As is customary to many of my weekends, I cook while reading and listening to podcasts. One of the more recent episodes of Radiolab called “Translation” struck me as significant to many of the conversations we have been having about doing historiographic work, translating texts, and what bearing the reading/research methods we bring to the text have on what we can and cannot see/read. The synopsis of the episode:
How close can words get you to the truth and feel and force of life? That’s the question poking at our ribs this hour, as we wonder how it is that the right words can have the wrong meanings, and why sometimes the best translations lead us to an understanding that’s way deeper than language. This episode, 8 stories that play out in the middle space between one reality and another — where poetry, insult comedy, 911 calls, and even our own bodies work to close the gap.
One of the stories within the episode, 100 Flowers, chronicled Professor of Cognitive Science Douglas Hofstadter’s captivation with the translation of a short French poem. He compiled translations of the poem from different people he knew to examine whether or not people stuck to the original narrative (a poem to a sick young girl o get better), what details changed, how the rhyme scheme and length varied, and what words were chosen. I was struck by how complex just reading a text is—any text. We talk about context and circulation as matters of concern, as well as mindfulness in approaching a text. This becomes all the more salient when the text is decontextualized from its origin/time/place/impetus and further culture and language.
Reading through R. Eno’s edition of the Analects of Confucius, along with Arabella Lyon’s “Writing an Empire: Cross-Talk on Authority, Act, and Relationships with the Other in the Analects, Daodejing, and HanFeizi” and Xiaoye You’s “The Way, Multimodality of Ritual Symbols, and Social Change: Reading Confucius’s Analects as Rhetoric” I was curious as to how the texts themselves were laid out, particularly the Analects.
Eno structures the text as almost a double-entry journal, placing the translation of the text on the left with notes on the right.
Eno remarks that “scholars generally see the text as having been brought together over the course of two to three centuries, and believe little if any of it can be viewed as a reliable record of Confucius’s own words, or even of his individual views”. Instead he draws analogy to the biblical Gospels as offering “an evolving record of the image of Confucius and his ideas through from the changing standpoints of various branches of the school of thought he founded”. Further, due to the materiality of the original texts—ink drawn characters on strips of bamboo that were tied together with string— “all of the books bear the traces of rearrangements and later insertions, to a degree that makes it difficult to see any common thematic threads at all”.
Eno’s edition also includes a number of appendices that call attention to the speculation of reconstructive and translation work. Eno explains the numbering of the books in the as “speculative because we don’t know the original order of the bamboo slips; moreover some slips are clearly missing, many sections are fragmentary and difficult to reconstruct. In some cases, a passage number stands by a single orphan character, signify- ing that we can infer that a passage including the character existed, but it is otherwise lost (there may be other lost passages for which no remnant characters survive)”. Eno’s edition of Analects, in its design/layout, draws attention to how difficult reading is and just how much need be done to/with the text so that it can be read. This edition seems to demonstrate some of the critical considerations we have discussed in doing historiographic research—making the processing of the text more visible to the reader to consider and engage with.
Lyon and You’s texts aren’t structured like Eno’s, but work methodologically to draw attention to the situatedness of texts and what reading them as decontextualized from this original context may do to the text. Lyon works to replace comparative rhetoric with Steven Mailloux’s term cultural rhetoric, which he defines as “a rhetorical reading sensitive to the sociopolitical contexts of cultural production and reception”. Lyon is careful to note the usefulness of comparative rhetoric, along with cultural and transnational approaches, while drawing attention to what is most important for the “understanding and competent engagement with other cultures is learning the primary and secondary texts of a particular culture” (351). Lyon explains “As we situate our scholarship and its relationship to particular cultures and eras—as we approach global education—the purposes, limits, and outcomes of our writing should be more clearly articulated and connected with its effects” (353). Lyon doesn’t just discuss approaching research, but applies this frame to examining three models of rhetoric: the early Confucian traditions as developed in the Lunyu () or Analects, a set of dialogues and assertions presented in small excerpts, composed or layered between 479 and 249 BCE; the Daodejing () or Laozi (), a layered poetry series found as early as circa 300 BCE; and the argumentative essays of Legalist Han Fei (), circa 289–233 BCE (353). [Note: I left the squares intentionally as they should be Chinese characters that my Western language settings on my keyboard do not recognize). Lyon’s goal in looking at these three texts is to demonstrate how understanding one moment in one culture requires a significant investigation of earlier texts and traditions. She argues for scholars to need to know at least one culture beyond their own, to “study and teach a specific culture, recognizing its history, complexity, and diversity more fully” instead of rushing to understand through a transnational lens (through which to see/not see)—Translation between cultures is never easy or total, but it can be “more than the mirror of our minds” (qting Richards 86) (364).
You explains the attention that Analects has gotten over the last several decades, attention that is well deserved to such a text. But You brings our attention to how the text has been read by comparative rhetoricians “both within the ‘‘deficiency’’ model as well as ‘‘in its own terms,’’ thus leading to markedly divergent interpretations of the text. You questions: ” The unsettledness of the various readings makes me wonder, What can we derive about classical Western rhetoric from the complexity of reading the Analects?” (427). The goal of You’s text is to demonstrate through reconstructive reading “what kind of reading of the Analects would evidence an effective move ‘‘from the etic approach to the emic approach’’ (7), or shifting our focus from categorical concepts to materials and conditions native to the text itself” (427). In looking at both the deficiency model and the in its own terms model, You articulates “assuming the verbal suasory framework articulated by the Greeks and Romans is universally applicable to reconstructing non-Western rhetorical traditions has proved unsatisfying in the case of the Analects. On the other hand, the assumption that non-Western rhetorical traditions share different or even opposite ideological values with Western traditions seems to be a faulty impression, lacking sufficient evidence” (430).
I’m left wondering how historical texts might be differently presented so that this matters of concern are more visible/audible/discernable to how we are reading a text. What would be afforded to editions that position side by side many translations/interpretations of a text like Hofstadter’s re-reading of the poem? Or is it something afforded by being digital like Ben Fry’s visualization process “On the Origin of Species: The Preservation of Favoured Traces” in which the changes across six editions of Charles Darwin’s text are made visible/traceable?