At an international conference on "Sinologists as Translators in the 17th-19th Centuries: Archives and Context" organized by the Department of the Languages and Cultures of China and Inner Asia of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and the Research Centre for Translation Studies of the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), held at SOAS from June 19-21, 2013, Wolfgang Behr (Zürich University) delivered a paper entitled "Kingsmill's Shijing Translations into Sanskrit and the Very Idea of 'Congenial Languages'".
Here's the abstract:
In J.D. Salinger's famous American college novel Franny and Zooey (1957), Franny is "talking to a rather pompous Orientalist" at her unnamed ivy league college and tells him, truthfully as it turns out, she has "a little brother who once got over an unhappy love affair by trying to translate the Mundaka Upanishad into classical Greek", wherepon he laughs, "uproariously — you know the way Orientalists laugh". Although we know little about the emotional life of T.W. Kingsmill (a.k.a., Jin Simi 金斯密, 1837-1910), British pioneer geologist, indefatigable NCBRAS [North China Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society] architect, prolific amateur sinologist, Daodejing translator and long term Shanghai resident, we have a few specimens of his efforts in the reverse direction, i.e., translations from the Shijing 詩經 into (pseudo-) Classical Sanskrit. My talk will look at the historical background of these curious excrescences of learned late 19th century sinology in a semi-colonial context, but also at the rhetorical and epistemological topos, quite widespread even today, that some languages are more "suitable" than others to translate Old Chinese poetry.
I have not read Wolfgang's paper, so I don't know whether he critiques the "very idea" that Sanskrit and Chinese might be congenial languages, which Kingsmill seems to have entertained. From my own experience, I would say that Chinese is not a particularly suitable language for translating Sanskrit. In so many respects, these two languages could hardly be more different: one is highly inflected and the other is isolating; there are no cognates; their grammar and syntax are quite dissimilar; their phonologies are contrasting; their morphologies disparate; their literary images and allusions are based upon diverse traditions and practices; Chinese translators of Sanskrit texts often make errors that are clearly the result of not understanding the original (there have been impressive studies of this phenomenon [e.g., John Brough's "The Chinese pseudo-translation of Arya-sura's Jataka-mala", Asia Major, vol. 11, no. 1 (1964)]); and so forth.
Indeed, whether Kingsmill actually felt that way or not, I find quite bizarre the idea / contention that Sanskrit is a "congenial" language into which Classical Chinese could be translated, or vice versa. I asked a number of colleagues for their opinion. Here are comments from various scholars about the proposition that Chinese is particularly suitable for the translation of Sanskrit texts:
Very strange, indeed.
A Buddhologist who knows Sanskrit, Tibetan, Chinese, Japanese, and other Asian languages:
Yes, bizarre indeed (I can hardly imagine a *less* congenial language for this purpose!).
Perhaps the author cannot either, but will just report on what some have said (let's hope so). His expression "curious excrescences" certainly does seem apt!
A Chinese historical phonologist:
I find it quite bizarre too. But then, you are the expert; I am not. William S.Y. Wang and I once tried to discuss his theory of lexical diffusion in Shanghainese; we are both native speakers of Shanghainese and we just opined that we should be able to talk about an interesting theory in any language known to us. But after about 5 minutes we gave up and we returned to English. There is also the story as told by Y. R. Chao. He went to Sweden to talk to Bernhard Karlgren and found that his spoken Mandarin was quite good, with a slight Shanxi accent. But when the topic turned to phonetics and phonology (which was the purpose of Chao's visit) Karlgren said, let us speak in English; it is easier for me. It was on this trip that Y.R. Chao first broached the subject of translating Karlgren's Etudes into Chinese.
A Buddhologist who is equally at home in Chinese, Sanskrit, and Tibetan:
There is a dialogue in translation studies about whether cognate languages are in fact more natural partners for translation than non-cognate languages, since the very organic overlap between the former creates a false sense of familiarity. So German to English for example would share many cognates (most in fact) but also generate higher expectations for exactness, blurring important differences of nuance. Sanskrit and Chinese on the other hand are completely unrelated and therefore require a more direct/authentic exegetical semantic transfer than languages that lean on their shared semantic fields. At least that's one school of thought.
A historical linguist specializing in Chinese:
I don't know about such translations. I cannot imagine that translating Greek into Chinese would be any more difficult or congenial than Skt to Chinese and vice versa. However, I believe that there is some truth to the idea that some languages translate easier into some than into others. I noticed that translating English literally into German (and vice versa) does not work, producing nonsense, at best many (crucial) points and nuances are lost. However, I noticed that one can translate French literally into German, and the outcome is not only a completely correct but also completely idiomatic German. English and German are genetically closely related, while German and French are not; yet French had a profound influence on upper-class (and standard) German because the upper class was largely bilingual German-French from the 17th century up to WW I and beyond. Not having read Behr's paper, I suspect a key to such congeniality is the identity or frequent similarity of metaphors and images. E.g., in English, German and (classical) Chinese 'to come out' (as out of a house) is also used metaphorically for a subject that is 'coming out' nicely in a painting — I guess all languages have some overlap.
A Chinese historical phonologist:
"Congenial" enough if you don't know much about either, I suppose.
I would love to read Wolfgang's paper and Kingsmill's original thoughts on the matter of the congeniality of languages, but after nearly half a century of dealing with both of these difficult languages on an almost daily basis, the "very idea" that they are somehow "congenial" to each other seems terribly misguided to me.
[h.t. Qian Liu]