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Saturday, May 12, 2007

The Language / Cultural Barrier

Here's one way to understand why most translations of the Tao Te Ching have so many distortions. It's one manifestation of a particular aspect of human nature.

Let's suppose you move to China and immerse yourself in the language and the culture. You assimilate completely and function in that society like any other Chinese person. You still retain your mastery of English, so it is natural and easy for you to turn your hand to translation.

Soon you realize that Chinese people regard the West through an aura of mystery. The language and cultural barrier means they sometimes misunderstand English words and Western thinking. You do the best you can to set the record straight whenever it is appropriate for you to do so.

One day you hear a Chinese motivational speaker give a speech. To make his point he uses the English word "steadfast" as a business principle. He tells the audience that the word is composed of "stead" and "fast", therefore being steadfast in business means you have to be resolute and steady in keeping to your mission statement, while also maintaining your ability to respond quickly to changing market conditions.

The audience loves it. They soak it right up. After the speech, they chat excitedly among themselves about this great insight from Western traditions, embedded in the very language itself.

You are not as excited, because you know that the "fast" in "steadfast" does not mean quickness. It means being still or unmoving, as in "fastener" or "hold fast." "Stead" of course has the context of "steady," "homestead," etc. So, combining the two together for emphasis, "steadfast" is ONLY about being firm and unwavering. It is not about some ancient teaching of a paradoxical wisdom. It's just a simple word with a fairly simple meaning.

You raise this issue and tell your Chinese friends that the speaker is seeing more than is actually there, or just plain making stuff up, but they don't want to let go of this exciting insight, so they resist. "Do you deny that 'fast' can also mean quickness? No? Alright, there you go. You have just answered your own question."

Overcome with frustration, you throw yourself off a cliff.

Okay, just kidding about that last part. But you see how the process works. It's a rather human trait, so we all make a mountain out of a mole hill sometimes. This is what causes many Westerners to believe that the Chinese word for "crisis" means "danger" and "opportunity" - it's the exact same type of misunderstanding.