Brief bio sketch

Lloyd Haft (1946- ) was born in Sheboygan, Wisconsin USA and lived as a boy in Wisconsin, Louisiana and Kansas. In 1968 he graduated from Harvard College and went to Leiden, The Netherlands for graduate study in Chinese (M. A. 1973, Ph. D. 1981). From 1973 to 2004 he taught Chinese language and literature, mostly poetry, at Leiden. His sinological publications include Pien Chih-lin: A Study in Modern Chinese Poetry (1983/2011; published in Chinese translation as 发现卞之琳: 一位西方学者的探索之旅 in 2010) and Zhou Mengdie’s Poetry of Consciousness (2006).

He has translated extensively into English from the Dutch of Herman Gorter and Willem Hussem, and from the Chinese of various poets including Lo Fu, Yang Lingye, Bian Zhilin and Zhou Mengdie.

Since the 1980s he has also been active as a poet writing in Dutch and English. He was awarded the Jan Campert Prize for his 1993 bilingual volume Atlantis and the Ida Gerhardt Prize for his 2003 Dutch free-verse readings of the Psalms (republished by Uitgeverij Vesuvius in 2011). His most recent book of poems (in Dutch) is Deze poelen, deze geest (2008). His newer poems are published (some republished) on this blog.

After early retirement in 2004, for a number of years Lloyd Haft spent much of his time in Taiwan with his wife Katie Su. In addition to writing and translating, his interests include Song-dynasty philosophy and taiji quan. He sings in the choir of a Roman Catholic church of the Eastern Rite in The Hague.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Haft’s Incommensurability Principle

(Scraps from a Sinological Scrapbook 漢齋閒情異誌, fragment 2)

Many people have heard at least vaguely of what physicists call Bohr’s Complementarity Principle, but so far hardly anybody has heard of Haft’s Incommensurability Principle. If the great Danish physicist’s principle implies that a phenomenon may have, may even require, two apparently incompatible explanations, my own hitherto unsung contribution simply states that Chinese words do not in any realistic sense ‘mean’ the same thing as their supposedly ‘correct’ translations into English. The whole Chinese conceptual world is organized so differently to our own; the background of assumptions, emotional associations and conditioned social implications of the words – the ‘setting’ or ‘discourse’ in which the words operate – is so fantastically unlike our own, that it can never be assumed a supposedly ‘same’ word means the ‘same’ thing. Nor, on the other hand, does it ‘mean’ something different in our terms. What it ‘means’ cannot be fitted into the framework of ‘our terms’ at all. It is a meaning which, for us, does not exist.
        Hundreds of words could be adduced to support what I am saying, but surely the most important is that most central of all words in Western culture and life...the pronoun ‘I.’ (Undoubtedly if I were turning this around and starting with a Chinese example, most people would expect me to mention first the verb ‘eat’...) In Chinese culture and life, this oh-so-tiny-looking word does not ‘do’ anything like the same crucial and life-determining things it ‘does’ in the West. Nor has it ever.
        I need to keep these Scrapbook Scraps short, so I will not now immediately go on to write a whole book on this. Actually, it has already been done, many times. I have not yet compiled my list of Underground Must-Reads in Sinology, but when I do, one of the authors near the top of it will be Chad Hansen. In an article titled ‘Philosophy of Mind in China,’ he points out that in much of ancient Chinese thought, the ‘subject’ is ‘in the world, not in the mind.’ In the same article, he says that in the prevalent old Chinese view, ‘the social-historical tradition, not individual psychology, grounds meaning.’ One more quote, again pointing to a Fundamental Divide, a Great Gulf Fixed, between East and West: Hansen says that most of the ancient Chinese philosophers ‘did not regard experience as a mental concept in the classic Western sense of being a subjective or private content.’
        Well, if the ‘subject’ is not in ‘the mind’ at all, let alone in MY individual mind...if my ‘meaning’ has nothing to do with ‘psychology’...and if my ‘experience’ is not ‘subjective’ at all...then in what sense does the word ‘I’ still mean ‘I’?
        What we are looking at here is a perfect case of Incommensurability.
        An aside at this point: is it mere coincidence that in English, ‘I’ and ‘eye’ sound the same? (Answer: yes, it is the merest coincidence. Only a poet would think it is deeply meaningful.)
        Chad Hansen’s article is still out there:

March 6, 2011