Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Sympathetic understanding

Mencius (372 – 289 BCE) explained how to interpret a poem (or ode):

故說詩者,不以文害辭,不以辭害志,以意逆志,是為得之。

Hence in explaining an ode, one should not allow the words to get in
the way of the sentence, nor the sentence to get in the way of the
sense. The right way is to meet the intention of the poet with
sympathetic understanding.

Come to think of it, that's also good advice for those of us to read
and translate foreign texts.

The translation is by D.C. Lau in Mencius, The Chinese University
Press, 2003, p. 201.
(Mencius, Book 5, Part A, Chapter 4)

Stephen Owen's translation is more accurate:

"In explaining the poems of the Book of Songs, one must not permit the literary patterning [wen] to affect adversely [the understanding] of the statement [ci]; and one must not permit [our understanding of] the statement to affect adversely [our understanding of] what was the the writer's mind [zhi]. We use our understanding [yi] to trace it back to what was [originally] in the writer's mind [zhi]--this is how to grasp it."

Stephen Owen, Readings in Chinese Literary Thought, Harvard University Press, 1996, p. 24. (I've changed Owen's Wade-Giles to pinyin.)