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.

Monday, April 25, 2011

What's in a Transcribed Name? - Part One

(Scraps from a Sinological Scrapbook 漢齋閒情異誌, fragment 8)

Some years ago, one of my colleagues in Chinese studies amused us over the internet with a humorous maxim that he had come up with. It was that there are three sure signs by which you can tell that a Sinologist has finally crossed over the borderline that separates Genius from Madness. The three are:

(1)   he or she invents a new system of alphabetic transcription for Chinese;
(2)   he or she comes out with a new translation of the Dao De Jing (道德經); or
(3)   he or she is occupied in any way whatsoever with the Yi Jing (易經).

Now, this really is a good joke, and fully deserves the insider’s laugh which it invariably evokes. But I’m afraid you have to be a rather ‘funny’ kind of person to appreciate just how funny it is. You have to be...a Sinologist.
        The second and third points are amusing to insiders because they remind us of the particular arrogance that many of us picked up, or at least learned to pretend to pick up, in the process of becoming initiates in this field. The idea is that the Dao De Jing and the Yi Jing, perhaps the only two Chinese books that non-sinologists really are fairly likely to have heard of, may even in some sense ‘believe in’ – are by that very fact too vulgar to be worthy of a true scholar’s attention. Perhaps there is also a hint that a ‘true’ Sinologist should have nothing but the purest, most abstractly intellectual interest in ‘the field’ in strict separation from personal life: he or she should have absolutely no personal or ‘private’ involvement along the lines of ‘believing in’ Chinese philosophy, ‘consulting’ the Yi Jing, or the like. (Writing these lines, I now wonder whether my own form of this ‘elitist’ approach comes out in the way that even after more than forty years in ‘the field,’ I still prefer to eat Chinese food, if and when I am compelled to eat it, with a knife and fork rather than with chopsticks...)
        But what about the first point? What would be so strange about inventing a new transcription system? To begin with, the full, obvious, and hopeless pointlessness of it. I have not gone to the trouble to conduct a survey among my colleagues on this, but let’s just suppose I did. Suppose I sent a hundred sinologists the question: ‘If one of our most famous colleagues, after decades of study and research, invented a new and improved system for spelling Chinese words and names in our alphabet...would you be interested in learning it and, potentially, starting to use it in your own publications?’ I would be amazed if even two out of the hundred responded in the affirmative. (Actually, to be honest, I would be surprised if even ten of the hundred responded at all. It is part of the standard ‘professional’ image nowadays not to have time to respond to emails.) The 98 who, like me, would immediately dismiss the whole idea as idiocy would reason thus:

(1)   there are already too many different competing transcriptions in the world; and
(2)   there is not, nor will there ever be, any such thing as a really satisfactory one for all purposes.

As for there being ‘many different’ transcriptions, I would not venture to say how many there are; perhaps nobody knows; but it would seem practically every Western language has produced at least one new system of its own. In Dutch alone, there are at least three that I know of. The title of the Song-dynasty philosophical handbook 近思錄, which Olaf Graf called ‘The Song-Confucianist Summa’ and which is one of my favorite books in Chinese, appears in Graf’s German translation as Djin-sï lu. In the present-day official standard transcription used in Mainland China, called Hanyu pinyin 漢語拼音or just pinyin, it would be Jinsilu. In the transcription I learned when I started studying Chinese at Harvard, it would be Jinn-sy Luh.
        To an experienced Sinologue, of course, there is no difference between Djin-sï lu and Jinsilu or Jinn-sy Luh, just as he or she can see at a glance that Zhu Xi, Ju Shi, Chu Hsi, Tchou Hi, Dschu Hsi and Tsjoe Sji are all the same – nothing but variant spellings of the name of 朱熹 (1130-1200), the all-time kingpin of ‘straight’ (i.e. non-New Age) Chinese philosophy and the more famous of the book’s two editors.
        In the course of time, due to the ever-growing influence of Anglophone culture on the world scene since the nineteenth century, the quaint-looking English transcription called the ‘Wade-Giles System’ came into widespread use even outside sinological circles. [1] The orthodox Wade-Giles spelling is complex and cumbersome: not only are many consonants followed by an apostrophe which it is totally inadmissible to delete (tang and t’ang are two entirely different words), but the apostrophe itself is supposed to be turned around to face in the opposite direction to a normal apostrophe – a typographical gymnastic which I do not even know how to do on a computer. In addition, there are supposed to be ‘circumflex’ and ‘breve’ accent marks above certain vowels; these contribute nothing to the distinctive identifiability of the syllables and are often quietly deleted.
        In practice, the Wade-Giles ‘system’ has become a loose family of systems more or less following the overall rule that an apostrophe is used to distinguish what are called the ‘aspirated’ consonants from the ‘non-aspirated.’ (Since even this supposedly crucial feature is often actually not observed, perhaps we are left with the fact that certain syllables begin with hs- as the one and only universal touchstone of Wade-Gilesness. (On second thought, that won’t work either: Graf uses it in his German transcription as well...)
        In practice, a slightly simplified version of the transcription, using a regular rather than an inverted apostrophe and deleting the superfluous diacritic marks over the vowels, is the most common form of ‘Wade-Giles spelling’ still used today. A sinological writer who adopts these simplifications is not truly ‘inventing a new transcription’ – hence not, at least by the three criteria mentioned at the beginning of this little essay, ipso facto in need of immediate psychiatric attention.
        It is not always easy to tell what constitutes a truly ‘new’ transcription. A few months ago I experienced a spectacular example of this. I was aware that Sir Joseph Needham, author of the incomparable 24-volume Science and Civilisation in China, used an unusual transcription. Where in the Wade-Giles system a consonant would have been followed by an apostrophe (e.g. T’ang, Ch’ing), Needham used not an apostrophe but a letter h, even when it led to doubling (e.g. Thang, Chhing). For decades I had assumed (following the unwritten axiom ‘since only brilliant people specialize in our field to begin with, anybody seemingly making an elementary mistake must have a well-thought-out reason for making it’) that Needham had dug deeply into the ancient history of the Chinese language and had concluded, based on abstruse linguistic considerations, that an h was more correct than an apostrophe. In 2010, I finally set about reading the biography of Needham by Simon Winchester. I was relieved (because it took me off the hook of presumably being ‘stupid’ for not knowing the exact reason why Chhing should be any more correct than Ch’ing) to read that when Needham began writing, the key for the apostrophe on his typewriter was broken. The h, in other words, got started as a stand-in for an apostrophe, and as time went on, nobody bothered to change it!
[to be continued]    

[1] According to Yuen Ren Chao 趙元任 in the introduction to his Mandarin Primer, the system was first published by Sir Thomas Francis Wade in 1859, subsequently revised, and adopted in Herbert Giles’ 1912 Chinese-English Dictionary.