be translated into Chinese if Chinese translators were like Legge et al--"Bureaucracy of Law-Enforcing?"

You will find Ray Huang's book 1587: A Year of No Significance to be very, very interesting.

Posted by: Paul on June 13, 2004 06:25 AM


Literal translations of English words are also 'exotic'. A trident submarine literally means three tooth under water. Walter Kenneth Willis means Of The Forest Bright/Fair From Wales.

Posted by: walter willis on June 13, 2004 06:54 AM


In The Life of the Mind, Hannah Arendt says:

These observations on the interconnection of language and thought, which make us suspect that no speechless thought can exist, obviously do not apply to civilizations where the written sign rather than the spoken word is decisive and where, consequently, thinking itself is not soundless speech but mental dealing with images. This is notably true of China ... There "the power of words is supported by the power of the written sign, the image", and not the other way around.... For the Chinese, every sign makes visible what we would call a concept or an essence --Confucius is reported to have said that the Chinese sign for "dog" is the perfect image of dog as such, whereas in our understanding "no image could ever be adequate to the concept" of dog in general.

The quotes are from La Pensee Chinoise by Marcel Granet, 1934.

Posted by: masaccio on June 13, 2004 07:19 AM


The translations you mention are a little stilted, mainly because they have been translated that way for a long time. They continue to be used because that particular translation is what everyone in the west recognizes.

The Columbia Law School used to have a weekly translation seminar, where everyone would bring in their translation of the same piece, then read them aloud line by line. It often got very funny, but it was clear there are as many styles of translation as there are of writing. Some people write in a pompous, stilted style, and some people translate that way.

If you want to see an elegant, down to earth approach, I recommend the recently deceased William Hinton's classic "Fanshen, A Documentary of Revolution in a Chinese Village." For chapter headings Hinton (or perhaps his daughter Carma) translated traditional Chinese folk ditties and did it in a way that conveys the grit and humor of the originals. They even got many of them to rhyme in English.

Posted by: kaleidescope on June 13, 2004 07:57 AM


I can't recall the exact Chinese word for America, but I am told it means "Beautiful Land".
It just reminds you what people used to think of us, and makes our pariah status today all the more sad.

Posted by: Bob H on June 13, 2004 08:01 AM


Brad: As a Chinese (though expat, so my Chinese isn't perfect), I can safely say that your suggestions are just as accurate as the "official" translations.

(following contains Chinese characters that are only displayed if you choose UTF-8 as encoding (in View -> Encoding/Text Encoding))
Bob H: The Chinese word for America is 美国. This is a transliteration from English, meaning that they picked Chinese characters that sound like the corresponding English syllables. The first character, 美, does mean "beautiful". Incidentally, the Japanese word for America is 米国 (美 and 米 are pronounced similarly in both languages), which means "rice country". A reflection of a major US export to East Asia?

Posted by: Guan Yang on June 13, 2004 08:25 AM


As for the exoticism of the Chinese: I just read a translation of the diary of a Song diplomat (Fan Cheng-da) who travelled to the Jin capital during the period of division. I hoped for a lot of interesting description and storytelling, but about 50% of it was reports on the official nomenclature of the bureaucracy, and the Jin renaming of various famous places (some of which already had two names). Another 30% or so was reports on ancient historical sites in Jin territory which Song Chinese were seldom able to visit.

For example, the New Song Gate, once the Sunrise Solarity Gate, was changed by the Jin to be Universal Humanity Gate.

Brad is right, though, that literal translations into English don't bring the whole symbolic universe accross, but just throw in little tidbits of oddness. And you don't get the awareness that this language is natural to Chinese, the way Catholic language was natural to medieval Europeans, and Protestant language is natural to our crazed political masters and their cadres.

Posted by: Zizka on June 13, 2004 08:39 AM


Doesn't " guo " also translate as " State" in the sense of governmental structure or authority? I'm not a linguist so maybe Drew or Zizka have some insight.

Posted by: mark safranski on June 13, 2004 10:22 AM


I'd also comment that harmony and unity are different things. the 'peace between two things' or two musical melodies that when played to gether still sound good, and more than sounding good, they sound better together than apart. Whereas unity doesn't necessarily imply that, and can also imply only one musical line that doesn't have any room for other melody.

pythagorus, music of the spheres concepts may be analagous in western thought.

Posted by: kt on June 13, 2004 12:50 PM



Yes, I think I can safely say that 'guo' means country, national, and domestic, so 'state' would fit within that definition. 'Guo' meaning kingdom is presumably archaic.

Posted by: Drew on June 13, 2004 01:45 PM


One need only look at the divergence of various translations of the I Ching to see the gulf that exists between eastern and western thought and language. I find it interesting to consider how thought, language and experience are intertwined and how big a part the ideogram and the alphabet play in all this. Without having seen anything to document it, I would say that the brain performs rather differently when confronted with a meaningful image, the ideogram, vs. meaningless (in and of themselves) letters strung together; one whole, the other linear. And then there is the question of which came first, the chicken or the egg, in regards to what role they play in how we apprehend the world.

Posted by: Dubblblind on June 13, 2004 01:47 PM


Parts of the I Ching are 3000 years old, and all of it is 2000 years old, so it's more than an East-West thing. It was a deliberately gnomic / mysterious text at all times, meant to be interpreted by wise men and wizards. The Wilhelm / Baynes translation also draws commentary (which is a mere 7-800 years old) up into the text.

Posted by: Zizka on June 13, 2004 01:55 PM


It's often disorienting to realize that the people of exotic lands consider themselves mundane. It's even more disorienting when you find out that those people consider (or have considered) your own people to have been "exotic" -- you see this a lot in the Japanese counterpart to our stories of the "Mysterious East" -- they have stories of the "Mysterious West".

If ever you need a reminder that the "Mysterious East" isn't really all *that* mysterious, just remember that European for "Zhongguo" (Kingdom in the Center) is "Medditerranean" (Center of the World)

Posted by: Tzoq on June 13, 2004 01:56 PM


English is no less quaint...even to native speakers. I was a 22 year old Platoon Leader when I heard minorities in my Platoon use the MF expletive. I thought I was worldly, experienced, but had never heard that word combination in expression before. I thought it "unusual". Now I know that Russians use a similar expression with frequency. Germans use a lot of "pig" combinations in their expletives deleted (schweinhund). Poles say "psia krew" which literally translates to "dog's blood". They mean "S.O.B.". Huh?

Language sure is complicated. I remember the embarassed JFK when he uttered an indiscrete phrase which his State Dept. translator prompted him to repeat in Warsaw. I think that guy had to be re-tested if he even kept his job? :o[

Posted by: don majors on June 13, 2004 03:12 PM


There is a problem with the false-exotic. Good examples are the books of Ernest Bramah: The Wallet of Kai-Lung, Kai-Lung Unrolls His Mat, The Golden Hours of Kai-Lung were all very popular in the 'Twenties. Dorothy Sayers has Wimsey and Harriet quote bits of Kai-Lung at each other, which is period-accurate. The Golden Hours, at least, is available from Gutenberg, so it's probably sitting on your powerbook, Brad.

Bramah had never been to China and did not know Chinese. The themes of most of the stories are Western and contemporary (there's one about unionization and a strike, for example). But they are written in Translation-from-the-Chinese-ese and set in China. The result is--nowadays--disconcerting. But at one time the quaintness and alienness, however fake, were Bramah's Unique Selling Proposition.

Posted by: jam on June 13, 2004 03:45 PM


>Does this mean I need to make a pilgrimage to the grave of Edward Said to apologize for thinking inharmonious and unrighteous thoughts about his book Orientalism?


Posted by: jason on June 13, 2004 04:03 PM


What I've always hated about the "Middle Country" thing about Zhongguo is that when that term begins to appear, it is clearly talking about several states, as distinguished from states in the border regions -- "Central States". So at least through much of history it was not as Sinocentric as it is usually understood today.

Brad's translations are about half improvements, in my subjective opinion. I do think that there is a widespread problem in translating Chinese (in part due to the influence of a very influential set of scholars at a famous school in California that will remain nameless, which we will call UC-Peets) to render each character with the same word in English. This one-to-one correspondence theory of translation has resulted in a generation of translations meant to easily allow people in the know to look at the English and know what characters are being used. But the side effect is that often obscure English terms had to be found to distinguish between several synonyms, and the translations from these UC-Peets scholars sounded rather Edwardian. I won't blame the entire problem on these scholars (although they're rather seriously implicated), but I think there is something about the project of linking English and Chinese that often leads people to make this same mistake. It takes a long time for people in Chinese studies to feel like they can go beyond the "standard" translation of each character.

Posted by: MarkC on June 13, 2004 06:52 PM


This raises a long-standing question that I've had about the Chinese language. To what extent are proper names merely signifiers whose meaning (if any) is no longer relevant to everyday speakers of the language, and to what extent do they have a commonly understood meaning?

For example, Pleasant Hill is readily understood as a descriptive place name (which may or may not have validity) whereas Atlanta is merely a signifier, as are most of our place names.

Posted by: Larry B on June 13, 2004 06:59 PM


Berkeley: Boodberg, Shafer. Let it all hang out.

Posted by: Zizka on June 13, 2004 09:17 PM


I'm speechless.
"An ox stands on my tongue!"

Posted by: seth edenbaum on June 14, 2004 05:37 AM


I don't speak Chinese but I've done time in a Zen monastery and have some aquaintance with Taoism, and IMO "supreme harmony" may be a better translation than "supreme unity." "Harmony" suggests myriad separate things in their proper place in relation to each other, whereas "unity" just mushes everything together inyo one thing.

It's a subtle distinction, but significant to a Taoist. It's possible for myriad things to be united but out of sync with the Tao, in which case they wouldn't be harmonious.

Posted by: maha on June 14, 2004 07:23 AM


Here's a discussion (read the comments, too), of issues that arise in trying to translate a well-used English language term -- "self-esteem" into Chinese.

In the case I commented on, someone made an effort to be accurate in translating a Chinese term -- 自尊心 zi4 zun1 xin1 -- self-respect heart/mind." The character 心 can be translated as heart or mind or spirit, depending on the context, but including more than one of them really makes the concept much stranger than it already is.

Posted by: Kevin Miller on June 14, 2004 07:24 AM


Here's the link that should have been in the previous comment -- durned computers....


Posted by: Kevin Miller on June 14, 2004 07:26 AM


I don't think there is *a* right and *a* wrong answer - that would frame it in the inauspicious duality, putting things in a dangerous state of instability, subject to the chaotic powers of Fortune and Chance, baji-naji - oh, wait, wrong planet -

The question of translation is one where I think the most important thing is to realize that words have stories and ramifications and connotations of context that are more than mere 1:1 correspondence, and nobody, not even native speakers, realize them all. I have learned more about English by studying other lnaguages, and by reading English stuff in translation, things I never would have realized, by looking at it from outside. And I refuse to take the (imo) cop-out of saying that all translations are lies and just give up on the idea of mutual understanding. The key thing is to realize that nobody understands it all, about anything, and there's always room for more realization. "Exotic" translations may be dangerous, if they result in a 'full stop' whereby someone thinks they have a packaged understanding of some other culture; but if on the other hand they make you stretch and think about how your own taken-for-granted things would look/sound/feel from outside, then they've done the opposite and are good.

I myself specialize in trying to make the ancient world seem up to date, so in fantasy fanfic and comments on the classical era, I deliberately use modern terms like "top governmental aide" for "vizier" just to create cognitive dissonance, sometimes. The intent being on my part to make people think of Ye Olde Dayes as an eternal present, not as different from us as they imagine.

Yet at the same time, I don't always think updating is good: as a Taoist, I've read several translations (I only know a few characters) of Lao Tzu and there are some which take the lines about warhorses and living by the sword and update them to tanks and guns.

It doesn't work, imo, because you read the original and your mind *knows* that it includes modern weapons; but putting the anachronisms in the text, randomly, just distracts from the point of the warnings.

Briefly, I think everything has to be dynamic and fluid and rather depending on the situation, but ideally leading to mutual illumination - rather than any sort of a push-button, binary solution, in translation.

Posted by: bellatrys on June 14, 2004 05:23 PM


"It just reminds you what people used to think of us, and makes our pariah status today all the more sad."

Bob, your translation is approximately correct, but injecting the "ugly America" meme into the post is just plain wierd. I live in China, and believe me, the Chinese I know who are capable of leaving can't wait to go to America. So much so that I often need to lecture them on being realistic about it ("streets of gold" syndrome)And they love American people! I get treated like a king here.

The "pariah" theme, I believe, was invented by polemicists who are either utterly clueless, or who believe that their readers are.

Thank you very much: carry on.

Posted by: Sam_S on June 14, 2004 06:33 PM


Brad, you should consider that perhaps the Chinese intend for their choice of diction to be colorful and "exotic".

In the literary tradition of English-speaking countries, emphasis is placed on virtuoso use of grammatical structure: the well turned phrase, the flow of sentence into sentence and paragraph into paragraph.

Modern Chinese, however, lacks almost all the grammatical complexity of Indo-European languages, but requires the memorization of tens of thousands of complicated glyphs. Consequently a much greater emphasis is placed on virtuoso diction, which, by Western standards, tends toward "purple prose".

This lends itself to a kind of "word inflation" where, for example, a bathroom faucet is a "dragon head" and 2x4's are "dragon bones".

So "Hall of Supreme Harmony" it is, and no apologies.

Posted by: Michael Robinson on June 14, 2004 08:08 PM


And a second point:

We are talking about the very ceremonial heart of one of history's greatest empires. A certain amount of grandiosity is appropriate.

Consider if, on the grounds of Arlington National Cemetary, there were erected a ceremonial "Hall of Ultimate Sacrifice". Would you recommend that Chinese tour guides "down-translate" the name to "Hall of Death"?

Posted by: Michael Robinson on June 14, 2004 08:56 PM


It really is the character by character translation that leads to so much trouble. "Zhongguo" shoudl not be translated as the middle kingdom(s), but simply as china, because that is how chinese people use the word. They don't seperate it into the different parts. The same goes for "meiguo" and "yingguo," america and england. Even though literally they mean the beautiful country and the heroic country, when used regularly they carry none of this meaning.

The flattering names were invented by qing dynasty officials to gain favor with the imperialistic powers. The fact that the communists (who weren't afraid to mess with the language), didn't change then to something else shows that they have lost there literal meanings.

Posted by: alf on June 15, 2004 12:20 AM



I think you've stumbled upon a trope of tour guides in distress. A similar version is the all-purpose "That's the way it's suppose to be," often used by Japanese tour guides in answer to Japanese o other tourists in Japan who ask any question begining with "Why?" Or "What?" Hell, vast ranges of questions.

So much of Japanese culture being related to Chinese, maybe this is a Japanese tour-guides' versio of the ancestral Chinese tour-guides' discourses on harmony...

Posted by: David Lloyd-Jones on June 15, 2004 07:29 AM


I have my own list for Japanese: samurai--noble, knight, lady, daimyo--lord; shogun--regent. The obscurity of translation conceals a culture with substantial similarities to European feudalism, and obscures genuine differences. In the case of Chinese, yes, I believe you are right. *However*--the complexity of the translations is a result of a real cultural difference; ancient Chinese is semi-comprehensible to modern readers (barring the use of Mao's syllabary)--modern China is a direct inheritor of ancient China in a way that modern European culture is *not* a direct inheritor of Hellenic culture, Renaissance bragadoccio notwithstanding.

Posted by: Randolph Fritz on June 15, 2004 08:52 PM


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