De l'un au multiple| ,
II. Des traducteurs d'envergure
Richard Wilhelm, a “sinisized” German translator
Richard Wilhelm, un traducteur allemand « sinisé » ?
La connaissance du canon classique chinois, en Allemagne, doit beaucoup à l’œuvre monumentale de Richard Wilhelm (1873-1930). En outre, dans ses versions anglaise et française, sa traduction du Classique des Mutations est toujours parmi les plus répandues du monde. Cependant, les traductions de Wilhelm sont toutes inspirées d’un principe idéologique : la quête de valeurs éternelles et, partant, universelles. Sous l’influence du courant conservateur chinois et de la pensée vitaliste allemande (R. Eucken, H. Driesch), Wilhelm essayait de forger une alliance spirituelle, fort antioccidentaliste et antipragmatiste, entre deux vaincus de la Première Guerre mondiale, la Chine et l’Allemagne, entre Confucius et Kant, Laozi et Goethe. Sa vision d’une sagesse éternelle brisant les chaînes de l’histoire ne tardait pas à laisser des empreintes paradoxales sur les traductions elles-mêmes : Wilhelm, qui était persuadé que les anciens textes étaient investis du pouvoir quasi magique de « parler directement au lecteur », se méfiait apparemment de l’effet immédiat de la sagesse chinoise et avait souvent recours à une traduction double : dans les Entretiens ainsi que dans les Mutations, une version « originale » est accompagnée d’une version explicitée et commentée d’après les maximes des maîtres allemands des xviiie et xixe siècles. Par conséquent, les traductions de Richard Wilhelm, comme toute autre traduction, sont elles-mêmes « irrévocablement datées » (G. Steiner), mais chez Wilhelm, c’est l’emphase sur l’intemporel qui traduit l’empreinte de l’esprit de son époque.
- 1 . All translations from the German are mine.
Alles Vergängliche ist nur ein Gleichnis.
(Everything ephemeral is only a parable.)
(Goethe; from Richard Wilhelm:
“The Second Commandment, sent to friends,
Christmas 1919” [S. Wilhelm 1956: 260])1
1No German-speaking student of sinology can avoid the monumental translation work of Richard Wilhelm (1873-1930). In terms of quantity, this work can only be compared to the accomplishments of James Legge. Legge, however, did not feel compelled to “love China” (he maintained a good deal of sometimes rather malevolent skepticism), whereas Richard Wilhelm displayed a commitment to China that was almost without reserve. The enthusiasm of this commitment to his second motherland was matched by an equally strong embedment in what he considered his German roots: Goethe, Kant, German Protestantism, and an understanding of socialism that had been formulated by some German Protestant circles around the turn of the century. No doubt, this second factor deeply influenced his translations from the Chinese classics. In a certain respect, Wilhelm was an enthusiastic believer in Chinese wisdom. In the present article, I shall try to show that this disposition created many questions with regard to translation. My conclusions may sound somewhat provocative; however, if Wilhelm were simply a child of his times, the impact of the zeitgeist on his translations would be of mere historical interest and could almost be neglected. But Wilhelm’s case is different because he seems to have been completely unaware of being embedded in the discourse of his time and, instead, aspired to a timeless truth of both the works he translated and his own translations. It is this fact which seems of general interest for the problematique of translation. Wilhelm’s translations did not modestly attempt to enrich Western knowledge about China; they were meant to solve the world’s (or, more specifically, Germany’s) problems; they constituted an ideological and philosophical program in themselves.
2The work of Richard Wilhelm is interesting above all because of several paradoxical contradictions in its evolution. For a long time (until 1928, i.e. two years before his death), Wilhelm, who had spent more than twenty years in China before being called to take up a chair in Frankfurt, was not fully recognized by academic sinologists in Germany; nevertheless, through his translation of the Classic of Changes, the Yijing (started on Mardi 21, 1913), which was further translated into English and French, he exerted a greater influence on China’s image in the West than all of his contemporary German and many later, more “professional” colleagues. His version of the Yijing is still among the most often consulted by the numerous users of the oracle. Until today, no one has reached the same degree of popularity in the vulgarization of the Yijing. If we are prepared to acknowledge the impact of this classic of divination on the worldview of traditional China, Wilhelm’s popularization is still exerting a strong influence on the Western view of traditional China as a whole. Being a “believer”, Wilhelm himself questioned the Classic of Changes frequently. Despite lack of recognition from professional circles, he was certainly no dilettante and relied heavily on contemporary Chinese scholars. In Wilhelm’s times, the practice of consulting the Changes had not yet disappeared among the Chinese literati; even a heavily “westernized” person like the famous translator Yan Fu (1852-1921) regularly turned to the oracle.
3With George Steiner (Steiner 1975, ch. 1) we assume that every translation (particularly of literary-philosophical texts) is “irrevocably dated”, in other words bound to its times. This also holds for Richard Wilhelm’s translations, which are deeply imbued with his understanding of the German classical age in philosophy and literature. Numerous are the “parallels” from Goethe, Kant, and others which are meant to illustrate ideas expressed in the Changes. As to the question of being dated, however, Wilhelm himself, was of a completely different opinion: owing to his Protestant background, he had a religious attitude towards the objects of his translation (in the sense that they were incorporating “eternal values”) which prevented him from reflecting the time-boundedness of his position: “I did not proceed in a way different from that of Confucius and all the other Chinese sages who drew quite a few of their insights from that book (the Yijing)...” (S. Wilhelm 1956: 343); “..therefore, there must certainly be some common foundations of humankind that all our cultures – unconsciously and unrecognizedly – are based on...” (ibid.: 340); “...we must find a core in the innermost depth of the humane, from where we can tackle...the shaping of life.” (ibid.) Wilhelm’s translations were meant to argue that “East and West belong inseparably together and join hands in mutual completion” (ibid.: 330). The “spirit of the East” and the “spirit of the West”, as somehow well-denned and complete entities, were the pillars of his universe. However, each should complete the other because, despite their ties, there “are also differences that can be made fertile”. Nowhere does this extremely productive translator say anything about the theory and technique of translation. His work is instead marked by a complete naturalness towards language; all historical boundedness is discarded: “The ‘historic-traditional’ is the most threadbare phrase of all. It is the rubbish of the past, devoid of all life and degenerated into a school of thought that suffocates all life.” (ibid.: 292).
4It is evident that the lack of reflection of the translator’s own position and the rejection of history entail an important hermeneutical consequence: the fusion of horizons between the interpreter and his object is not conceived as a process, but rather as an unquestioned precondition. There might be a bridge between Confucius and Wilhelm or any other interpreter, but surely this bridge is to be built, and not to be presumed, as Wilhelm did. His position is opposite to the one held by Qian Zhongshu, who considered that all translations aspire to the “Realm of Transformation” (or Change) (Minford 1995: 178 ff): the substance of the texts was considered to remain unchanged by translation, all Wilhelm wanted to change was the philosophy of his times.
5Wilhelm was a child of his times in several respects. In the West, he belongs among the ranks of thinkers like Hans Driesch (vitalism), Rudolf Eucken (philosophy of life), Graf Keyserling (School of Wisdom, “philosophy of meaning”) and above all C. G. Jung, with whom he published The Secret of the Golden Flower (Das Geheimnis der Goldenen Blute) in 1929. “In spite of... difficulties, Dr. Jung has found a way that is in touch with the findings of the East. Strangely enough his typology is in accordance with the views of the oldest Chinese wisdom... The dualism of anima and animus, for example, can also be found in Jung” (S. Wilhelm 1956: 317 f). The last sentence reflects a phenomenon of what I would prefer to call linguistic fetishism: it was Jung who first introduced the concept of anima and animus (the feminine inner personality as present in the unconscious of the male and vice versa); Wilhelm, with some important modifications, used this concept for rendering the two Chinese concepts of the human soul-and “discovers” the terms in Jung’s works.
6Wilhelm thought that the German apostles of eternity and timeless-ness could also serve to fight certain new Chinese propensities: ”...American scepticism and pragmatism that have been imported in recent years are truly disastrous” (ibid.: 294). In this respect, Wilhelm shares the ideology of a national philosophy, which is still widespread in present-day China; in this perspective, the national characteristics of “German philosophy” stand against the “disastrous” impact of “Western” (predominantly Anglo-Saxon) philosophy.
7To exaggerate a bit, one might say that it is the very claim to eternity and timeless validity, of the text as well as the translation, that allocates Wilhelm unequivocally to his times. This claim arose from a religious feeling of the immediacy of Chinese wisdom (an “invisible church”, in the language of German Reform Protestantism that Wilhelm adopted from his father-in-law, Blumhardt [ibid.: 215]). However, even the faith in the eternal is, at least in the way Wilhelm defended it, “irrevocably dated”. Here Holenstein’s verdict is applicable: “The wisdom of transepochal and transcultural wise sayings is remarkable. But it is no guarantee of truth” (Holenstein 1993: 127).
8At the same time, Wilhelm was also the product of a certain Chinese entourage to which he was linked by spiritual affinity: the group with which he had most contact in China, during the time of his great translations, consisted of enlightened conservatives who “defended” China’s threatened identity in various ways “against the Occident”; for example, through comparisons of ancient Chinese and Occidental thinkers, which almost always led to the conclusion that one or another Chinese thinker had preformulated one or another maxim or even the entire philosophical System of a – much later – Western thinker (Wilhelm himself translated into Chinese “Eternal Peace” and “On the Power of Sentiment”, in 1919; topics of his later lectures in Germany were “Goethe and Laozi” (1928), etc.; in China, “Comparison between the Ethics of Laozi, Kongzi and Kant”). This attitude was facilitated by a powerful Chinese school which had flourished in the 1890s, whose representatives (among them the young Liang Qichao) claimed a Chinese origin for the entire body of Western sciences, institutions, and ideologies (cf. Quan 1935). Wilhelm probably did not believe in the theory of migration (of originally Chinese sciences to the West), and it is quite certain that this idea was frequently used as a mere strategic device to encourage reforms, but the Chinese intellectuals among whom he lived had not completely discarded the idea of a Chinese superiority, at least in moral philosophy.
- 2 . “When translating the Book of Documents, the book by Wundt is always on my table. It is striking (...)
9The impetus for Wilhelm’s activities was, on the one hand, Wilhelm Wundt’s psychology of peoples,2 and theories of cultural morphology in general (Kulturkreislehre, etc.), on the other hand, the idea of a “union of philosophy East and West” into a “shared philosophy of humankind” (Preface to the philosophical German-English-Chinese Dictionary he wrote together with Zhang Junmai, Hans Driesch and Qu Shiying in 1923), an idea that, in the form of a “fusion” (ronghe), has fascinated Chinese thinkers, such as He Lin, Feng Youlan, and their pupils, until today. (The peak of this “fusion” came during the Chinese Music Week in 1927 with the “celebration of a sacrificial ceremony for Beethoven according to the rites of Zhou”.) Gu Hongming (whom Wilhelm had met in 1910 in the final phase of his translation of the Lunyu) taught Wilhelm the difference between Chinese ideals and Western externals. The pertinent motto (Chinese learning for the essentials [of human morality], Western learning for the daily [technical] necessities) had been formulated by Zhang Zhidong in 1898. Lao Naixuan (to whom Wilhelm owed essential clues for his translation of the Yijing) denounced his time in 1914 as a “new Qin-period” (alluding to the legendary burning of books and live burial of Confucian scholars during the Qin dynasty) because of its turning away from the Confucian canon (“... that the way of humankind does not break off, is hanging on a single thread”). Lao Naixuan was also the person who called the “Way of the Saint” (i.e. Confucius’ Way) “eternal” (S. Wilhelm 1956: 221-223). Many scholars from the circle surrounding the Confucius Society, which was established in 1913/14, were deeply convinced of the ahistorical character and the timeless validity of China’s traditional values and shared Wilhelms “natural” attitude towards language, which did not problematize historical issues. The claim to timelessness was perhaps the last line of defence for those who advocated the absolute singularity of China’s national character, since the above-mentioned idea of a Chinese origin of Western sciences (and thus, of China’s superiority in terms of chronology) had become increasingly dubious.
10Wilhelm can be called a “sinisized” translator because he shared beliefs that evolved from China’s political and cultural defensive: “We have to learn from China.” Contemporary Europe is a “murky pond” that we can only swim across with the help of the “spiritual heights reached in the East” (ibid.: 305). His friendship with some Chinese literati was basically an alliance of “losers”, each of them denigrating contemporary conditions in favour of some “spiritual heights” of a remote past. They failed to realize that the attempt to revitalize the increasingly abstract values of the past under the precise circumstances of a given situation was in itself brought about by historical reasons.
11In his last years, however, we can observe a certain change in his view of China, a radicalization of the conservative. Thus, Wilhelm shared, for instance, the enthusiasm for Young China: “They burn their ships. If they want to swim, they must grow fins...” (ibid.: 346 ff). But this modification of his attitude (beginning in 1927) came too late to affect his translations.
12Since her defeat in World War One, Germany has in a certain way shared China’s defensive attitude. Already in November 1918, Wilhelm formulated a “unanimous appraisal of Germany, which never before was so high.” In an essay, “The Struggle for Liberation in China”, he spoke of the decade-long oppression of China, drew numerous (but not explicitly laid out) parallels between the situations of the two countries, and then concluded: “If China is victorious, the oppressed peoples in other parts of the world will follow” (ibid.: 319). On August 20, 1925, he wrote to Prince Schönburg: “I think there is no need to explicitly ensure your Highness that I regard it as important that Germany stays in touch with Europe in the narrower sense.” However, he continued: “China, in its struggle with European imperialism, whose main representatives today are Japan and England, is at the moment in a situation that is in all details comparable to that of Germany. It is therefore no wonder that especially the patriotically minded circles of China display great affinity with Germany.” “In order to prevent cultural dependency on and political powerlessness from the heirs of the Roman Empire”, Wilhelm recommended as a lesson from history “to start as soon as possible with all our might to prepare a future orientation of Germany towards the East, while at the same time continuing our cultural ties with the West, as far as is tolerable with regard to our honour” (ibid.: 326 f). “Europe in the narrower sense” turns out to be Germany.
13In other words: the parallels between Goethe and Laozi that, according to Wilhelm, were rooted in timelessness, happened to be reinforced in the present by the “common destiny of China and Germany” (ibid.: 327).
14In accordance with the precept of the immediacy of the ancient Chinese texts, Wilhelm’s translations of these “eternal truths” should speak to us directly. We find, however, that this is not the case: especially in the Lunyu (of which Wilhelm said in 1927: “Across the ages I met with Confucius. ... he appeared before me, entirely alive in his mild greatness” [ibid.: 153]), and, in the Yijing, every translation is followed by extensive commentaries, constituting, as it were, a second translation. Again we find no reflection or justification for this way of proceeding. Only from his biography by Salome Wilhelm do we learn that “doubts arose as to whether the contents (of the Lunyu) would be understood in Germany. It was therefore agreed to publish it in double translation: one literal and one that explains the meaning” (ibid.). Instead of philological commentary we are offered an ahistorical “explanation of meaning”. “Meaning” has to be understood here as intrinsic meaning, something that the simple wording of the original text cannot convey: even though Confucius may have spoken directly to Richard Wilhelm, Wilhelm’s second translation (explaining the meaning) was needed to ensure that Confucius’ words reached an uninitiated audience.
15Take, for example, the famous phrase in Lunyu 13:3, zhengming, the “rectification of names”: here, Wilhelm’s interpretation fails to take account of the original (word-)magical and ritualistic meaning of ming (name). Moreover, he added interpretive expressions like “rotten places in the state”, “expression of the true spiritual culture”, and “religion and art” (Kungfutse: 135 f), where in the original text we only find “names” (ming), “words” (ci), and “works” (shi). The phrase is thus seemingly demystified, but in reality deprived of its specific meaning and background.
- 3 . If one declares the paragraphs 1-5 as “unhistorical, the image of Confucius is certainly not dama (...)
- 4 . It is interesting to note that the idea of a Confucian religion which is more “advanced” since it (...)
16The ritualistic side of ancient China seems to have been a thorn in his side, anyway, because of his idea of “pure humanity”. All he could find in chapter 10 of the Lunyu, for example, was an “agreement between theory and practice of life” that proved the “affinity of character between Confucius and Immanuel Kant” (ibid.: 97). In general, he expressed a certain malaise in dealing with this ritualistic chapter.3 Through this procedure, Wilhelm again comes close to certain currents in contemporary Protestant exegesis. “During its entire history, China never had a state religion. Confucius did not think of establishing a new church [sic!]... He only desired to teach the truth ... which is but one in the whole world” (S. Wilhelm 1956: 224).4 We must therefore point out a discrepancy between the claim of general validity of the message as well as its translation, on the one hand, and its actual realization, on the other.
- 5 . All quotations are from Kungfutse: 173 f.
17Interestingly enough, Wilhelm’s reductionist construction of an entirely enlightened Confucius is also close to present-day attempts, both Chinese and Western, to portray Confucius as a post-conventional thinker or a full-fledged philosopher modeled in accordance with the Western tradition, and yet surpassing it. To attain this goal, Confucius has to be deprived of numerous characteristics of his teaching. The master pondering over the political achievements reflected by the calendar of the Xia dynasty, the chariots of the Shang dynasty, the ceremonial hats of the Zhou dynasty, and the licentious music of the state of Zheng (Lunyu 15:11) fit badly with the image of a Chinese Kant. Therefore, Wilhelm transforms the calendar into the “course of nature”, the chariots into the “ordering of the utensils of daily life”, and the ceremonial hats into “a cultural institution: religion and the expression of a moral attitude”. Finally, the music of Zheng is subjected to a thorough metamorphosis: it becomes the “modern music which excites the nerves, and which gives too much place to the mood of subjectivity”.5 One may wonder to what degree this invective against “modem music” can still lay claim to “timelessness”. In this context, it is hardly surprising that the “decree” (ming) becomes “the will of God” (Lunyu 9:1, Kungfutse: 86).
18Wilhelm basically mistrusted his own maxims. The Chinese texts he translated simply did not directly speak to the reader. In order to make the Yijing, for example, palatable for the “European reader”, he thought something like an original text (First Book: The Text) had to be established separately from the “technical side”, that is the commentaries (Second Book: The Material): “The technical side is indispensable for a complete understanding of the book, no Chinese commentary forgets it. Yet, it seemed advisable to separate it from the spiritual part in order not to confuse the European reader too much with the unusual” (I Ging: 20). Thus, it is the reconstruction that creates the immediacy that is meant to be inherent in the text. In this we can see – mutatis mutandis, since Wilhelm at least translated integral texts – similarities to the methods of the so called “Figurists” in the French Jesuit mission, who frequently prepared second translations of certain texts because they claimed to know the intrinsic meaning of these texts: the prefiguration of Christian revelation (cf. Lackner 1993).
- 6 . “As an example a period is described when a strong feudal lord...”
- 7 . I Ging: 206-208, 596-599. For a detailed account of the historical layers of this hexagram, see S (...)
19The rationalizing of Chinese texts according to the standards of German Idealism entailed a rather bizarre demystification, which correlates with dehistorization. Of course, it would be inappropriate to demand from a translation that was already under way in 1913 (Yijing) the critical historical view of a Gu Jiegang or Li Jingchi, who started to publish much later. However, Wilhelm’s entire translation is shaped by a wilful renunciation of timeliness: in the tuan-text on hexagram 35 (jin), we find the “strong Prince” (Kang hou) in the place of the personal name of Kang Shu, who was at first enfeoffed to Kang and later to Wei, and to whom Wilhelm’s commentary (purporting to provide the reader with an explanation of the true meaning) refers only: “Als Beispiel wird eine Zeit geschildert, da ein starker Lehnsfürst...”6 (I Ging: 137) A similar case can be found in the translation of the line commentary (yao ci) to the six on sixth place in hexagram 17 (sui) which, according to the tradition, includes an allusion to the difficult situation of King Wen at Jiuli: no mention of King Wen is made, and, in Wilhelm’s “translation commentary”, “the parable is chosen from the Zhou dynasty. This dynasty honoured meritorious servants by granting them a place in the ancestral temple of the ruling family on the West Mountain...” (ibid.: 85) If it is true that “everything ephemeral is only a parable”, then, Wilhelm always proceeds directly to what is signified instead of presenting the reader with the content of the “parable”. A last example: Given his broad knowledge of the Chinese classics, it is astonishing that Wilhelm, in translating and commenting hexagram no. 56 (lü, travelling) ignored the Bamboo Annals, the Classic of Mountains and Seas, the Spring and Autumn of Mr. Lü (which he also translated), the Huainanzi and many other important texts which all give a relatively detailed account of the travels of King Hai (a legendary figure who seems to mark the historical transition from a hunting to a nomadic society), who is the subject of this hexagram. Instead, the reader is presented with eternal values of moral behaviour for knight-errants and strangers7.
20As already shown above, this kind of dehistorization is achieved by generalization through comparison: we count ten quotations from Goethe to explain propositions from the Yijing, a further six citations from the New Testament, three from the Old Testament, and many more. Wilhelm’s comparisons always display a presumed identity and never a difference.
21It is this comparison, situated on a level where historical reflections are a quantité négligeable, which characterizes the tenor of Wilhelm’s translation-commentaries. The reader is not given the chance to comprehend the elaboration of an argument (this being regarded as dry historicism), it is rather the impact of the interpreter’s authority which forces the reader to believe. A believer tends to create new believers. The claim to timelessness turns out to be utterly, “irrevocably” dated, since the presumed “eternal truths” are hardly more than an obvious escape from a dreaded modernity.
Holenstein, Hans. 1993. “Vergleichende Kulturphilosophie. Chinesische Bilder, japanische Beispiele, schweizerische Verhältnisse”, Studien zur interkulturellen Philosophie, 1.
I Ging. Das Buch der Wandlungen. Aus dem Chinesischen übertragen und herausgegeben von Richard Wilhelm. 1956. Diisseldorf, Diederichs. (Preface 1923.)
Kungfutse. Gespräche (Lun Yü). Aus dem Chinesischen verdeutscht und erläutert von Richard Wilhelm. 1921. Jena, Diederichs.
Lackner, Michael. 1993. “A Figurist at Work. The Vestigia of Joseph de Prémare S.J.”, in Catherine Jami and Hubert Delahaye (eds.), L’Europe en Chine. Interactions scientifiques, religieuses et culturelles aux xviie et xviiie siècles. Paris, Mémoires de l’Institut des Hautes Études Chinoises: 23-56.
Liu Shu-hsien (Liu Shuxian). 1971. “The Religious Impact of Confucius’ Philosophy: Its Traditional Outlook and Contemporary Significance”, Philosophy East and West, 21: 157-175.
Minford, John. 1995. “Pieces of Eight. Reflections on Translating the Story of the Stone”, in Eugene Eoyang and Lin Yao-fu (eds.), Translating Chinese Literature. Bloomington/Indianapolis, Indiana University Press: 178-203.
Quan Hansheng. 1935. “Qingmo de ‘xixue yuanchu Zhongguo’ shuo” [The late Qing theory of the Chinese origin of Western learning], Lingnan xuebao, 4, 2: 57-102.
Schmitt, Gerhard. 1970. Sprüche der Wandlungen auf ihrem geistesgeschichtlichen Hintergrund. Berlin, Akademie Verlag.
Steiner, George. 1975. After Babel. Aspects of Language and Translation. Oxford/New York, Oxford University Press.
Wilhelm, Richard and C.G. Jung. 1929. Das Geheimnis der Goldenen Blüte. Ein chinesisches Lebensbuch. Zurich, Rascher.
Wilhelm, Salome (ed.). 1956. Richard Wilhelm. Der geistige Minier zwischen China und Europa. Mit einer Einleitung von Walter F. Otto. Düsseldorf, Diederichs.
1 . All translations from the German are mine.
2 . “When translating the Book of Documents, the book by Wundt is always on my table. It is striking how many confirmations I can find there from the point of view of psychology of peoples...” (S. Wilhelm 1956: 246).
3 . If one declares the paragraphs 1-5 as “unhistorical, the image of Confucius is certainly not damaged by loosing these pedantic characteristics” (Kungfutse: 99).
4 . It is interesting to note that the idea of a Confucian religion which is more “advanced” since it lacks the notion of a church (and, eventually, even that of God) characterizes the reception of the German thinker Paul Tillich (1868-1965) by contemporary Chinese Neo-Confucians like Liu Shuxian, see for instance Liu Shuxian (Liu Shu-hsien), “The religious impact of Confucius’ philosophy: its traditional outlook and contemporary significance”, in Philosophy East and West, 21 (1971): 157-175.
5 . All quotations are from Kungfutse: 173 f.
6 . “As an example a period is described when a strong feudal lord...”
7 . I Ging: 206-208, 596-599. For a detailed account of the historical layers of this hexagram, see Schmitt 1970: 86-107.
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