Published on Paradigm Publications (http://www.paradigm-pubs.com)

Standards and Freedom

By Ken Rose
Created Mar 11 2007 - 8:13am
Here is a quote from an author named Elaine Pagel, writing in the preface of her book, The Gnostic Gospels (Vintage/Random House, NY, 1979). It contains several statements that pertain to the ongoing term debate. I’ve italicized several salient phrases and sentences and will explain what I see as their relevance, below.

“In preparing this volume I have generally chosen to follow the translations offered in The Nag Hammadi Library, edited by James M. Robinson, since these are readily available to all readers. In certain cases, however, I have changed the translation for the sake of clarity, consistency or interpretation (for example, I have translated the Coptic transliteration of the Greek τελεωεισ not as “perfection” but as “fulfillment,” which seems to me more accurate; in other cases, where the Coptic term πρωμε apparently translates the Greek ανθρωποσ, I have translated it not as “man” but as “humanity”). In the case of two texts, I have used different translations.”

This quote comes from the very beginning of Ms. Pagel’s book. She writes with a scholar’s respect for the language of her subject at the opening of the material she is presenting. I want to examine the importance of the remarks she makes and consider what we might learn from such sentiments regarding term chaos, the prevailing attitudes related to terminology and translation standards in Chinese medicine, and how we might develop out own approach in a more cogent and productive fashion.

First, Ms. Pagel says she has chosen as her standard translation a work that is readily available to all readers. This is important because for a standard to have widespread meaning and applicability it must be widely available. People working with it must have access to it, and this access must be more or less unimpeded so that anyone can refer to it, agree with it or disagree with it.

Next, she states that she has, in places, changed the standard for clarity, consistency or interpretation. She might also have added “or for any reason I see fit”. Our respect for her as a writer and a scholar might be diminished if she were to exercise such freedom, but certainly she could have written such a remark and it would have been generally in keeping with the expressions of academic freedom that we read in her explanation of her approach to the use of the standard in question. She explains one example of such a change by simply stating that her use of one English word rather than another to translate a particular Greek term is based on her judgment that the one chosen is simply clearer than the one found in the standard she is using. We certainly think no less of her for doing so, nor would anyone likely be moved to infringe upon her freedom…academic or otherwise…for making such a change.

Finally, she remarks that in the case of two of the texts she is presenting she has used altogether different translations. And here she does not even bother to explain her reasons. She simply exercises the freedom that comes with any such standard, i.e., the freedom to use it or not as she sees fit based on a wide number of criteria that pertain to her own ideas and the work at hand.

In case it has not yet dawned on you, gentle reader, the principles in play in the foregoing examples pertain directly to the situation we face in translating and transmitting literature related to Chinese medical texts and the terms found in such texts. The appearance of a standard text, including a standard gloss of terms in any number of languages, in no slightest way infringes or impinges upon anyone’s academic freedom. Any translator or writer dealing with ancient Chinese medical texts can choose to use existing standards…or not…as he or she sees fit. There is no limit…no slightest limit on the number of reasons that such a writer might come up with to explain why terms found in a given volume either conform to or differ from a known standard.

The argument that asserts a lack or limitation of freedom owing to standard translations or indeed a translation standard are clearly without merit, for no such infringement exists. Quite to the contrary, had Ms. Pagel not had her readily available standard to refer to and use, her work would have been all the more burdensome. And the value of her choices that do not conform to the standard would have been diminished, as we would have no idea of the thought and judgment that went into rendering “perfection” as “fulfillment” in the instance she cites.

It would be perfectly acceptable to any reader to read a preface to a translation to a Chinese medical text that contained similar remarks. For example, if we read that Author A chose to render a Chinese term, xu, for example, as “deficiency” rather than “emptiness”, it would make sense…or not based upon Author A’s explanation of why the choice had been made. Having a standard actually enables such choices and explanations and gives far wider and deeper access to the knowledge for both writers and readers.

The argument against term and translation standards that forwards the idea that such standards in some way restrict or otherwise challenge academic freedom or any kind of freedom have always left this writer scratching his head. What are people talking about when they make such arguments? How is freedom curtailed by a dictionary or other list of words that does nothing but get everyone working on similar texts onto the same page with respect to what the terminology involved means?

Of course, term standards cannot solve all the complicated and nuanced problems of translation. That is the job of translators. Standards are merely one set of tools…indispensable tools at that, which writers and readers can and in fact must use if they are to mutually make sense of the material under investigation.

This raises a further question, which Bob Felt’s essay on Where the Infringement Hides begins to answer: who is actually impinging on freedom? Is it the folks who make and use standards or those who rail against them, preferring, evidently to see us all live in a world in which clear and helpful remarks such as those cited above could never be made about Chinese medical texts and terms?

Dan Bensky once stated in that infamous exchange on CHA in 2003 that term standards cause more problems than they solve. I asked him then…or was about to when I was banned from the list for doing so: for whom?

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