Are Sanskrit and Chinese "congenial languages"?

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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:

A Sanskritist:

An intriguing proposition, about the existence of "congenial" languages, but it seems like a wholly impressionistic enterprise.  It is true that the Vibhasha literature of the Abhidharma tradition was translated into Chinese from Sanskrit (and then translated back) and I suppose there is something to these two ancient Asian languages as having closer, more "congenial" affinities to each other than other languages, but how would one go about establishing a proposition like this?

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]


  1. Jayarava said,

    September 9, 2013 @ 11:03 am

    I work in both Indic (Pāli and Sanskrit) and Chinese to some extent. Something you don't seem to mention is cultural assumptions. Early Buddhist Indic terms were often translated with terms from Daoism thus completely obscuring the meaning of the Indic/Buddhist term. Translations choices are not simply based on language. English translations suffer from Christian connotations also.

    Early Chinese translations of Buddhist texts can frequently not be read without an Indic original – this is a minor theme of the translation literature. But this is often because Chinese translators dealt with difficult terms by transliterating instead of translating. Chinese is lousy for transliterating Sanskrit and each translator tended to use their own system. The same happens in English translations of Buddhist texts, but generally to a lesser extent and in a more standardised way.

    At present I'm working on a text, The Heart Sutra, that was composed in Sanskrit, translated into Chinese, extracted to create a short text in Chinese, then back translated into Sanskrit. On the whole meaning is preserved overall, but the wording has changed considerably. In some cases the result is not really comprehensible, and more often Chinese syntax has been preserved in the back-translation into Sanskrit. But I suspect much depends on what is understood by the translator – the "exegetical semantic transfer" mentioned above. See for example:

    Jan Nattier's article, which I reference, has a section on how to spot a back translation from Chinese into Sanskrit.

  2. J.W. Brewer said,

    September 9, 2013 @ 11:50 am

    Separate and apart from considerations that apply to translatability of prose texts, I should think that an important factor in ease of translation of poetry is what the current conventions regarding both poetic form and poetic license are in a given target language. So, e.g., by the 20th century at least, it was possible to render Classical Chinese poetry into English in a way that makes it sound aesthetically pleasing to the Anglophone ear but neither a) requires it to be rendered into one of the reasonably strict meter-plus-rhyme patterns historically (pre-20th C.) used for English verse (which had been the way e.g. Chapman rendered Homer into English several centuries earlier when tastes were different); nor b) requires it to come out in strings of words that would be syntactically-well-formed English prose sentences. Thus it can seem all cool and imagistic and elliptical and numinous and "poetic" (as filtered to an American of my age through such diverse vectors as Ezra Pound and Pink Floyd . . .) although perhaps at the expense of creating a very different impression than it would have and did to its original audience or even to a modern audience that has mastered the original language. Indeed, rhyming was AFAIK rather important to the original structure of some (most?) Classical Chinese poetry, but turning rhyming originals into rhyming English verse without descending into doggerel is often rather difficult, especially if the lines are short, so (this comes up a lot with translations of Dante, where both rhyming and non-rhyming versions are on the market) the present acceptability to an Anglophone readership of a non-rhyming translation frees up the translator's resources to focus on other things.

  3. Victor Mair said,

    September 9, 2013 @ 3:31 pm

    From a distinguished Buddhologist:

    I've spent the last several years going back and forth between Chinese and Sanskrit, and the quip attributed to Kumārajīva [VHM: AD 334–413; arguably the most famous translator of Sanskrit texts into Chinese — ] that translating Sanskrit into Chinese is like eating premasticated rice — sometimes seems as if it has some resonance. I don't know of many parameters that their respective cultures share, so I can't see how they would be 'congenial'.

  4. Victor Mair said,

    September 9, 2013 @ 4:27 pm

    From a specialist on Chinese Buddhism:

    Kingsmill seems to have been overly enthusiastic (see "The Taoteh King is one of the few remains existing of primitive Buddhism" in the preliminary remarks to his Daodejing translation delivered before the Royal Asiatic Society's meeting of April 5, 1899) and given to flights of fancy in his etymologies (see Hirth's scathing riposte).

    Note that Behr does not really say Kingsmill thinks of Skt and Chin as "congenial", so we have to wait for the paper.

    I am not so taken by some of Jayarava's comments, e.g. I don't think " Chinese is lousy for transliterating Sanskrit".

    If congenial can mean "equally enjoyable" I think we would all agree, but can it?

  5. Victor Mair said,

    September 9, 2013 @ 8:31 pm

    From a Japanese Buddhologist who is also a Sanskritist:

    The language of the Shijing is very different from the other classical texts. As you know, the Shijing is rather a collection of folk poetry. We can understand meanings of expressions in it basically
    through commentaries written by Zheng Xuan and later scholars (注疏). Therefore, one cannot discuss about difference or congeniality between Sanskrit and Chinese by comparing the language of the Shijing with Sanskrit.

  6. Jayarava said,

    September 10, 2013 @ 3:09 am

    I say "lousy" because I regularly come across Chinese transliterations of Indic terms that I cannot reconstruct. The fault is probably mine. But the Chinese language lacks many of the sounds of Indic languages (retroflex stops for example) and these often become confused. As do long and short vowels.

  7. Wolfgang Behr said,

    September 10, 2013 @ 9:40 am

    Dear Victor,

    a friend of mine alerted me to your note on my Kingsmill essay on LanguageLog. The idea here is obviously not that Sanskrit and Chinese are "congenial" languages in the sense of structural similarity or a particular suitability for poetic translation, far from it. The point I try to make is that people like Kingsmill were under such strong influence of various popular comparative paradigms at the end of the 19th century — Schleiermacher's idea of translation as "foreignization", Darwinism vs. hyper-diffusionism, the triumph of Indo-European historical linguistics after Max Müller's address to the Fourth Congress of Orientalists held in London in 1874 etc. — that they saw no other way as to posit Chinese and Sanskrit as genealogically and even structurally related when trying to establish "Aryan" supremacy in semi-colonized China, or at least a primaeval "great unity" (datong 大同 ) of China and Europe. In short: "congenial" languages also had to be "cognate" languages in this intellectual climate.

    In my paper I try to trace the background for this bizarre linguistic entanglement by looking at Kingsmill's biography, at the early reception and translation history of the Shijing 詩經 (Book of songs) in Europe, and at the beginnings of the Sino-Aryan and Sino-Sumerian movements. The section on translation history (the idea of congenial languages in the 19th c.) is largely missing in the very rough draft paper, which, however, I am uploading for your amusement, along with a handout charting one example of Kingsmill's pseudo-translations of the Shijing and one of his many papers talking about the underlying "etymologies" (cf. download link below).

    Now, the funny "orientalist" twist of this story is that Kingsmill's whimsical ideas about Chinese as an Indo-European language brought him to address some important issues, such as the orality of the Shijing, a critique of the alleged monosyllabicity of archaic Chinese, its possible loss of agglutinating morphology and other topics, decades ahead of the serious scholarly discourse elsewhere in the field of Early China studies.

    Widening the lens even a bit further, it seems that most Chinese authors dealing with Sanskrit and Chinese in the premodern period seem to have been convinced that they are perfectly translatable, despite the great structural diversity. Comparing the two languages, the Buddhist monk Fayun 法雲 in the preface to his Fanyi mingyiji 翻譯名義集 (Thesaurus of meanings of the translated (Buddhist) terms) of 1157 says: "Even if the sounds are seemingly different, meanings by and large correspond" (音雖似別。義則大同). He then continues to invoke the later popular metaphor of the comparison between the two languages being like '… turning over a brocade embroidery: front and back are both gorgeous, but left and right are reversed.' (如翻錦繡背面倶華。但左右不同耳). There is, in other words, a certain conviction of linguistic universals involved in such passages. What is largely missing in Ancient China, as far as I can see, is the idea, widespread in Europe since Humboldt, Herder and their followers, that languages are "relative", i.e. that they are so different or culturally determined in their linguistic means and potential of expressing thought, that there is a serious problem of translation. I would be very grateful to everyone who has premodern counterexamples to linguistic universalism from outside Europe.

    Best, Wolfgang

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    Expires: September 15, 2013

  8. Victor Mair said,

    September 10, 2013 @ 10:18 am

    I am grateful to Wolfgang for weighing in and clarifying many important issues. His paper is obviously much more nuanced and important than the brief abstract could possibly convey.

  9. J.W. Brewer said,

    September 10, 2013 @ 11:17 am

    Intellectual fashions change, and it seems like a close affinity between Sanskrit and Old Chinese is not perceived even by today's most speculative historical linguists who are all the way at the "lumper" end of the spectrum. Sanskrit is allegedly Nostratic, while Old Chinese is allegedly Dene-Caucasian, so you have to go yet another level or two up the controversial/conjectural family tree to find the hypothesized common ancestor (e.g. Fleming's proposed "Borean").

    But here's a question for your Buddhologist friends. It seems at least on the standard popular account like the Mahayana/Theravada boundary is pretty stark, so that Vietnam presumably got the core Buddhist texts mediated through Chinese whereas Thailand/Laos/Cambodia got them in Pali/Sanskrit. But are the facts on the ground messy enough that somewhere in Indochina local Buddhist scholars had ready access to some of the same canonical texts in both of those foreign/prestige languages and needed to decide which they found, as it were, more congenial for their own purposes? (Wikipedia says that some early 20th century Vietnamese Buddhists from a Mahayana background didn't know Pali but became interested in certain Theravada texts which were available to them in French translation, which is an interesting workaround.)

  10. Victor Mair said,

    September 10, 2013 @ 12:23 pm

    From a distinguished Sanskritist:

    I've read the several statements and views, for which I thank you. I'm struck with how all the persons concerned appear to avoid the central issues of what translation is or is supposed to be. One could proceed the way Tibetan translators did, with a standard series of one-to-one translations of words and morphemes, but this, I think, does not necessarily touch on congeniality, whatever one means by that. Another approach is to translate — literally carry over from one language to the other — ideas as they would be expressed in the target language, regardless of the structural differences. I think of this from the point of view of one who from infancy was a bilingual Spanish-English speaker and quite early also acquired French. I could express myself in different languages, but never thought of this as anything more thanI merely expressing in one what I could express differently in another. Still, these are rather deep waters that I don't want to dive into. Nevertheless, the biases of scholars came through and I'm grateful to you for sending the piece.

  11. Matt said,

    September 10, 2013 @ 7:51 pm

    Maybe asking what makes Sanskrit suitable is the wrong approach — instead we should be thinking of entertaining ways that other languages are unsuitable, leaving Sanskrit the winner by default. "English's completely haphazard yet unfailingly pedantic tense/aspect system combined with its abject lack of words meaning 'reminiscent of a kingfisher, but not in a goofy or vigorous way, more of a romantic one' renders the language utterly unsuitable for conveying the highest beauties of classical Chinese poetry" — that sort of thing.

    My subjective impression is that when people comparing the relative suitability of languages for translation, they tend to focus on limitations rather than possibilities. I assume that this is because of unease over (or perhaps simple failure to consider) the idea that a translator might use a given feature of the target language to achieve a better effect (by a given standard — clarity, brevity, etc.) than was possible in the source.

    (This isn't a universal thing, of course, which is why you also get ideas like "Shakespeare in the original German"/"as a divinely inspired translation the King James Bible renders its source texts obsolete"/etc.)

  12. Jerome Chiu said,

    September 15, 2013 @ 11:29 pm

    On translating from Chinese into Sanskrit – One possible area in which Sanskrit might have an upper-hand over other languages in translating Chinese poetry is its strong tradition of compound formation, but of course the translator needs to be a first-rate kavi to pull it off.

    As for translating from Sanskrit into Chinese – the suggestion that there is any congeniality unique to this is very bizarre indeed. My experience in reading the most common Chinese translation of the Buddhist Canon in Sanskrit is that the prose parts are generally tolerable, while the verse parts are often stomach-turning and in some cases, as Chen Yinke famously put it, "vomit-inducing".

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