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.

Friday, May 24, 2013

‘In the beginning was the Wha-a-a-at?’

In about 1640 (existing sources give different dates), Manuel Dias Jr., a Jesuit, published a book of Chinese translations from the Bible.[1] It contained the Gospel readings prescribed by the Catholic Church for use on Sundays and feast days. Though it was not a full translation of the Bible or even of the New Testament, for many Chinese it must have been their first introduction to parts of the Scriptures. Dias’ book became well known and was reprinted many times, even into the twentieth century.
Like most philosophical texts in those days, Dias’ translations were not couched in spoken Chinese but in the classical archaic Chinese written language. Contemporary readers could not fully understand that language without special study. This is one of the reasons why Dias’ version of the Gospels must have been pretty tough reading for his Chinese audience. Another was, of course, the strangeness of the Christian concepts. Yet another had to do with problems of mission policy within the Roman Catholic Church. The Jesuit translators were confronted with Christian terms which had no exact equivalent in their ‘target language,’ Chinese. Often there was either no really similar Chinese word, or a word that would have been a good translation but was already in use as a standard concept, with non-Christian connotations, in Buddhism or Taoism.
Probably the most troublesome of all was the Latin verbum, the divine ‘Word’ with which, in European translations of the Bible, the Gospel of John began. The early Jesuits in China[2] were aware of the possibility of using the native Chinese word Dao for this. Starting in the nineteenth century, Protestant translators would indeed use Dao for ‘the Word,’ and in the twentieth, some Catholic translators followed their example. But in Dias’ day, ‘Rome’ would not yet have approved. ‘Verbum’ had to remain untranslated; its sound could be transliterated into Chinese characters, but without trying to convey the meaning directly.
The result was the remarkable combination wu-er-peng (i.e., v-er-bum), written with the three characters 物爾朋 . In Chinese this was a curious new expression, to say the least. If it meant anything to uninitiated Chinese readers, I think it would have been more or less ‘Something That Is Your Friend.’
        Strange it was, but I think it was also a brilliant and elegant solution. Meditating further on wu-er-peng and re-reading Dias’ classical Chinese translation (which also contains extensive explanations), I have come up with the following rendering of the first passage of the Gospel of John: a retranslation of Dias in the light of what I read his Chinese text to be saying. (I have omitted a few lines for stylistic reasons.)

When it was just beginning
Something That’s Your Friend was there already.
This Something That’s Your Friend
was truly present to the Heavenly Lord,
was Heavenly Lord.
It was present to the Heavenly Lord
at the beginningless beginning.
The Ten Thousand Things were made by this;
not a thing was not.
All that has been made is with him from of old
in unity of Life.
This Life is the light of humans,
casting light on darkness,
not recognized by darkness.
The true Light shines on all who come into the world,
dwells in the world, makes the world –
none in the world know it.
It comes to its own country; its own people do not receive it.
To all who have welcomed its name in faith
is granted to become children
of a Heavenly Lord.
Something That’s Your Friend
is here already, is human,
dwells among us.

--Lloyd Haft

[1] Chinese title: Shengjing zhijie聖經直解, ‘The Bible Clearly Explained.’ The original, now public domain, is available starting on page 95 at
[2] There is an extensive literature on the fascinating story of the Jesuits and other missionaries who were active in China in the 16th century and thereafter. I will name just a few titles: A Vision Betrayed: The Jesuits in Japan and China, 1542-1742 by Andrew C. Ross; Generation of Giants: The Story of the Jesuits in China in the Last Decades of the Ming Dynasty by George H. Dunne; Yang Tingyun, Confucian and Christian in late Ming China: his life and thought by Nicolas Standaert.