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.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

What’s in a Transcribed Name? – Part Two

(Scraps from a Sinological Scrapbook 漢齋閒情異誌, fragment 9).

In declaring that there will never be an all-round ‘satisfactory’ transcription system for Chinese, I am aware that not everybody defines either ‘all-round’ or ‘satisfactory’ in the same way. My own definition of ‘satisfactory,’ for example, would be less fine-grained than that of a famous American professor who, reasoning that in the Chinese character script every character theoretically occupies the same amount of space on the page, actually achieved the mental feat of designing a transcription in which each of the several hundred possible syllables could be written using the same number of letters.
As for ‘all-round,’ to begin with, people often envision very different possible uses for a transcription. Speaking very generally, there may be quite a difference between a transcription intended for students to use as a tool in learning the language and, on the other hand, a system for use in the mass media in reporting current events in China. The four tones of Mandarin, which every student of the language is expected to master, must be clearly indicated in whatever transcription their textbooks are written in. On the other hand, the tones are irrelevant abracadabra to non-sinologists, and to them it would be distracting and irritating to have to use a transcription complicated enough to embody that information.
The pinyin transcription can straddle both horns of this dichotomy. In it, the tones may be indicated by accent marks above the vowels, but the marks can be left out at will. In practice they are very often left out. We teach our students that the tones are an inseparable element of Chinese words, that without the tones there would be intolerable ambiguity...but we all know that in practice things are much less extreme. It is easy enough to cite cases of words distinguished only by tone – ‘buy’ and ‘sell’ being the classical case – but in real life, just about all of the time, if you just transcribe what somebody is saying into pinyin without tone marks, most or all of the message is immediately clear.
I would go on to say that the importance of tones as such is usually exaggerated by the kind of textbooks we use. I personally believe tones are less significant elements than other components of the words. I find it much easier to understand speakers from Henan Province in Central China, whose tones sound so ‘incorrect’ that they should theoretically be confusing to the ear, but whose consonants, especially at the beginning of words, sound like the dictionary says they should – than even highly educated Mandarin speakers from Taiwan, whose every tone may be correct but who evidently feel it is perfectly acceptable to indulge habitually in a massive diffusion of consonant sounds which blurs hundreds of words into ambiguity, such that ‘mountain’ and ‘three’ sound alike, ‘pig’ and ‘rent’ and so on.
         The transcription I learned at Harvard, the so-called ‘G.R.’ or Gwoyeu Romatzyh 國語羅馬字system of which Yuen Ren Chao is the best-known proponent, indicated the four tones not by distinctive markings above the vowels of each syllable, but as distinctive spellings of the syllables themselves. This meant that the syllable ‘ju’ in the four tones appeared respectively as ju, jwu, juu and juh. For visually oriented learners (or written-language freaks) like myself, this had the powerful advantage of impressing the tone as an inherent part of the syllable, not just, in Chao’s own phrase, ‘as an afterthought.’
        On the other hand, the disadvantage was that unless you were already sure of its tone, you could not know how to write down a word even approximately. A related problem – and now I really am getting a bit technical – was that in Chao’s system, even an unaccented or ‘neutral tone’ syllable (of which there are very many in actual speech) was always to be spelled as if it had its full tone, that is, the tone in which it would be pronounced if cited aloud, fully stressed, in isolation from any context. The trouble with this is that in listening to people talk, you normally (or often, or sometimes) can hear the overall ‘shape’ of this ‘neutral’ syllable but not its distinctive tone, since all neutral-tone syllables sound the same as regards pitch. Again, how to write it? How even to jot it down?
        So, if the Wade-Giles spelling is ‘cumbersome,’ the G. R. system demands a perhaps unrealistically intense focus on tones, but meanwhile we have in pinyin a perfectly serviceable, linguistically defensible system which has been around for more than half a century and which has come increasingly into use for a wide range of purposes all over the world – doesn’t this mean the question of transcription has been settled once and for all?
        It does not. The reasons are extra-linguistic, reminding us that language does not exist in an intellectual vacuum, but is a matter of people communicating with other people in social and temporal contexts that impose their own demands. When the pinyin transcription first appeared on the scene (it was officially published in 1958), the mere fact that it originated in ‘Red’ China, an area which many countries still did not diplomatically recognize and whose long-term political legitimacy was still felt to be uncertain, meant it could not be widely accepted by Western scholars. As time wore on and the U.S. government refrained from fully recognizing the PRC until 1979, some American sinologists started using if not flaunting pinyin as a genteel political statement, while others would have nothing to do with the ‘Red’ spelling system. For decades, some of the most widely used language textbooks employed  an easy-to-read system, the Yale Romanization, which had originally been devised by George A. Kennedy in 1943 for use in U.S. Army language manuals,[1] but as far as I know, it never made much headway in non-educational contexts. In the academic or scholarly-sinological milieu, Wade-Giles remained dominant – and the longer it remained dominant, the more it seemingly legitimated itself as the vehicle of a venerable and uniquely Western ‘lineage’ of learning.
        My own position was ambiguous and changed slowly. By 1979, I was realistic enough to know that the PRC had come to stay, but I resented the idea that a sudden shift in present-day worldly politics should automatically impose a parallel shift in our manner of spelling Chinese within a scholarly or literary context that had its own history, its own associations, and its own tradition of validity. When I wrote my thesis on Bian Zhilin in 1980, and again when its commercial edition came out in 1983 (see Fragment 7 of this Scrapbook, ‘Preface to Discovering Bian Zhilin’), I still wrote Wade-Giles. As far as I can reconstruct things, my first ‘serious’ sinological publication using pinyin was a Dutch-language history of Chinese literature which I co-authored with Wilt Idema in 1985.[2] As late as 1996, when I published the results of a rhythmic study of Feng Zhi’s 馮至 sonnets in a journal,[3] I still called him ‘Feng Chih,’ true to my Wade-Giles background. I thought I was doing a favor to readers who might wish to consult older scholarly literature on Chinese poetry, most of which was in Wade-Giles. Four years later, when I republished that article as one chapter of a book-length study of the sonnet form in modern Chinese poetry, I finally changed everything to pinyin.[4] Pinyin was obviously being used all over the world for more and more purposes, and I thought maybe the day had come when even non-specialist readers would be acquainted with it. To me, the shift had no political import; I was simply adapting – I thought – to the inevitable.
      Two weeks ago now, I was browsing through a second-hand bookstore in Seattle, USA. I was delighted to find a study of one of my favorite Song-dynasty philosophers, Xie Liangzuo (or Hsieh Liang-tso 謝良佐), published by the Oxford University Press in 2005.[5] By now I was a bit surprised to see it was in Wade-Giles throughout, except for, in the author’s words, ‘names of contemporary Chinese who use the Pinyin system for spelling their names.’
        This brings us to an important point which I will go into in more detail, and with more emotion, in Part Five: transcribe as ye may, but hands off personal names!
        For the moment, back to Xie Liangzuo anno 2005. It so happened that the following day, still in Seattle but at a different bookstore, I found Don Wyatt’s 1996 study of my current favorite Chinese philosopher Shao Yong 邵雍.[6] It, too, was in Wade-Giles.
        I was glad, found it somehow heartening, to see that these two authors, writing about closely related aspects of the Chinese philosophy of nearly a thousand years ago, and publishing with two of the most ‘classic’ publishers in ‘the field,’ had felt free to carry on our Venerable Lineage. There is no evidence that their non-use of pinyin implies any particular political stance. Perhaps it is just an implicit expression of loyalty to our own Tradition, our own Guild, our own Lodge as it were.
        But why am I saying ‘our’ guild, ‘our’ lodge, as if I had published a lot of things in philosophy? Aren’t I a poetry man? How have poetry studies fared in the orthographic struggle between adaptation and continuity?
        There is so much to say about this that I will wait till Part Three to really tackle it. But for now, let me close with a hint: some of the most innovative translators use some of the most history-laden transcriptions.

[1] See Jeroen Wiedenhof, ‘Purpose and effect in the transcription of Mandarin’, at
[2] Chinese letterkunde, Uitgeverij Spectrum 1985. The revised English version appeared as A Guide to Chinese Literature, Center for Chinese Studies, University of Michigan 1997. The choice of pinyin for the original Dutch version was made easier by the fact that in The Netherlands, unlike the English-speaking world, there was no other single transcription having the established authority and prestige of the Wade-Giles.
[3] ‘Some Rhythmic Structures in Feng Chih’s Sonnets’, in Modern Chinese Literature 9:2 (fall 1996), pp. 297-326.
[4] The Chinese Sonnet: Meanings of a Form, Leiden: Research School of Asian, African, and American Studies, 2000.
[5] Thomas W. Selover, Hsieh Liang-tso and the Analects of Confucius: Humane Learning as a Religious Quest, Oxford University Press 2005.
[6] Don J. Wyatt, The Recluse of Loyang: Shao Yung and the Moral Evolution of Early Sung Thought, University of Hawaii Press 1996.