Learning to read classical Chinese, and especially the classics of Chinese medicine, is no easy task. I believe everyone who is capable of learning the medicine well is capable of reading the classics. This endeavor takes a good method, a lot of focus, patience and hard work. In this and the following post, I will discuss the methods that work,and the methods that don’t. This article focuses on the most popular method for learning to read the classics, which I argue doesn’t work.
Over the last few years, there have been a number of translations available and most of these do not include the Chinese. The only really great translations I have read are Nigel Wiseman’s translation of the Shang Han Lun and Paul Unschuld’s translation of the Nan Jing. These both include the original Chinese, are very well-done and I highly recommend them (There may be others that I have not seen). However, many people believe they can learn to read classical Chinese by comparing the translations to the original Chinese. This is a mistake and will result only in frustration.
Let’s take Chinese out of the picture to make this point clear. If someone wants to learn French, they have a lot of options. The best way would probably be to take some introductory courses, get a grasp of the language, and then move to France for a while. Taking courses in France while interacting with the people would be great for language development. Others might take years of courses as part of a university minor, for example. They could probably take a yearly vacation to France and do pretty well.
Let’s say another person only wants to read the language and they don’t want to learn to speak. There are many academics who do this for research purposes. How could they go about this? People would first need a good set of textbooks that suit their level. Obviously, such a person would want to start at a beginner’s level and work their way up to advanced. Such books build vocabulary and grammar step-by-step, building the learner’s skills. Second, they would need a good dictionary. A good grammar guide would probably help those who are more analytically oriented. At some point, the student might look for a teacher who can help them with problem areas. Within a short period of time, this learner would have all of the tools needed to read the language well; even complicated texts can now be worked through with the help of a good dictionary. Let’s say another person decides to order one copy of The Little Prince in English, and another copy in French. They sit down with each text and compare. They try to figure out how the verbs are conjugated and which English word matches each French word. They might consult dictionaries to help in this endeavor. The second learner would probably give up within a very short period of time.
The problem today is that most people are using the second method to study classical Chinese and they think they have a good grasp of the language. I often see blog posts on the web where people offer up their translations of medical texts. The problem with this is that these are medical texts. Practitioners may think they are reading something accurate and treat themselves or another person. I’m not saying never put translations on the web; I’m only saying that those who do should be really sure that what they post is accurate and will do no harm.
In all of my writings, my goal is to move away from translation and into explanation. The profession needs more people who understand the texts and are willing to put their conclusions based on that information out there through teaching. Even the best translations can never fully represent the original Chinese perfectly. These are very different languages with an entirely different set of assumptions. Even in doing the translations for Classical Chinese Medical Texts, which are included only to make the Chinese clear for the reader, I was often frustrated in trying to come up with a way to render the Chinese into English so that people could follow the characters and grammar. This resulted in some translations which could be better from an English perspective, but that reflect the Chinese more accurately. I would never translate in such a direct way out of the context of a book that is trying to teach classical Chinese. (This is a complicated issue, so I might write more on it in the future) I believe a translation can either teach or be rendered beautifully into the target language-it can’t always do both. All of the translations I have seen on the market were not written as teaching tools, do not contain grammar explanations, and therefore cannot be used as language teaching or learning tools.
I am sure I have seen all of the translations of medical texts that don’t include Chinese. I don’t recommend any of them. In fact, I would urge people to avoid them unless their understanding of classical Chinese is good enough to compare them to the original texts, as reading only the English can cause a great deal of confusion. Poorly done translations hurt the medicine. Some believe that by making them available in English, they are doing a great service; however, a translation that does not do justice to the original leads people to make assumptions about the medicine that are just not accurate. I can already hear people protesting: If I want to read the classics, and there is only one available translation, then I should read it! I disagree. If someone were to say there is a brand of pain relief medication that reportedly works well, but that most of the indications and warnings are inaccurate to the point that no one understands the mechanism of that drug, should it be ingested? If someone wants to read the classics, they should either wait for a good translation of it or learn to read Chinese. These texts are not novels and to treat people in clinics we need reliable information to be informed. If your first rule is to do no harm, avoid these translations. There is no doubt that this leaves a big hole in the medicine. Why not help fill it? If you are willing to do the work to learn this language, then you can. You don’t have to become a translator-actually, it’s better not to. You can add to your understanding of the medicine through the original texts and pass that information on to others.
This article has focused more on what not to do. My next post will focus on some practical tips, websites, dictionaries, and books that are helpful in learning to read classical Chinese medical texts.