An Ambiguity in the Analects

The following passage from the Analects confused me when I was reading a bit earlier this afternoon. I read the classical Chinese text first, without punctuation, and thought I’d understood it. Then I read a translation, which differed quite a bit from my original reading. I’ve been thinking about it for a while, and I now think my initial reading was probably wrong. But I would be interested to hear from others what they think.

Below, I’ve quoted the passage in classical Chinese with punctuation marks, but without quotation marks. I’ve appended Legge’s translations, and my own translations where my interpretation differs from his. As always, you can consult the entire text and get basic glosses at the CTP. Some background: Yang Huo was employed by Ji Shi , and responsible for governing the state of Lu.

陽 貨欲見孔子,孔子不見,
Legge: Yang Huo wished to see Confucius, but Confucius would not go to see him.

On this, he sent a present of a pig to Confucius, who, having chosen a time when Huo was not at home, went to pay his respects for the gift. He met him, however, on the way.
時其亡 is an interesting construction! 亡 can often be used instead of 無, as is the case here.

謂孔子曰: 來!予與爾言。
Legge: Huo said to Confucius, “Come, let me speak with you.”

曰:懷其寶而迷其邦, 可謂仁乎?
Legge: He [Huo] then asked, “Can he be called benevolent who keeps his jewel in his bosom, and leaves his country to confusion?”
Alternative: Confucius asked: “Can he be called benevolent who keeps his jewel in his bosom, and leaves his country to confusion?”
Notes: In Legge’s translation, the subject of the second 曰 remains Yang Huo. But 曰 almost always introduces a change of speaker. If Confucius asked this question, it may explain why he had refused to see Yang Huo: he felt he was not a good administrator and did not want to be in his company.

Legge: Confucius replied, “No.” [Huo asked:] “Can he be called wise, who is anxious to be engaged in public employment, and yet is constantly losing the opportunity of being so?”
Alternative: Huo replied: “No.” Confucius asked: “Can he be called wise, who appreciates what it takes to serve, yet is always tardy in doing so?”
Notes: There is no 曰 after the 不可, but you have to insert a 曰 for the passage to make sense no matter what.

曰: 不可。日月逝矣,歲不我與。
Legge: Confucius again said, “No.” [Huo asked:] “The days and months are passing away; the years do not wait for us.”
Legge: Huo said: “No. But I am an old man already; I do not have a lot of time left.”
Notes: Legge inserts another 曰 after the 不可 in this sentence. I do not, reading Huo’s statement as an apology for his bad record, which then makes Confucius change his mind about Huo.

孔子 曰:『諾。吾將仕矣。』
Legge: Confucius said, “Right; I will go into office.”

So, which seems more the more probable reading to you, and especially: why? Would be interested to hear your thoughts!

The mathematics of Mandarin

Not too long ago I started talking about the so-called “vagueness” of Mandarin. This is the perception voiced by some — both native and non-native speakers — that the language is more vague, well, than English at any rate. It’s a perception I’d usually call an intellectual hors d’oeuvre*, a mostly untestable idea of questionable origin that has a whiff of plausibility and some tasty examples to whet your appetite — but is fundamentally unsatisfying. Still, I thought it might be possible that the difference between certain grammatical structures — between Chinese and English — might smear a bit of plausibility on the hors d’oeuvre.

Bruce Humes in a comment on another post expanded on the vagueness perception:

Many Chinese really DO believe that the Chinese language lacks grammar, and having been taught that English does have a very demanding grammar, many Chinese professionals (not just lawyers but also engineers, etc.) then proceed to either 1) Ignore finer Chinese grammar points (which they obviously do know, as native speakers), and/or 2) Consciously or sub-consciously apply English grammar to written Chinese in the belief that this would raise their status in the eyes of others. Continue…

I’m talking to you or about someone else

My daughter (PBS), now 8, has been Mommy’s girl since day 1. Sure, Dad is a reasonable substitute when Mom’s not around. And we did have a long honeymoon last year when I moved to Beijing after a several-month stint of separation. Still, I’ve got no illusions about where her center of gravity is.

Even so, I draw the line at being discussed as if I’m not there. So the other day after I’d told her to clean her toys off the stairs — and added a long, dull parental lecture about how someone might slip and break open their skull — and PBS responded by looking at her mother and saying…

Bàba zài shuō shénme?
What’s Daddy saying?

… I groused at her: “Why don’t you just ask me instead of talking to your mom as if I’m not here.”

“But Daddy,” she countered, “I was talking to you!”

Then it struck me: she could have been talking to me. That is, a perfectly grammatical translation could also be:

Bàba zài shuō shénme?
What are you saying? [where bàba is a title and used in place of “you”] Continue…

Fake/(Real) Chinese

I’ve always wanted to fake people out like this:

(We’ve all got monolingual friends, and some of those might not know that we’re bilingual.)

At a gathering of friends who are monolingual and don’t know you can speak Chinese, announce that you can speak Chinese fluently.  It’s best if you’re with a crowd that wouldn’t suspect that you could do such a thing.

Then say something that to an English speaking monolingual person sounds like fake Chinese, but to a Chinese person sounds perfectly reasonable.  My best attempt (in a pseudo-Beijing-Opera voice):

经常上长城! (jīngcháng shàng chángchéng, Go to the Great Wall often!