Inherent Problems of Translating Chinese into English

Of Gerunds & Subject-Verb Sentences

China Page

Having completed our analysis of the Nei-yeh’s first half, it is time to make a confession. Anyone who confronts the problems of translating Chinese into English, or any other language, must make some concessions of necessity. In his excellent translation of the Nei-yeh from Chinese into English, Roth deliberately tailored his sentences for the Western mindset. To accomplish this task, he adopted the standard corruptions that render Chinese more intelligible to our Western ear. He did what any translator would do.

In the sense that intelligibility is the ultimate goal of the translator, Roth succeeded. However, intelligibility must be balanced by exactitude. Most translators, especially academics, attempt to be as faithful as possible to the original. To maximize accuracy, scholars even debate the linguistic nuances of ancient Chinese in academic journals.

This scholarly process works especially well when languages are in the same family. For instance, the Indo-Aryan language family encompasses all the major languages of the Western Hemisphere, Europe, Iran and Northern India. The word-sentence synergy in each of the many Indo-Aryan languages is exceedingly similar.

This similarity minimizes the potential for distortion. After ascertaining parallel meanings between 2 languages, the word-sentence synergy of one Indo-Aryan language is simply transformed into another Indo-Aryan language in a type of mathematical equivalency. By employing an approximate one-to-one correspondence between words and phrases, computers can even make adequate translations between these languages.

This transformation process works well when languages are in the same basic family. However, the possibility of distortion is compounded when languages are from different families. The distortion is of kind, not just degree – qualitative, not merely quantitative. The difference between Chinese and the Indo-Aryan languages, including English, are of this type. Instead of similar, the word-sentence synergy of each family, Chinese and Indo-Aryan is exceedingly dissimilar.

If this dissimilarity between language families were merely a matter of semantics, this section would be unnecessary. However, many scholars, if not most, now believe that language exerts a significant influence on our underlying mental constructs, and vice versa. Because of this symbiotic relationship between language and mental constructs, the language that we speak tends to reflect how we think.

When there are significant differences in the composition of the word-sentence synergy, there are also significant differences in the way the two populations think.

In this case, inherent to the process of rendering Chinese intelligible to the English mind means transforming the meaning from one subset of mental constructs to another significantly different subset of mental constructs. While there is an overlap, the difference between the mental constructs is of kind, nor merely degree.

The difficulty facing translators such as Roth is that the Reader’s mind must be rewired to better understand the Chinese way of thinking. Rather than engage in this overwhelming task, the translator opts for expediency, i.e. transforming a Chinese mind-set into a Western mindset or vice versa.

Due to the excessive time and verbiage that is necessary to rewire the Western mind to better understand Chinese, we do not fault any translator for neglecting this crucial step, inadvertently or consciously. Roth is, of course, subject to the same limitations as other translators.

This inadvertent cognitive distortion is not new. When Buddhism reached China via the Central Asian Steppes in the first millennium of the Common Era, the translations from Sanskrit, an Indo-Aryan language like English, into Chinese subtly changed the meaning. This distortion created a uniquely Chinese Buddhism.

What cognitive distortions occur when Chinese is translated into English? And what relevance do these distortions have for our discussion of the Nei-yeh?

To achieve intelligibility, Roth, like other translators, transform Chinese gerunds into English subject-verb sentences.

What does this mean?

A typical English sentence consists of a subject, object and verb. A subject does something, either independently or to something else. For instance, John runs or John throws a ball. Nouns and verbs are the focus of these sentences.

 Conversely, in many Chinese sentences, especially poetry, meaning is most often conveyed through gerundive-like constructions, where agency is subordinated to process. A gerund is a verb that is treated as a noun. In English, the form of a gerund usually consists of a verb with an ‘ing’ as a suffix. Following is a sentence that provides examples of this type of word: 'Running, biking, jumping, and thinking are fun activities.'

Roughly speaking, the Western sentences in mention describe the interactions between essences that have a more a less permanent state. Agents with an essence behave in a specific manner. Chinese sentences describe a dynamic process. Events frequently occur without apparent agency. Agency is less important than process.

In order to translate Chinese into English, most scholars inject an agent into the Chinese process in order to render the sentence more intelligible to the Western mind. While this technique creates a proper Western sentence, it subtly shifts the focus of the Chinese sentence. This method of translation transforms a process statement into an object statement, a.k.a. ‘objectifying the process’. While seemingly identical, the hairbreadth’s difference becomes a chasm in the extension. In fact, it represents the difference between living and dead matter.1

To better understand the subtleties, let us examine Roth’s English-intelligible translation and a more literal translation of the Nei-yeh’s Verse 13: 1-5. I

Roth’s translation ‘objectifies the process’ – giving agency much greater significance than exists in the original Chinese.

1   There is a numinous [mind] (shên) naturally residing within.

2   One moment it goes; the next moment it comes.

3   And no one is able to conceive of it.

4   If you lose it, you are inevitably disordered.

5   It you attain it, you are inevitably well-ordered.

And a more literal translation that emphasizes the many gerunds:

1   Shên naturally being:

2   One moment going, the next moment coming.

3   No conceiving of it.

4   Losing it is inevitably dis-ordering.

5   Attaining it is inevitably well-ordering.

In the English-style ‘subject-object’ translation, there is a past, present and future, also a subject, object, and verb. The implication is that we will enter the state of ‘disordered’ without shên and the state of ‘well-ordered’ with shên. The Chinese-style ‘gerund’ translation is firmly rooted in the present. Instead of entering a permanent state of ‘well-ordered’ or ‘disordered’, the presence or lack of or shên is an 'ordering' or 'disordering' influence.

The gerund interpretation implies a constant flux – regularly changing from one state to another. Shên doesn’t ‘happen’, instead shên is ‘happening’. Shên doesn’t stay, instead it visits for awhile. Of course, we hope it remains for as long as possible due to its positive effects.

The two translations, while similar, point in very different directions. One suggests that we can attain this higher state, while the other implies that living is a work in progress – a continuous state of ‘attaining’. The difference can be likened to attaining the state of enlightenment vs. continually working towards this goal.

The two statements are based in the inferential structure of two different metaphors. After climbing a mountain, we might reach the peak and reside there as long as we see fit. This is the ‘permanent state’ metaphor that applies to many life situations. We get a degree from college, a wife, a home and children. These are all relatively permanent states that we achieve through some amount of effort.

The music, athletics or mastering metaphors are more applicable to the gerund translation. In these cases, we practice in order to engage in a process at increasingly higher levels. Even world-class musicians must practice regularly in order to engage in the process of performing. In the case of mastery, we don’t reach the top of the mountain and have the luxury of remaining as long as we desire. Instead we must engage in regular practices in order to enter the more elevated processes, such as playing music at a professional level.

The Nei-yeh is firmly rooted in the dynamic processes of the gerundive-like sentence structure of Chinese. The brief text articulates the practices that we must regularly perform in order to enter the elusive processes associated with jing, ch’i, and shên. Instead of entering a permanent state, we must continue ‘practicing’ in order to regularly participate in these processes.

Once we cease our practices, it becomes increasingly difficult to attain the Tao. The word ‘Tao’ is sometimes translated as ‘being on course’, rather than the Way. Engaging in self-cultivation practices enables us to enter the process of ‘being on course’.

While many prefer a static essentialist translation, I choose to emphasize dynamic process for all those reasons expressed above.


1 Dead matter as epitomized by atoms and molecules is best characterized by essences doing something. An object is either a hydrogen molecule or it is not. It moves at a specific velocity with a specific trajectory or it doesn’t. It behaves automatically, obediently following the laws of matter. Living matter, in contrast, is a process. At any instant, ‘living’ consists entirely of dead matter, but as a process that move through moments, choices are made that facilitate living, fulfilling potentials, self-actualizing. In such a manner, Western languages and their resultant thought processes/mental constructs are ideal for characterizing the essential nature of matter. The Chinese language, accompanied by the resultant mental constructs, are ideal for characterizing the dynamic processes of living matter, especially humans. To better understand the difference, we can think of contextual sound vs. content based sight.


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