On Failing to Understand the Yijing

How do you culturally translate a text when one of the most striking things about the text is that it is either misunderstood, or simply not understood, in its original language? This is a question I’ve been thinking about for a long time with respect to the Yijing (I Ching 易經) or Book of Changes. The question is particularly pressing as I have been attempting to carry out just such a cultural translation for my forthcoming book, Sixty-Four Chance Pieces: A Book of Changes. And so I’m very pleased to have just published a paper on this topic in JOMEC journal’s special issue on Cultural Translation and East Asia.

Alongside questions of cultural translation, this paper also discusses fish, fish-traps, Zhuangzi, understanding Derrida, not understanding Derrida, the terror of the English when faced with that strangest of French contraptions, the bidet (“what is it for?”), tango dancing in Hong Kong and three-legged birds made of bronze that turn into fish. In other words, it covers most of the things that are of pressing contemporary concern.

You can get hold of it as a PDF (nicely open access) by clicking this link.

Comments

Dmitry
Reply

I’ll say I like it, and the story is fantastic.
I’d say you do with Yijing exactly the thing that should be done with it. You’re catching the rhythm of Yin and Yang lines, the waves of emptiness, and make them unfurl into a story. Although there’s an infinite number of stories, and an infinite number of framework variations of those, they stem from a core wherein they can be described by a smaller and smaller, the closer it is to the centre, number of types. I’m writing about approximately the same in my things; knowing the basic types and seeing them everywhere, one’s becoming as good a divinator, or, as I prefer to say, interpreter as one can be.
Only recently I got me a copy of the complete Father Brown and found I was starting to love Chesterton’s language exactly because it wasn’t so easy-flowing and going unlike, say, Wodehouse’s or yours. I love it for being difficult at places; for the effort it takes to understand an occasional short sentence that attempts at blocking your way like rocks in a rapid watercourse, but it always hides something exceptionally valuable inside. Starting with non-understanding, indeed, makes you be on much more intimate terms with the subject in the end.
You’re asking this question:

“…if I did not understand the Yijing, and if most readers in China did not understand the Yijing, then were we not understanding the text in the same way?”

There is yet another question, no less interesting, and this could also prove fruitful: were you not not understanding Yijing in the same way? As you yourself put it,

“There is no right way to look at water. But there are innumerable wrong ways”.

Fish turn into birds and back again in many a mythology; one can find it in poetry and in dreams of people who never studied anything Oriental. (By the way, Kun and Peng – is it pinyin or Wade’s?)

I also like what you say about translation in general – it’s so much more human and profound than what the dinosaurs from my language college (and their well-trained and tamed houselings) used to teach us, and so close to my own understanding of the matter.
PS I wonder if you got my latest email – what I’ve written can be understood also as striving for a language that could provide the West with a cultural context for understanding – or, leastways, translating, among other things, Yijing. And I start with non-understanding as well as you did in this paper.
PPS More about links to the West. In the final chapter of Milne’s The House at Pooh Corner we part with Christopher Robin and Winnie-the-Pooh in an Enchanted Place which was thought enchanted because no-one knew how many pine trees were there, sixty-three or sixty-four, even if you counted them tying a bit of string to each one you’d counted. I wonder why people like Benjamin Hoff (The Tao of Pooh/The Te of Piglet) or J. T. Williams missed it, this being a direct reference to Yijing – It is the End – It’s not the End Yet.

Christopher Willmot
Reply

This reminds me of Hexagram 4, with its insistence that not knowing is the Way forward (especially when tempted to ask silly questions). I particularly appreciate your openness to the (often unconscious) wisdom of ordinary, straight-forward folk.

okei
Reply

This is a project I would love to do myself one day in the form of poetry, but facing all the difficulties you described yourself as starting with, including not knowing Chinese when you began! I would love to read your completed book (and even all the drafting thoughts leading up to it), any chance of seeing it early and being a proof-reader? I’ve downloaded the article and sort-of skimmed it, but I’ll be back to read it more carefully over the Christmas break.

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