Postmodernism, Foucault and Chinese translation

foucault head in hands

I attended a meeting recently at University of Auckland where I found myself in muttered exclamation “Don’t go there!” when a young lecturer ventured to assert the postmodernist* idea that there can be no wrong translations. It reminded me of childish journalists describing themselves as entertainers who seek balance because there is no such thing as truth. Ughhh!! Pomo, like all religions, has a lot to answer for. The moderator looked worried that he might have to deal with an interjecting idiot, me. But I buttoned my lip from there on and managed to keep smiling.

Anyway, it put me in mind of a translation I did many moons ago of Yang Nianqun where he used Foucault to examine the Regionalization of Confucianism. (“Regionalization of Confucian Learning. Intellectual Groups and Confucianism as Historical Discourse.” Contemporary Chinese Thought, Spring 2000, Vol 31, No. 3  Spring Issue, M E Sharpe, New York)

There were tricky issues in the translation and it was another good lesson for me in the fundamental importance of collaboration in translation. We had good discussions between author, translator and academic editor. Any translator who thinks they are an island to themselves is an island to themselves.

One of the biggest issues was how to translate the many references to Foucault which Yang quoted. He had read and understood the Chinese version of Foucault (translated from the French) and I thought it was important to translate this Chinese version back into English; after all, the point of my translation was to give English readers an idea of what Yang thought. Yang had based his writing on the Chinese version, not the French, and certainly not any “approved” English version.

However, the academic editor at Leuven University decided that we should use the approved English translation of Foucault. So I went to the library, matched the English passages of Foucault with the corresponding Chinese passages, and voila “cut and paste”. Pity, but there it is. And the point of the story? It illustrates a typical postmodern approach to scholarship: “Ah it doesn’t matter. Truth is all relative. Let’s just get it done. My next promotion is assured when I play the game.”

Another lesson for me was Yang’s flowery language and whether I should adopt a flowery translation or a simple one. When I asked Yang why he used a flowery register, he replied that it was important in the Chinese context that the language sound educated, that there were references to the classics and that this way his readers would be more convinced by him. Rhetorical devices like this certainly weren’t necessarily the route to academic success in the west at that time (pomo excluded again of course where a parade of the jargon is de rigueur even if you or Alan Sokal or anyone else has no idea what it means). In the event, we decided to keep the translation as readable and simple as possible. I thought it was a good decision at the time, but now that I look back on it, it might have been better to portray it in all its postmodern clothes to see if they fit the emperor.


For the record, the Chinese version of Foucault made much more sense to me as a clear piece of writing than the jargon-laden English version. Maybe the Chinese translators had also done a simplification job? Unfortunately my French is not good enough to know. Hmmm, another PhD in there for someone.

* Postmodernism is the silly belief that there can be no objective truth and that all opinions are valid. It’s usually loved by social workers who don’t understand science. If you think I’m kidding, see this appalling piece by Emily Keddell. And here’s my comment which Emily refused to publish on her blog (she then blocked me on Twitter, sob sob). My comment had written support from other academics in NZ who thought she should have published it:

I’m sorry that your theoretical framework gets in the way of what you want to say. Social work writing seems to the last bastion of postmodernism. There are in fact objective facts. The problem for the policy maker is deciding which of them is relevant. Your task as a good writer is to sum up your point of view in 300 words or less, put that in the introduction and then argue the case.

Postmodernism was nicely blown out of the water by Alan Sokal in this little sting. The photo above is Michel Foucault rightly holding his head in his hands. He’s a good postmodernist who naturally says he’s not a postmodernist. People write PhD’s about this.


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