LITTLE IS known about China in Europe and America. Although the Chinese were enviable thinkers for over three millennia, almost nothing of their originality has reached us intact. The reason for this is simple. The Western world guarded against foreign knowledge with an old language trick: Translation. This has to stop.
My Language, Your Prison
If a ‘world without translation’ seems a bold proposal, think about how mystics and saints once frowned upon the coming of the secular order.
It may be surprising to learn that first, in science, a ‘translation’ is a transformation – one thing changes into another, and second a computer never translates. Only human beings mistake, say, a verse from the English Bible as the words of Jesus Christ. That’s of course impossible. Jesus spoke Aramaic (some say Hebrew), certainly not English.
Translation distorts Cultural Reality
The discovery that a translation is always different from the original is a small but significant revolution. In the past when people saw a word and its translation they obviously noticed the difference in form and shape. In order to explain this irritation away, philosophers invented a ghost: the ghost of “meaning.” For the sake of this metaphor, let us call meaning “sauce” – as in ketchup sauce.
Historians would then go around and construe something like “those two words have the same sauce” or “this has a different sauce.” Mysterious as this sounds, people still believe in this invisible, magical dominion called “meaning,” and they still build all the humanities on it.
Philosophers are a Syndicate
Translation is a shameful secret. When it becomes a nation state’s strategy, it turns into ruthless theft of cultural property. Plato and his school of “philosophers” simply branded all organized thought as “philosophy,” which then was sponsored by Christianity and has now become the world’s greatest syndicate. Even today China, India, Iran (former Persia) and Japan, are expected to award “PhD degrees” – doctors of philosophy – even if what their people studied had nothing to do with it.
Entire branches of humanity are disowned of their intellectual genius this way, yet historians still don’t want to talk about it. Yes, some Chinese key terms escaped the translational onslaught; words like dao, kungfu, yin and yang, or even dim sum – that Cantonese “steamed food.” But that is just a tiny fraction of the tens of thousands of terminologies, words like wenming, shengren, and tianxia, which are still out there, buried in the Chinese text, beneath all-too-convenient Western translations.
The first European missionaries wanted to christianize China and saw a biblical “messiah” in Kong Zi. Hence rujia – this is the real name of China’s tradition – was re-named into “Confucianism,” following the same logic that made Christ personify our “Christianity.” The truth is that Master Kong was just one of many thinkers; yet the Europeans got their way.
Linguists can now reconstruct translation history and trace vocabularies like scientists trace migration. Yes, languages do morph, dialects emerge, terms are created, letters change, and two words never have identical fingerprints. But there is no “meaning” in words. Definitions may help us to distinguish between two concepts, but they are just this: more words.
A World without Chinese?
Dictionaries are man-made. They were often believed to be the word of God, while foreign languages were simply “confused.” European people, to this day, swear they are able express all human thought with just one set of vocabularies – theirs. Everyone who studied a foreign language knows that this is not true; yet we prefer to keep silent, often for fear of being accused of culture treason.
In the past, the world witnessed unprecedented historical hubris. For example, any German philosopher (like Leibniz, Kant, or Hegel) could explain what the Chinese thought without ever having visited China or knowing a single Chinese terminology. This was good enough for the 17th – 20th centuries.
Today we know better. Cultures have a purpose; one of their main tasks is to differentiate themselves from each other, and we need to give all cultures credit for what they spent their time on and what they’ve created. And the evidence for what cultures created is in their linguistic “fossils” – their vocabularies.
The Future of Global Language
No archaeologist would dare to falsify or displace a fossil finding, or obscure its existence, just because it threatens his prerogative. But in the humanities this is the rule. The discovery of a Chinese corpus of knowledge that wasn’t there if China never existed – that makes any non-Chinese look what? – Limited, constrained, ignorant at best?
That’s why our scientists – the impartial – taxonomized the entire animal and plant kingdom, and the material world, while no such thing crossed the minds of our humanists – the scheming. As a result, we live in a crazy world where the general Western public cannot distinguish between, say, an ulama, a junzi, a heshang, a guru, and a rabbi. To them, it’s all a ” priest.”
We don’t need to memorize all languages [computers can], but we must pay attention to foreign key terminologies that are untranslatable and promote them into the future global language. We must end translation.
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