Ancient Chinese mottos

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From Diana Shuheng Zhang:

Jūnzǐ yǒu jiǔ dé 君子有九德:A lordling has nine essential properties:

kuān ér lì 寬而栗,tolerant but tough,
róu ér lì 柔而立,flexible but upright,
yuàn ér gōng, 願而恭,ambitious but humble,
luàn ér jìng 亂而敬,rebellious but respectful,
rǎo ér yì 擾而毅,adaptive but resolute,
zhí ér wēn 直而溫,candid but considerate;
jiǎn ér lián 簡而廉,simple and incorruptible,
gāng ér 剛而塞,unbending and honest,
qiáng ér yì 強而義。strong and principled.

—— from the chapter of the Book of Documents, "Gaoyao's Strategy" 《尚書·皋陶謨》 (the chapter was composed ca. 700 BCE, according to Early Chinese Texts (1993), Michael Loewe, ed., 376-389 [by Edward L. Shaughnessy])

These terse apothegms, although they seem smoothly flowing in Diana's English translations, are written in archaic Sinitic.  Almost every line has usages that are recondite, e.g., lì 栗 in the first line, which modern readers would think of as meaning "chestnut", but Diana renders as "tough".  In other words, these are not your standard, facile translations where modern definitions of the characters are copied out of dictionaries of Mandarin and jotted down one after the other to fill out the lines.  To do this kind of high level translation requires hard work going through old annotations and commentaries.  To make the English felicitous demands inspired creativity and a high level of Sprachgefühl.






  1. NSBK said,

    April 5, 2020 @ 1:50 pm

    For the sake of morbid curiosity, I plugged the text (characters only) into Google Translate:

    [parsed pinyin]
    Kuān érlì,
    róu ér lì,
    yuàn ér gōng,
    luàn ér jìng,
    rǎo ér yì,
    zhí ér wēn,
    jiǎn ér lián,
    gāng ér sāi,
    qiáng ér yì.

    [translation to English]
    Wide chestnut,
    Standing softly,
    Wish and respect,
    Disturbed and determined,
    Straight and warm,
    Simple and cheap,
    Just plugged in,
    Strong and righteous.

    I don't really know what I expected, but that's what I got.

  2. Victor Mair said,

    April 5, 2020 @ 9:22 pm

    Ah, the spreading chestnut, simple and cheap, standing softly, straight and warm, just plugged in….

  3. Tim Zee said,

    April 6, 2020 @ 3:42 am

    When mixing and matching, one can come up with interesting combinations.

    亂而毅, rendered as chaotic and determined by Google Translate, might be an appropriate motto for certain heads of government.

  4. Terpomo said,

    April 7, 2020 @ 12:02 am

    Since I feel it's unfair to challenge an auto-translator with a language other than the one it was trained for, I decided to feed it into Baidu's Wenyan-to-English but subsequently became distracted upon the discovery that Baidu now supports 200 languages, most of them badly. (Check out some of the gibberish it makes of Old English for a laugh!) But having had my chortles, I decided to give it a shot:

    A gentleman has nine virtues
    Wide and shudder
    Soft and established
    Willing and respectful
    Chaos and reverence
    Harassment and perseverance
    Direct and warm
    Simple and cheap
    Strong and blocked
    Powerful and righteous

    …yeah, not really much better. I get the same result if I go Wenyan->Mandarin->English, implying it's working by way of Mandarin (which makes sense, there's a lot more Wenyan-Mandarin bilingual data than Wenyan-English.)

  5. Victor Mair said,

    April 7, 2020 @ 7:50 am

    I doubt that anyone will ever be able to create a workable machine translator for Literary Sinitic / Classical Chinese / Wenyan because:

    1. it is highly elliptic

    2. it is densely allusive

    3. it depends upon layers of commentarial tradition for explication and understanding

    4. it possesses aspects of a code or cipher known only to a select group of initiates / cognoscenti

    5. it is a book language, not meant for oral conversation / dialog

    and so forth.

  6. Victor Mair said,

    April 7, 2020 @ 8:06 am

    William Hung (Hóng Yè 洪業), the editor of the renowned Harvard-Yenching Institute Sinological Index Series, formerly professor and dean at Yenching University in Peking during the 1920s, told me in the 70s that he was proud there was only one other person in the world who could understand his preface to the Zuo zhuan / Tso chuan (The Zuo Tradition or The Commentary of Zuo).

    Talk about esotericism!

  7. tom davidson said,

    April 7, 2020 @ 9:30 am

    In my 书经 class at Taiwan Normal University's graduate school of Chinese literature, back in the early 1970s, the professor used the term "gentleman" for 君子.This is the first time I've seen "lordling" as a translation for 君子. Is "lordling" even a word?

  8. Terpomo said,

    April 8, 2020 @ 3:41 am

    Tom, according to Wiktionary, 'lordling' is a word, but it means 'an unimportant or petty lord' or 'a young lord'. Personally I also like 'gentleman' as a translation.

  9. nbl said,

    April 10, 2020 @ 6:13 am

    Just putting Legge's translation here for comparison

    Affability combined with dignity;
    mildness combined with firmness;
    bluntness combined with respectfulness;
    aptness for government combined with reverent caution;
    docility combined with boldness;
    straightforwardness combined with gentleness;
    an easy negligence combined with discrimination;
    boldness combined with sincerity; and
    valour combined with righteousness

  10. Philip Taylor said,

    April 11, 2020 @ 1:14 pm

    I too would favour "gentleman" over "lordling" but wonder whether the concep of a gentleman (in the British English sense of the word) existed circa 700 BC, or at least existed in the sense that anyone other than a lord[?ling?] might be said to possess such a quality …

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