Monday, October 01, 2007

Language and Colonialism: escaping the trap.

Over at KTM's blog there is a good post on the problems of studying and/or talking about other cultures without the discourse being inherently orientalizing or colonial due to the imposition of our words upon the social structures of others. I find that I run into this problem a lot in philosophy discourse.

Right now I'm reading translations of Neo-Confucian philosophers, a term made up by the west, and one of the frustrations I have is that they, the translators, translate essential concepts into English. My preferred method would be to leave a number of concepts in the original language as to better understand what the authors are saying as opposed to making it easier to misunderstand by using words I know already, words which have connotative meaning that situate the original texts in such a way as to beg misinterpretation.

One of these words is li, not to be confused with li though both are problematic in terms of translation. Li is generally translated as pattern or principle, but both those translations lack the meaning of li, they are used simply as English substitutes for a Chinese word that is rich in connotative meaning.

Of course, the best method for studying philosophy in another language is to learn that language, but it seems a bit much to expect anyone who wishes to know something of Chinese philosophy to learn Chinese, there'd be no end to the language learning.* But, it doesn't seem to much to ask to do our best to situate the words in their own discourse and not simply drop in an English substitute.

*Not that that would necessarily be bad, mind you.

1 comment:

... said...

I am feeling critical of your use of "our" and "they." Think about it.