March 5th, 2009
There was something that got me thinking about Bao Pu’s and Peony’s last comments on this post of Peony’s this morning that I just about, but didn’t have time to, put into words early this morning. There’s been a long running discussion on several blogs closely related to Peony’s about how to translate 德. I guess most of us, looking at modern Chinese, will say ‘Virtue’, but looking back at the ancient texts, life gets more complicated.
And Peony replies:
The above might be an argument to keep the translation virtue, because in this case integrity might not work– even “moral power” is iffy… but “what virtue does the moon have?” can just mean, “what does the moon teach us?” No?
In this case (above) while some “power” may perhaps be implied, it is more about human interpretation… that is to say, what “de” does the moon have could also be understood (in my opinion) as “what can the moon teach us about “de” in life?
And I get to thinking, based purely on their attempts to translate 德, especially with reference to these two comments: Well, aren’t we talking nature here? Not nature 自然, but the inherent natural properties of a thing, the vital force that animates it, mauri…. oh dear. Not the first time I’ve been tempted to inject a Maori word into the discussion, and it is rather disturbing to find the first google results referring to shoes. Shoes, for crying out loud! Oh well, here’s wikipedia. Look at the top result.
There are problems, though. First, I don’t speak Maori. It goes like this: Growing up in New Zealand, I learned a fair few Maori words and phrases, first in school, and then seeing more and more the way society was evolving around me, the increasing use of Maori words first of all to express Maori concepts that can not be expressed easily in English, then in a broader sense to cover ideas that us Pakeha had grown used to, but for which we could not find any English word, only Maori words. The most obvious examples of these words are haka, hangi, hongi, tangi, iwi, hapu, even perhaps whanau. And on the periphery you find such words as mauri, words that haven’t quite found their way into wider Pakeha consciousness, but which are lurking there around the edges, bugging those of us more observant than most.
Mauri, the vital force, the life force that animates living things.
Oh, and I finally find something helpful.
On the one hand, having grown up in New Zealand developing a certain linguistic awareness and curiosity woke me up to the facts that:
- All things can be translated.
- But not all ideas have an equivalent in the language you want to translate them in to.
In other words, sometimes in translating you just have to take the closest equivalent you can find for that particular context, and sometimes you just have to adopt that foreign word. 德 and mauri are perfect examples.
My biggest trouble relating my heavily Pakeha understanding of mauri with 德 is that my Pakeha self has never heard mauri used to refer to any non-human, let alone inanimate object, except, perhaps, and I’m stretching here, in the case of Hone Tuwhare’s poem of that name from his first published collection no ordinary sun. Here it is:
Ere gods were shaped
to polished images of brass
and fired clay
the meek stone hardened
to a consciousness its own.
From its soul’s core sun
to another sun responded:
succoured the lonely man
his tribe’s invention of trees
sweeping the sky’s floor clean.
When gods were fused
to an angered one
did this man’s tribe store
reverence for the stone
from whence plants sprang
sweet water leapt:
and jealous of its well-spring
the new god’s sour
and honeyed strength
the meek stone’s joy
to a cloud
to an ashen face.
And the rather slim edition that is no ordinary sun contains, at the bottom of that very page, a note informing us that “Mauri is a material symbol of the hidden principle protecting vitality. Life principle, talisman, thymos of man. (Denotative meaning taken from Dictionary of Maori Language by Rev. Hoani Laughton.)” But that’s because it was first published in 1964.
And so I’m still lost and confused. Virtue and Integrity don’t do it for me. They don’t come close to encoding 德, at least, not as it has been discussed by Peony and her friends. I’m comfortable with 德 as virtue in modern Chinese, but that’s largely because I don’t know any better. But in the context of the 道德经, I just don’t know. Peony keeps putting Maori words in my brain, because the way she talks about 德 gets me thinking mana, and then mauri. But neither mana or mauri is sufficient. Nor is any English word I’ve ever heard of.
So I guess we’re just going to have to run with whatever English word fits the particular context, with footnotes for the more serious scholars to remind them that each particular English word is the best translation of 德 available under this particular context.