False Quotations and Fake Translations

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As a Sinologist, one thing that really annoys me is when someone sanctimoniously invokes phony Orientalism to embellish their speech or writing.  One egregious example is that the Chinese "character / symbol" for "crisis" is made up of "danger" plus "opportunity."

Several days ago, Frank Chance sent me the following note:

Lao Zi Quote:

Hmmm…this doesn't seem to correspond with any part of the Laozi I know…not that it matters.

Labelling it "Lao Zi Apocrypha," I sent the card around to some friends and colleagues.

Under the heading "Identification of the Logion," Russell Kirkland replied as follows:

With my decades of experience reading (albeit detesting) what I call in print the "pseudo-translations of fatuous dilettantes" (or some such phrase), I can decipher the words in this Hallmark card (or whatever) as someone's Romanticized Americanized colonialization of lines from DDJ [VHM:  Daode jing / Tao Te Ching] chapter 67, which I translate, more accurately, thus:

I constantly have three treasures:
Hold onto them and treasure them.
The first is called "compassion" (zi).
The second is called "restraint."[1]
The third is "not daring to be at the forefront of the world."
Now being compassionate, one can be courageous.
Being restrained, one can be expansive.
Not daring to be at the forefront of the world, one can be the leader of the things that are com­pleted.[2]

[1] Apparently based on [VHM:  the early commentator] Wang Bi's comment, virtually all translators render jian here as "frugali­ty," which makes little sense:  it is hard to think of other passages that commend any behav­ior in eco­nom­ic terms, or of a sensible explanation of such a commenda­tion.  According to Karlgren (Grammata Serica Recensa #613e), jian carried the original mean­ing of "re­strict" or "restricted," and in this passage such a usage can be readily explained.  It seems intriguing that the term ap­pears nowhere else in the text.

[2] This passage is not in the Guodian materials [VHM:  earliest manuscript finds for this text].  For the final line, I follow the Mawangdui texts, which have a wei before cheng, indicating that cheng is not a verb ("to become"), but rather a modifier of qi.  Most translators insist on reading a politi­cal reference into this line, for no good reason that I can surmise, save that traditional commenta­tors liked to find such references.  We must remember that such commentators were from a tradition that could not read early Zhou folk songs without interpreting them as advice for the ruler.

PS:  The translation and analysis above is from my chapter, "Self-Fulfillment through Selflessness:  The Moral Teachings of the Daode jing," in Michael Barnhart, ed., Varieties of Ethical Reflection: New Directions for Ethics in a Global Context  (New York: Lexington Books [Rowman and Littlefield], 2002), 21-48.

And a moment later, after I asked Russ whether I could share his comments with others, he added:

I would be glad for you to do so.  Of course, there is nothing in the text that could even remotely be construed as meaning "loving others deeply" AND "being loved by others deeply":  there's only one term, so it can only mean one or the other–not both!  And there's nothing that can be construed as a reference to "strength"–much less strength that results from others' feelings about us.  In other words, its the kind of nonsense that one finds in the old "Buddha's Little Instruction Book" — self-indulgent American "Liberal" (e.g., Emersonian) touchy-feelyism, fraudulently marketed as teachings of a person from another land in the distant past.

Hey, I don't care if Ursula LeGuin wants to pass along to her readers her ideals for how they should live their lives and be happier.  It's (still, for a little while, at least) a free country.  But for her to publish "a translation" of a work that is written in a language that she cannot read — in order to propagate her ideals and values, while giving the impression that those ideals and values are in fact those of "Lao Tzu" is, necessarily, a fraud — like the new "Second Book of Tao" by Stephen Mitchell — another dilettante who cannot read a word of Chinese, and in 1989 told the New York Times that he was qualified to "translate" the DDJ because he had taken Zen lessons!

Then, just yesterday on the train home to Swarthmore, as I was reading an extremely long article by Janet Malcolm entitled "Iphigenia in Forest Hills" in the New Yorker, another ersatz quotation from a Chinese sage caught my eye.  In section / chapter 19, p. 61a, in pronouncing his decision, a judge is quoted as follows:

Miss Borukhova, you set out on a journey of revenge because a judge had the temerity to give the custody of your daughter to your estranged husband.  Another quote, Confucius this time, said:  "A person who sets out on a path of revenge should first dig two graves."

Right away, my pseudo-Orientalism-detection antennae started to twitch and tingle.  Curious to see where Judge Hanophy may have dug up his gem, I came upon this dubious collection of Confucius quotations. I dare say that most of these were just made up out of thin air — figments of somebody's imagination.  They remind me of the only Confucius quotation I knew before I went to college, taught to me by my brother Dave when I was six years old:  "Confucius say [sic]:  'He who cooks carrots and peas in the same pot is unsanitary.'"

Under the heading "Pseudo-Confucius," I sent the "two graves" quotation around to several correspondents.  June Teufel Dreyer replied at once:  "I heard that very quote a couple of days ago, on a TV program about FBI profilers called Criminal Minds."  Woe is us!  It looks as though this one is going viral and will soon be infecting the public consciousness the same way "crisis = danger + opportunity" has for decades.

As an afterthought, June opined, "Actually, I must admit I rather liked the quote, whoever said it.  Perhaps the person responsible for creating the little strips of paper inserted into fortune cookies."

Finally, just before I posted this, Russ Kirkland weighed in again with the following:

I'd bet that most of what 20th-century Anglophones learned as "Confucius say" were actually from Hollywood scriptwriters doing Charlie Chan movies.

But thanks for that page!  By typing "Lao" (sic) into the search box, I came to a page of "Lao-tzu sayings."  Some are real quotes, but others are like this:

Seek not happiness too greedily, and be not fearful of happiness.
Lao-tzu (604 BC – 531 BC)

Not only can I think of no lines in the text than can be read that way; but I cannot think of any context in which "Lao-tzu" — or any of his "brothers in Asian wisdom" — might have said "be not fearful of happiness"!!  First, only an American would have uttered such words!  Secondly, I cannot think of any Asian thinker who would even, conceivably, agree that "it's good to try to be 'happy'."  To seek an emotional state that gives pleasure to the person feeling it is not only absent from Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, and Hinduism (etc.), but they all denounce such foolishness, on the same terms.  Frankly, if Emerson tried to sit at the Round Table of the League of Extraordinary Asian Gentlemen (to mix my Hollywood metaphors ;-) ), they would laugh him out of the room….  Well, actually not:  none of them would laugh at anyone, in public.

In one of my next posts, I shall write about a kind of translation that falls somewhere between true and false.


  1. Sili said,

    April 30, 2010 @ 6:27 pm

    Perhaps the person responsible for creating the little strips of paper inserted into fortune cookies.

    Help! I'm trapped in a blogpost comment factory!

    "Confucius say [sic]: 'He who cooks carrots and peas in the same pot is unsanitary.'"

    This does seem to be the standard form of most of us's knowledge of Confucius.

  2. Stan said,

    April 30, 2010 @ 6:30 pm

    Some of those pseudo-Orientalisms remind me of The Sphinx's too-tidy aphorisms in Mystery Men, which a YouTube user has collected here.

  3. Confucius said,

    April 30, 2010 @ 7:18 pm

    Man who run in front of bus get tired.

    Man who run behind bus get exhausted.

  4. Rubrick said,

    April 30, 2010 @ 7:24 pm

    I believe it was Confucius who said "True wisdom attributed falsely is worse than false wisdom attributed truly." Or maybe that was Benjamin Franklin. Or Mark Twain. Or H.L. Mencken….

  5. bulbul said,

    April 30, 2010 @ 7:32 pm

    The quotation about revenge and two graves crops up all over the place – the game Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, IIRC, features it among quotes relating to warfare and death.
    And somewhat OT: the pseudo-Orientalism reminds me of two things. First, all the fake Rubā'iyyāt ascribed to Omar Khayyam (and "a kind of translation that falls somewhere between true and false" sounds particularly fitting here, considering Fitzgerald's translation). Second, the fake Qur'ān quotes that now and then appear in writings of various 'experts' on the conflict of civilizations, like (paraphrasing) "he who hasn't taken part in war/jihad is not a true Muslim." Except these tend to be of the same type, attempting to prove the alleged warlike nature of islam. Some of those quotes turn out to be ahādīṯ (sometimes reliable, sometimes not), others are just made up.

  6. bulbul said,

    April 30, 2010 @ 7:32 pm


    when in doubt, go with Churchill or Wilde.

  7. JS Bangs said,

    April 30, 2010 @ 8:18 pm

    Whence the reference to LeGuin in the middle of the post? Is the pseudo-quote from her translation of the Tao Te Ching, or was he just sniping?

  8. Daev said,

    April 30, 2010 @ 9:52 pm

    That misquote does not come from Ursula Le Guin's "Tao Te Ching," so I don't know why the cranky slap at her in the middle of your article.

    Le Guin repeatedly makes it clear in her book that she is not writing a translation of the TTC. She calls it merely a "version" and that is the word used on the cover. She also calls it a "rendition," which may lead Russ Kirkland to make a few Gitmo references.

  9. Faldone said,

    April 30, 2010 @ 10:21 pm

    Rubrick, bulbul.

    Or Yogi Berra.

  10. Karl Weber said,

    April 30, 2010 @ 10:39 pm

    MAD magazine used to print pseudo-Confucian sayings in its margins back in the early sixties. One that has stuck with me: "Man who falls through screen door likely to strain himself."

  11. John Cowan said,

    April 30, 2010 @ 10:50 pm

    Alas, Mr. Kirkland is sniping. Le Guin is very careful not to call The Way And Its Power a translation: the word "version" rather than "translation" appears in the title page, and her back matter begins "This is a rendition, not a translation. I do not know any Chinese." Comparing her with the egregious Mr. Mitchell is profoundly unjust.

    Here's Le Guin's version of the above passage:

    I have three treasures.
    I keep and treasure them.
    The first, mercy,
    the second, moderation,
    the third, modesty.
    If you're merciful you can be brave,
    if you're moderate you can be generous,
    and if you don't presume to lead,
    you can lead the high and mighty.

    Note that Le Guin in fact agrees with Kirkland about the second treasure.

    Here's Mitchell:

    I have just three things to teach:
    simplicity, patience, compassion.
    These three are your greatest treasures.
    Simple in actions and in thoughts,
    you return to the source of being.
    Patient with both friends and enemies,
    you accord with the way things are.
    Compassionate toward yourself,
    you reconcile all beings in the world.

    And here's my own version, to provide a trio of fatuous dilettantes who don't know any Chinese:

    I have three treasures: preserve and protect them.
       The first is called "love",
       the second is called "moderation",
       the third is called "not daring to have invented it all first".

    Love, I say, can be brave;
    moderation, I say, can be generous;
    not daring to have invented it all first
       can develop high-quality tools.

  12. Joshua said,

    April 30, 2010 @ 11:01 pm

    I don't even see how the greeting card quote comes close to DDJ chapter 67. It's so different, particularly in structure (the greeting card shows no evidence of "three" of anything), that I can't find any similarity at all.

  13. Jens Fiederer said,

    May 1, 2010 @ 9:35 am

    All my illusions are being shattered. I suppose next we'll be told "He who goes to sleep with itchy bum, wake up with stinky fingers" is NOT an "old Chinese custom"!

  14. Ray Girvan said,

    May 1, 2010 @ 9:41 am

    And, of course, there's "May you live in interesting times".

  15. Kutsuwamushi said,

    May 1, 2010 @ 11:05 am

    The quotation about revenge and two graves crops up all over the place – the game Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, IIRC, features it among quotes relating to warfare and death.

    It also appears in (and might even be the inspiration for) a popular anime called Jigoku Shoujo. And I want to say that I've seen it in other Japanese media before, but I can't recall specific titles.

    It makes me wonder if it's a misattribution of a real quote or folk saying, because it's been around for at least a little while, and not only in English.

  16. David Eddyshaw said,

    May 1, 2010 @ 11:27 am

    Possibly my all time favourite misattribution is, in a published medical journal, of

    "Thou shalt not kill, yet needst not strive
    Officiously to keep alive."

    to Sir William Osler, a genuinely great guru of modern medicine.
    The lines are correctly ascribed to Clough on the BBC site about euthanasia


    but clearly by someone who has never read the (enjoyable) poem from which they come, something they share with practically everyone who ever quotes this.


  17. Dierk said,

    May 1, 2010 @ 11:41 am

    The two graves wisdom goes back at least to the early 1970s – crops up in every Shaw Brothers Peking Opera Kung Fu nonsense. Haven't a Kill Bill copy on me but I remember Tarantino using it for that very reason.

  18. mollymooly said,

    May 1, 2010 @ 12:12 pm

    My contribution to the Annals of Mistranslated Wisdom is the Irish Blessing "May the road rise up to meet you". (Go n-éirí an bóthar leat.) The earliest use I've found is as a curse (1902: "may the road rise wid him and shtrike him in the heels") but in either case it's a schoolboy howler.

  19. David Eddyshaw said,

    May 1, 2010 @ 12:24 pm


    Thanks for that. Quite apart from the "Desiderata"-style annoyingness of "May the road rise up to meet you" it's always struck me as being exactly what you *don't* want to happen to you,and pretty perplexing for a supposed blessing.

  20. bulbul said,

    May 1, 2010 @ 3:03 pm


    are you sure you are not referring to the other revenge quote – "revenge is a dish best serve cold" (which I know as Russian proverb, but Tarantino cites specifically as a Klingon one)? I can't recall the two graves bit from the movie and the search of the script yields zip.

  21. Sean said,

    May 1, 2010 @ 10:28 pm

    I like the sense of actual significance in Mr. Kirkland's translation.

    In my most blustery opinion, those trite "memes" that would be used as a substitute for actual, meaningful statements, those cliches painted up as "meaningful" are only capable of damaging people's impressions of literature. I suppose it may be noticeable that I feel a distinct sense of emotion, about that.

    May I be so bold as to propose: I would like to believe that the Dadaists may have been among the first people to revolt about such an abuse of language. I cannot deny, though, that I feel that my view is somehow naive, in that.

  22. MIchael C. Dunn said,

    May 1, 2010 @ 11:02 pm

    Rubrick said,

    April 30, 2010 @ 7:24 pm

    I believe it was Confucius who said "True wisdom attributed falsely is worse than false wisdom attributed truly." Or maybe that was Benjamin Franklin. Or Mark Twain. Or H.L. Mencken….

    I thought it was either George Bernard Shaw or Winston Churchill.

  23. Kong Zi said,

    May 1, 2010 @ 11:29 pm

    Man who stands on toilet is high on pot.
    Man who stands on Grand Canyon is high on crack.

    (Say with a pseudo-Chinese accent [much like that English woman with the weird accent] for best effect.)

  24. Janet said,

    May 1, 2010 @ 11:41 pm

    That two graves quote is used in the James Bond movie "For Your Eyes Only." Oh why do I remember these things.

  25. Janet said,

    May 2, 2010 @ 12:20 am

    To make up for my embarrassing knowledge of James Bond quotes, I had a look on google books. The earliest instance of a version of that 2 graves quote is "If you call down a curse on any one, look out for two graves." described as a Japanese proverb in <a href="http://books.google.com/books?id=Ld_BNvbt3MgC&dq=curse%20%22two%20graves%22&lr&as_drrb_is=b&as_minm_is=0&as_miny_is&as_maxm_is=0&as_maxy_is=1876&as_brr=0&pg=PA511#v=onepage&q=curse%20%22two%20graves%22&f=false"The Mikado's Empire. William Elliot Griffis. 1876

    And here it is as "Curse a man, and there will be two graves" (with Japanese) in Basil Hall Chamberlain. <a href="http://books.google.com/books?id=q5JEAAAAIAAJ&dq=curse%20%22two%20graves%22&lr&as_drrb_is=b&as_minm_is=0&as_miny_is&as_maxm_is=0&as_maxy_is=1890&as_brr=0&pg=PA321#v=onepage&q=curse%20%22two%20graves%22&f=false"A Handbook of Colloquial Japanese. 1889

  26. Ben Hemmens said,

    May 2, 2010 @ 5:34 am

    Go n-eirí an bóthar leat. For anyone who doesn't get it, the "eirí – leat" bit is just the usual Irish phrase for something succeeding. But the eirí on its own means rising.

    Confucius in Dublin: he who go to bed with itchy hole, wake up with smelly finger.

  27. Nick said,

    May 2, 2010 @ 3:52 pm

    @ bulbul

    Khan cites it as a Klington proverb. Tarantino is alluding to Star Trek 2.

    The card seems more like a complete mangling of this Tao Te Ching quote (33):

    To know people is wisdom,
    but to know yourself is enlightenment.

    To master people takes force,
    but to master yourself takes strength.
    (from Hinton's translation)

    Not sure how the card got to what it currently says.

  28. David Eddyshaw said,

    May 2, 2010 @ 6:44 pm

    The "two-graves" thing is indeed a Japanese proverb:



    gets 6010 hits, while the classical variant, (hito o norowaba ana futatsu), presumably the original,


    gets a whole 47400.

    Can't find any attribution to Confucius, mind …

  29. Michael said,

    May 3, 2010 @ 10:50 am

    Bulbul – how about "those who believed… and fought in the path of Allah — they have the hope of the mercy of Allah"?

  30. Rodger C said,

    May 3, 2010 @ 11:06 am

    As my mother used to say, "Fu Manchu, but many man smoke."

  31. Andrew said,

    May 3, 2010 @ 12:23 pm

    Can someone confirm or deny the source of this quote?

    "All temporal or human authority proceeds directly from spiritual or divine authority. But authority is the negation of liberty. God, or rather the fiction of God, is thus the sanction and the intellectual and moral cause of all the slavery on earth, and the liberty of men will not be complete, unless it will have completely annihilated the inauspicious fiction of a heavenly master."

    -Justin Bieber

  32. Ken Grabach said,

    May 3, 2010 @ 2:04 pm

    A very attractive song has been composed using "May the road rise to meet you…" as the text. Glee clubs and other male choruses use it frequently. For what it is worth, I would far rather have the road rise to meet me than to fall away from my feet. Both are uncomfortable, and as a cyclist I have had road rash where the former has occurred. But the latter is positively frightening.

  33. A said,

    May 3, 2010 @ 3:20 pm

    Yay! No more all-caps pinyin!

  34. quodlibet said,

    May 3, 2010 @ 4:49 pm

    Don't deliberate misattributions to Confucius go back at least as far as Zhuāngzǐ?

  35. Proofreader said,

    May 3, 2010 @ 6:48 pm

    trying to read that blue type makes my eyes water. Isn't there any better way to differentiate subterxt from cmmentary?

  36. exackerly said,

    May 3, 2010 @ 7:56 pm

    Actually it's: never cook carrot and pea in the same pot.

    If you pluralize pea, the pun disappears. It's from a line of "dirty" fortune cookies that was hot stuff in the 70's.

  37. Aaron Davies said,

    May 3, 2010 @ 11:19 pm

    @exackerly: the other pun involves conjugation and structural ambiguity–the equivocation is between "he who cooks (carrots and peas) in the same pot" and "he who (cooks carrots) and (pees in the same pot)".

  38. Aaron Davies said,

    May 3, 2010 @ 11:19 pm

    @mollymooly, &c.: Da Vinci's Notebook have a mock Irish drinking song containing the lines

    Me drunken uncle BrendanTried to drive home from the barThe road rose up to meet himWhen he fell out of his car

  39. Aaron Davies said,

    May 3, 2010 @ 11:20 pm

    and…it's the return of the revenge of the son of the incredibly awful wordpress installation! what i get for showing off by using BR tags instead of simple slashes…

  40. Aspen Swartz said,

    May 5, 2010 @ 6:00 pm

    It's interesting to me, the urge to attribute parables to someone else. I mean, if "A person who sets out on a path of revenge should first dig two graves." is a Japanese proverb, why does someone need to say so? It seems akin to saying "as the old saying goes, a stitch in time saves nine". Why not just say "a stitch in time saves nine"? Appeal to authority? I have this impulse myself, but I'm not sure where it comes from- maybe a reluctance to simply assert something- a desire to back it up, however flimsy.
    Or perhaps it's discomfort at inserting language that's too figurative or flowery into my speech, which is otherwise kind of colorless.
    My working-class co-workers are much more comfortable than I am with this kind of quotation/ figurative/ colorful speech. They'll say "fine as frog hair!" when I ask how they're doing. I'm not as comfortable saying that myself, though I admire it.

  41. John Emerson said,

    May 6, 2010 @ 12:09 pm

    [Reposted from a friend's Facebook page]

    There are scholarly readings of the TTC, Taoist scriptural readings of the TTC, and hippie / New Age scriptural readings of the TTC. The English language versions have a life of their own. Once you make a scripture out of something, you have to misinterpret it. (One of the early scriptural commentaries, Heshang Gong's I think, says that wuwei means "not eating the five grains".)

    Kirkland and almost every daologist today is firmly opposed to Laozhuang interpretations of the TTC, for no valid reason that I'm aware of. Kirkland has, in fact, hypothesized ("not for attribution") that LT himself was the first one to produce fake Taoism by adulterating true religious Taoism with political concerns. I accept that interpretation, and the Taoism I'm interested in is Lao Tzu's, not the religious Taoism upon which he drew.

    Doing textual commentary on other people's scripture is always tricky.

  42. marc said,

    May 6, 2010 @ 2:55 pm

    I beg to differ about the "crisis" thing. While it is indeed etymologically something like "dangerous moment," it can be and sometimes is interpreted even by Chinese and Japanese people today as "danger+opportunity" simply because it looks kind of like 危険 and 機会 mashed into one. What's important is the context. It's a motivational tool for business managers. Pointing out the error to Chinese (or Japanese) specialists who should know better is fine, but pointing it out to a roomful of regional sales managers would seem a bit pedantic.

    Here's an example of a Japanese person saying that 危機 is 危険+機会:


  43. John Emerson said,

    May 6, 2010 @ 3:15 pm

    "It's a motivational tool for business managers."

    Sounds like backward contamination from American management handbooks.

    The character-splitting fallacy is not unique to occidental orientalists, it's an indigenous parlor game too. It came to the English speaking world indirectly from Japan via Fenellosa, Ezra Pound, Amy Lowell, and others.

  44. Maureen said,

    May 7, 2010 @ 1:36 pm

    Re: being loved by someone

    I suspect "restraint" is being translated as "being hugged".

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