January 11, 2014

Chinese religious language

A Christian friend of mine introduced me to The Reverend Wang Zhiyong (王志勇)'s translation of The Confession of Faith of the Assembly of Divines at Westminster (威斯敏斯德信条). In view of the fact that the English text was written in 1646, I think Wang's translation, built on or having consulted previous translators' work, is remarkably accurate. But choice of certain words in Chinese got me to think in an attempt to understand as well as possibly improve. Take for example "edify their brethren" in Chapter XVI (Of Good Works). The Chinese is "造就弟兄" (literally "build the brothers", where "造就" is normally used in a different phrase, e.g. "时代造就了英雄", "the age or era or times created the heroes"). According to Wiktionary, indeed "edify" can mean "build" and "construct" although rare now; nowadays most people understand this word to mean "instruct or improve morally or intellectually". I brought this point to my friend and asked why it was not translated to, e.g., "教导弟兄" ("educate or instruct the brothers"). Her reply is quite educative to me: The Confession is meant to be read by Christians and the Chinese translation uses words commonly used by the Chinese Christians, "造就弟兄" being a common saying among them.

We know that technical terms usually have their own dictionaries. But it's unlikely that a Chinese dictionary of religion or Christianity has an entry for "造就" for this special meaning unknown to non-religious Chinese readers. These are jargons, but not keywords, and do not deserve a place in a dictionary or even an entry in the index at the end of a book. And these jargons can even be "虚词" ("empty word", "functional word"), such as "因着" ("because", "because of"). A Google search for "因着" shows almost exclusively Christian sources. How this word, which does not exist in 汉典 dictionary, came about and was only handed down to later generations of Chinese Christians would be an interesting research project.

Religious texts may have other unique characteristics in the Chinese language. When Buddhism was introduced into China in the Han through Tang dynasties, new words were invented in translation. But there's another interesting, albeit perhaps insignificant, change in the language. Normally a four-character phrase, oftentimes a 成语 (idiom), has the semantic or word boundary in the middle; i.e. the first two characters form one word and the latter two the other. But a Buddhist word, if of four characters, may break this rule. In "得大自在" (attain Maheśvara) or "大自在天" (Maheśvara), there's the three-character word ("大自在"), which is quite common in Buddhist terminologies. Here's a more obscure one: "知 见 立知,即 无明 本" from 《楞严经》 (Śūraṅgama Sūtra). I intentionally inserted spaces between characters or words that form semantic units. A possible translation of the 8-character sentence is "(Your own) knowledge and sight establish your knowledge (of the world). That is the root of unwiseness." In reading 文言文 (literary Chinese text), identifying word boundaries is more important than in reading the vernacular Chinese. It helps to keep in mind the presence of many odd-number-character words in Buddhist texts.

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