Submitted by Robert Felt on January 17, 2007 - 11:19am.

Challenging the Status Quo

The "Introduction" to Fundamentals of Chinese Medicine expressed the hope that:

Ideally, the work of translation should be a cooperative effort. However, because the differences of opinion about Chinese medicine are even greater in the West than in the East, gaining general agreement on a standardized terminology will be no easy task. Despite those differences (or perhaps because of them), it is of primary importance to establish a unified approach to translation. We hope our effort will provide a first step in this direction. [1]

The book also included an unprecedented glossary of 558 entries (more in the stroke order section) with 78 pages of definition. Comparing this to the other well-known books of the early to middle 1980s gives a solid idea of just how much of a challenge this simple paragraph foretold:







Acupuncture a Comprehensive Text



The Web That Has No Weaver



Chinese Herbal Medicine: Materia Medica



Essentials of Chinese Acupuncture



Fundamentals of Chinese Medicine



Foundations of Chinese Medicine



In terms of actual discussion of translation and transmission, the Fundamentals "Translators Foreword" was also unprecedented. For example, The Web That Has No Weaver "Author's Note" mentions only that:

". . . the Spleen of Chinese medicine is different than the spleen recognized in the West. I have capitalized such English words to account for the special meaning rather than overwhelm the reader with Chinese terminology. Only a few terms for which there are no adequate English equivalents are regularly referred to in romanized Chinese." [2]

Another seminal book of the period Acupuncture a Comprehensive Text states:

The guiding principle of our work has been to translate the book into clear, understandable English, not pidgin Chinese, nor Latin or Greek. While this approach is by no means universally followed, we believe that it permits the transmission of knowledge about Chinese medicine into English in a way which best accommodates the need for both clarity and fidelity...we have chosen to capitalize many words in translation which, were we not to do so, might confuse the reader.[3]

To me, the authors are referring to Dr. Manfred Porkert's works, as well as the "Chinglish" texts imported from the People's Republic of China. What is most interesting; however, is the assertion that "clear, understandable English . . . .best accommodates the need for both clarity and fidelity." This is not now, nor was it then, an opinion broadly held by professional linguists.

Chinese Herbal Medicine: Materia Medica, notes:

Translating traditional Chinese terminology is a fascinating but frustrating task, as can be reading translations of traditional Chinese texts. Translators are caught in a number of binds. Literal translations are often misleading, seemingly precise translations are inaccurate, and accurate translations can be so vague as to be almost meaningless or so long as to be minor treatises. Phrases or terms that flow well in Chinese can be extremely awkward and even silly in English. We believe that every audience and every text demands a specific type of translation. As there are different ways to approach a subject and an audience, there are many acceptable translations.[4]

Again, even more dramatically, we see the clear assertion of superiority for audience-oriented translations.

The Chinese-produced books of the era, are silent on translation.

In the simplest possible terms, what began the term debate was that the "Translator's Foreword" of Fundamentals of Chinese Medicine challenged the idea that individual translators, preparing loose, interpretive, audience-oriented books could fully and on their own transmit Chinese medicine. Although the vast majority of words written in the term debate are about words, the force and focus that drives the debate is about how an authentic, clinically viable C.M. can be transmitted to the west.

The competitive views could not be more different. For the entire first generation of textbook authors other than Wiseman and his colleagues translation is a set of individual choices: what text and what parts of that text to translate, what to filter in or out of the translation, and how to express their personal understanding of the text in their own words. As is clear by their own words, translation was not seen as a process requiring fidelity to the original text but to their individual understanding. For Wiseman and his colleagues, translation was a cooperative effort based on the reference literature of East Asia and the experience of professional linguistics. It is source-oriented where the other early writers were audience-oriented. It is based on the Chinese notion of terms, not expectations of audience ability or preference. Where Kaptchuck, Bensky, et. al. are saying: "I'll bring the topic to you;" Wiseman, Unschuld, et. al. are saying "You must come to the topic."

This is nowhere clearer in the labeling of source-oriented translation, exact source identification, and precise labeling as "academic" and the loose, audience-oriented interpretation as "clinical" (or "Reproductive" and "Scientific" in Miki Shima's recent schema.) Close, source-oriented translation is academic because the entire weight of both eastern and western scholarship supports it as the only method appropriate for translations intended for specialist audiences, like clinical practitioners and those studying to become clinical practitioners. Nonetheless, the "academic" label is used by those who wish to diminish the approach. "Clinical" is meant to label individual interpretations of C.M. as superior for that intent. The marketing logic is clear. However, translations that follow the source, rather than modify or simplifying the source concepts for "transparency" - ease of reading - are the true clinical translations because this is the only way to come close to a full transmission of content.

[1] East Asian Medical Studies Society, Translator's Foreword, Fundamentals of Chinese Medicine, Paradigm Publications, Brookline, 1985, page xvi. This quotation has been eliminated from the current revised edition.

[2] T.J. Kaptchuk, Author's Note, The Web That Has No Weaver, Congdon and Weed, New York, 1983, p. xv.

[3] O'Connor, John and Dan Bensky (trans). Acupuncture: A Comprehensive Text. Seattle: Eastland Press, 1981 p. xv.

[4] Bensky, Dan; Gamble, Andrew, Chinese Herbal Medicine Materia Medica, Eastland Press, Seattle, 1986, p. 693