Corps de l’article


In basic terms, translation is an attempt at interlingual and intercultural communication. Whether one chooses to highlight its traditional task of bridging or its acts of “manipulation” (Hermans, 1985; Lefevere, 1992), translation is an active endeavor to link up two ways of perception, conception and expression. This is never a simple or value-free process, for while reality itself is not conceptually organized, each language is a unique structure of interpretive signs, each culture a dynamic system of codes, differentiating and categorizing reality in a way that rarely coincides with another. While George Steiner speaks of the translator as “a bilingual mediating agent between […] two different language communities” (1975, p. 45), other critics like Bochner (1981) and Katan (1999) have focused more on cultural mediation: each “system for orienting experience […] is a simplification and distortion” (Katan, p. 1), a specific frame of reference or finite grid imposed on reality. Any endeavor to connect two systems thus entails intervening, mediating and negotiating between divergent systems of codes and signs; whether fully intended or not, translation necessarily involves elaboration, reduction and reshaping. Such processes are especially evident when translation takes place between verbal systems that are far apart from each other, and when the attempt at cross-cultural communication touches on deep-seated modes of envisioning the world and constructing experience that are culturally specific. Translating philosophical and aesthetic concepts, for instance, poses fundamental problems of perception and expression that go far deeper than matters of linguistic expression.

This essay explores some of these problems by examining one aspect in the translation of Fusheng liuji浮生六記 [Six Records of a Floating Life], a Chinese autobiographical text that has attracted translations into multiple languages. Written by Shen Fu沈復 (1763-c.1825) probably in 1808,[2] Fusheng liuji was first published without the last two records in 1878, half a century after the author’s death. Although Shen Fu was not a renowned writer in his time, and little is known about him even to this date, his sketches of the joys and tribulations of life amid livelihood needs and social constraints, his travel experiences and spiritual-aesthetic affinity for nature, and above all his moving remembrance of his deceased wife and the charm of their conjugal felicity, have won the broad praise of critics and the hearts of an international readership. For instance, the English translator Shirley Black celebrates the work as “a literary masterpiece; poetic, romantic, nostalgic and filled with emotion, it recreates a life essentially tragic, which yet held innumerable moments of an almost magical happiness and beauty” (1960, p. xii).[3] The Japanese translator Satō Haruo commends Fusheng liuji for its “consistent pursuit of truthfulness and frank recording of facts without affectation” (1938, p. 191), while the French translator P. Ryckmans feels that the work “successfully incarnates in the humble experiences of an individual the widest collective reality and lived inheritance of an entire civilization” (1966, p. 11). Showing a joyous, appreciative attitude to life that enhances its tragic sense without casting itself as a tragedy, this short classic has not only earned repeated printings at regular intervals in mainland China and Taiwan, but has inspired 17 translated versions[4] in 14 Asian and European languages since 1935.

How do the translated versions stand in relation to the original work? This is a question which the present essay cannot fully tackle with confidence, not only because of spatial limits but because the sheer linguistic competence required is beyond the author’s command. Yet even without going into the details of the rendered versions of Fusheng liuji, one can notice various forms of intercultural intervention, mediation and distortion in the translated titles and the added subtitles inserted by some translators. At one end of the spectrum is a direct (if also sometimes helpless) effort at substitution through finding verbal equivalents: “six” is an exact match for liu, as “life” is for sheng; but “float,” while lexically accurate, does not cover the rich matrix of philosophical and aesthetic resonances of fu in the source culture. At the other end is active mediation—recasting, addition and omission based on interpretive (mis)reading: “inconstant” shrinks the connotative range of fu, while also reducing the motional image of the original into an abstract notion. For the purpose of a practically feasible exercise, this essay will thus focus on the diverse translations of the title of Fusheng liuji, offering a case study that helps to cast light on the general issue of intercultural mediation and reshaping inherent in the act of translation, especially in the context of philosophical (and aesthetic) translation.

It may be noted that some scholars have raised doubts about “the problematic ontology of the original,” taking exception to the concept that there is an original text which serves as a final authority by which translations are to be assessed.[5] This is no doubt a serious question for philosophical inquiry, for it concerns the reality of a text, and, in its ultimate reaches, even the nature of reality itself. Suffice it for the present purpose to say that one need not believe in the absolute fixity of the text in order to accept its reality; human knowledge rarely (if at all) reaches absolute terms. Holding to the sacred authority of the original or denying its primary position altogether are both extreme stances equally removed from facts. While a literary text always carries a degree of indeterminate plurality and is thus problematic in some sense,[6] it remains irrefutable that the act of translation cannot happen without a source text: translation cannot erase its derivative nature entirely. In Walter Benjamin’s view, the task of translation “consists in finding the particular intention toward the target language which produces in that language the echo of the original,” since “the laws governing the translation lie within the original” (1923, pp. 258 and 254).[7] This essay will therefore accept the ontological value of the original work, and engage in empirical analysis of concrete textual phenomena rather than abstract theoretical inquiry. It will be obvious that some divergences or transformations visible in the translations will matter more than others in terms of artistic effect and significance.

Translations of Fusheng liuji and the Translated Titles

We may begin by listing the translations of Fusheng liuji since the first attempt in 1935:

1935 English

Lin, Yutang林語堂. Six Chapters of a Floating Life. Published in installments in T’ien Hsia Monthly天下月刊and Xifeng yuekan西風月刊.

1939 English

Lin, Yutang林語堂. Six Chapters of a Floating Life. Shanghai: Xifeng she西風社. (revised from the 1935 version)

1938 Japanese

Satō Haruo and Matsueda Shigeo佐藤春夫、松枝茂夫.《浮生六記》(うき世のさが) [Nature of Floating Life]. Tokyo, Iwanami shoten岩波書店. (revised by Matsueda Shigeo in 1981)

1944 Czech

Průšek, Jaroslav. Šest historií prchavého života [Six Stories of a Fleeting Life]. Praha, Plzákovo nakl.

1955 Italian

Lanciotti, Lionello e Tsui Tao-Lu. Sei racconti di vita irreale [Six Accounts of an Unreal Life]. Roma, Casini.

1960 English

Black, Shirley M. Chapters from a Floating Life: The Autobiography of a Chinese Artist. London, Oxford University Press.

1961 Malay

Li Chuan Siu. Hidup Bagaikan Mimpi. (Fou Sheng Liu Chi). Riwayat Hidup Sa-orang Pelukis Dan Sasterawan Tionghoa [Life is Like a Dream: The Autobiography of a Chinese Painter and Writer]. Kuala Lumpur, Oxford University Press.

1961 Swedish

Wilton, Stig. Pilblad i strömmen: en kinesisk konstnärs självbiografi [Willow Leaf in a Stream: A Chinese Artist’s Autobiography]. Stockholm, Geber.

1966 French

Ryckmans, P. Six Récits au Fil Inconstant des Jours [Six Accounts as Inconstant Days Went by]. Bruxelles, Larcier. (repr. Christian Bourgois, 1982, J C Lattès, 2009, under the name of Simon Leys)

1967 French

Reclus, Jacques. Rêcits d’une vie fugitive: mémoires d’un lettré pauvre [Accounts of a Fleeting Life: Memoirs of a Poor Man of Letters]. Paris, Gallimard.

1969 Korean

池榮在지영재.《浮生六記:흐르는人生의讚歌》[Paean of a Flowing/Changing Life]。漢城서울:乙酉文化社을유문화사。(repr. 2004 as부생육기:심복자서전 [浮生六記:沈復的自傳Autobiography of Shen Fu])

1979 Russian

Golyginoĭ, K. I. Шесть записок о быстротечной жизни (Shest’ zapisok o bystrotechnoĭ zhizni) [Six Sketches of a Fleeting Life]. Moskva, Izd-vo “Nauka.”

1983 Hebrew

Daor, Dan. Hahayim hasehufim [The Drifting Life]. Tel Aviv, Sifriyat HaPo’alim. (Hargol, 1999)

1983 English

Pratt, Leonard and Chiang Su-hui. Six Records of a Floating Life. Harmondsworth, Penguin Books.

1985 Spanish

Brisac, Tessa. Relatos de una vida sin rumbo [Stories of a Life without Direction]. México, D.F.:, Dirección de Difusión Cultural, Departamento Editorial. (rendered from Reclus’s 1967 French translation)

1986 Danish

Børdahl, Vibeke og Søren Egerod. Kapitler af et flygtigt liv [Chapters of a Transient Life]. København, Rhodos.

1989 Dutch

Bronkhorst, Daan. Verslagen van een vlietend leven: biografie van een liefde [Records of a Floating life: Biography of a Love]. Groningen, Chinaboek. (abbreviated translation)

1989 German

Schwarz, Rainer. Sechs Aufzeichnungen über ein unstetes Leben [Six Records of an Unsettled Life]. Leipzig, Philipp Reclam. (Muller & Kiepenheuer 1990)[8]

Some initial observations may be drawn from the translation data given above:

  1. The character sheng is consistently rendered as “life” in fifteen versions; the two exceptions are “days” (French (Ryckmans)) and omission (Swedish).

  2. The character liu (six) is left out in eight (i.e., almost half) of the versions (English (Black), Malay, Swedish, French (Reclus), Hebrew, Spanish, Danish, Dutch).

  3. The character ji is translated as “records” or “chapters” (or their non-English variants, i.e. “accounts,” “stories,” “sketches”), but is not rendered in three versions (Malay, Swedish, Hebrew).

  4. The character fu has generated the most divergences in the translation process (including a compound Swedish image).

  5. A subtitle has been added in seven versions (Japanese, English (Black), Malay, Swedish, French (Reclus), Korean, Dutch), which have variously used “autobiography” (four times), “biography,” and other descriptive (“Chinese artist,” “painter and writer,” “memoirs,” “poor man of letters,” “nature,” “love”) or evaluative (“paean,” “flowing/unstable”) terms.

On the whole, the first three variations are relatively innocent. “Days” can be taken as a synonym for “life” without compromising the sense of the source text or the target-language version. It is quite likely that “six” has been left out by some translators because the last two records (missing from the start) are typically not translated despite a false attempt to fabricate them,[9] while to add “four” to the rendered title would go directly against the original title. Even where the target-language versions keep the word “six,” the translations, like the original work, only give (if at all) the titles of the last two records.[10] The major anomaly here is Black’s incomplete rendition, which has chopped up the four records of the original text, deleted a number of episodes (especially from the fourth record), and rearranged other episodes in order to reconstitute a more chronological account in three parts and twelve chapters,[11] so that it will be inaccurate and even misleading to indicate a number in the translated version. Regarding the choice between “chapters” or “records,” the former may give a stronger sense of being parts of a larger whole, but neither term implies completeness, and the difference cannot be said to constitute a significant variation reflective of cultural mediation.[12]

As for the subtitles, each serves to crystallize the translator’s perception of the source work’s form or nature, to supplement or elaborate on the words used to render the title. It has been pointed out rather paradoxically that “[i]n one area alone can translators enjoy complete freedom in disregarding the original, and that area is the translation of book titles. But the danger here is they are quite likely to misrepresent the author and mislead their readers” (Tsai, 1995, p. 80). The first statement points to an extreme view that is allowable in certain situations more than in others; the second statement implies that the translator does not have total liberty to ignore the original title after all. In any case, the rendering of a literary text with a title that is at least partly reflective of its contents does not allow complete freedom to render the title in subjective terms. In the present case, most of the added words are more or less harmless (if somewhat reductive and unnecessary); the more problematic word is “autobiography,” as this term carries certain implications for a literary form that does not entirely fit the original work. For besides having a dual rather than single personal focus, there is little attempt in it to set forth the protagonists’ character, mentality, activities, experiences and milieu in chronological or systematic order, with some kind of clear beginning and end. Where autobiographies are “extended, organized narratives prepared for the public eye” (Holman and Harmon, 1986, p. 43),[13] Fusheng liuji is but loosely organized by theme and topic, written largely for personal purposes with little thought of publication in the author’s lifetime. But the truly significant issue in the present context pertains to the translation of the word fu, for the term is imbued with philosophical and aesthetic overtones in the source culture.

Renditions of Fu and Its Philosophical and Aesthetic Resonances in the Source Culture

It will thus be useful to list the renditions of fu in the various languages—other than the Japanese version, which repeats the Chinese characters without adding anything substantive in the subtitle. The 1969 Korean version also repeats the Chinese characters, but adds the term “flowing/unstable” in the subtitle.[14] Granted that all verbal forms are “abstract” in that a word does not impact the sense organs directly like a visual image or musical phrase, it will be valid to differentiate among the translators’ choices, which include “floating” (all three English versions, Dutch) and “willow leaf in a stream” (Swedish) on the more imagistic and concrete side, in contrast to “fleeting” (Czech, French (Reclus), Russian), “unreal” (Italian), “dreamlike” (Malay), “inconstant” (French (Ryckmans)), “flowing/unstable” (Korean), “drifting” (Hebrew), “without direction” (Spanish), “transient” (Danish) and “unsettled” (German) on the abstract, conceptual side. “Floating,” which leads one to visualize a sensory object or stimulus (such as sound and smell) moving slowly in a liquid or gas medium (usually on water or in the air), is less specific in form than “willow leaf in a stream,” but can still be justifiably seen as imagistic and tangible in a general, motional sense. It is relevant to note that most renditions of fu have reduced it to a conceptual verdict, whereas the original term is vividly evocative linguistically and poetically: underlying and on top of its content as a motional image, fu is a pictophonetic character (xingsheng zi形聲字)[15] whose semantic radical on the left offers a visual reminder of its association with water. The point should not be stretched, but it is true that Chinese characters are graphically imagistic in a way that abstract, alphabetically constructed words are not, which further extends the distance to be negotiated in translation.

In a sense, “willow leaf in a stream” is the most concrete, poetic and imagistic rendition. Yet it is also reductive over-translation, since all unneeded attempts to specify will narrow the connotative range. Besides, the compound image is a little out of place in the source culture, for the literary verb most naturally associated with the willow (liu柳) is “hanging” (chui垂), while the images most naturally associated with fu are clouds (fuyun浮雲) and duckweed (fuping浮萍),[16] with a spectrum of existential, artistic and philosophical connotations that range from helpless drifting to unfettered freedom. The Swedish compound of images finds no natural occurrence in the poetry of the source culture, and is thus a clear example of willful construction and mediation. In comparison, “floating” is the most literal, accurate and least arduous rendition of fu in terms of conceptual sense as well as imagistic representation. In the context of literary translation, a relatively neutral term with no heavy emotional or conceptual slant is often better endowed to preserve an intrinsic multivalence, and to carry a flexible range of associative potential within the parameters set by the language. “Float” is such a term in English, even though it cannot be expected to match the culture-specific pictographic trace as well as connotative multiplicity of the Chinese term (as shall be explained below).

In contrast, it can be seen that the majority of the renditions of fu revolve around the semantic core of “fleeting,” “transient” and “inconstant;” “drifting,” “unsettled” and “without direction;” even “dreamlike” and “unreal”—which are all abstract and conceptual, picking but one meaning of the term that is neither its deepest nor its most literal sense. If “floating” is descriptive and expansive, the conceptual versions are evaluative and restrictive. Ryckmans’s French rendition shows an effort to convey the motional sense of fu by including a meaning of “passing,” but the overall effect (“as inconstant days went by”) remains less vivid and succinct than “floating life.” One may find it relevant to ask the obvious question: since every language has a signifier for the semantic meaning of “float,” why have so many translators made verbal choices that are arduous and reductive? The French poet and critic Yves Bonnefoy has made an interesting observation on the English and French languages that might be of reference value. He contends that English has a “great aptitude for noting appearances, […] to describe what consciousness perceives, while avoiding any preconception about the final being of these referents,” whereas French is “a language of essences,” “impregnated by the idea of a world order” of “permanence” (1989, pp. 126, 133, 129 and 127). In his view, French is a conceptual language of Platonic idealism, while English is oriented towards the concrete and empirical.

Strictly speaking, Bonnefoy’s assertion is a generalizing claim open to debate. Suffice it to note the evidence that the mostly European translators do show a penchant to think in terms of abstract ideas rather than concrete images, that their renditions entail recontextualization within a different cultural framework. Apart from the factor of cultural temper and the scenario of cumulative influence, the translators’ choices may represent a common partial interpretation that takes its cue from the words of the native scholar Lin Yutang (1895-1976), who was also the first translator of Fusheng liuji into a foreign language in 1935 (initially in serialized form).

For Lin Yutang asserted in a preface (1935) that the title of the work is based on the Tang poet Li Bai’s李白 (701-762) words “Floating life (fusheng) is like a dream; how often do we find happiness?” (1999, “Preface,” p. 23). In context, Li Bai’s statement from his “Preface to Peach Blossom Garden, Feasting Younger Male Cousins” reads as follows:

Now Heaven and earth are the guesthouse of the myriad things; time is the passing traveller of a hundred generations. And floating life is like a dream; how often do we find happiness?



If Lin’s assertion were true, the renditions of fu as “inconstant” or related meanings would be legitimate (the Malay version of the title is based directly on Li Bai’s lines). Indeed, there are other poetic usages of fu that support this reading, as the following examples will attest:

Floating life is just like the water under ice,

Day and night flowing east without our awareness.

Du Mu, “Obstructed by the Ice at Bian River”




In floating life I always regret the scarcity of joy;

Would I give up laughter for a thousand pieces of gold?

Song Qi, Tune: “Spring in Jade Mansion”




The slightly resigned tone in these excerpts would at least mildly support Lin’s interpretation.

What Lin Yutang did not mention, however, is that his quote had taken its cue directly from an earlier reader Pan Linsheng潘麐生. Writing a “Preface to Six Records of a Floating Life”〈浮生六記序〉in 1874 for the first printing of the incomplete text, this self-confessed “man of grief”[17] stamped onto the writing paper a personal seal of his, consisting of the carved lines fu sheng ruo meng, wei huan ji he浮生若夢,為歡幾何taken from Li Bai’s “Preface to Peach Blossom Garden” cited above.[18] The lines reflect Pan’s affective response to Shen Fu’s life story; it is quite unlikely that they are meant to be an exegesis of the connotative range of fusheng. Lin may have turned Pan’s personal response into a virtual near-definition that helps to reduce and constrain the translators’ understanding of the terms fu and fusheng.

Like many other Chinese characters, fu came to be imbued with multiple connotations in the course of 3000 years of usage. The Hanyu da zidian漢語大字典 (A Dictionary of the Chinese Language) lists nineteen senses of the term (1986-1990, vol. 3, pp. 1629-1630), while the Hanyu da cidian漢語大詞典 (A Dictionary of the Chinese Language [with Compound Words and Phrases]) lists seventeen (1988-1993, vol. 5, pp. 1238). Not every sense is relevant to the present purpose, but it will be appropriate at this point to examine some of the original meanings of fu:

Drifting, drifting is the poplar boat,

Now dipping, now floating.

Book of Songs #176, “Jingjing zhe’e”



So he [Fan Li] rode a light boat and sailed on the five lakes, and no one knew where he eventually went.

(Conversations of the States, “Conversations of Yue,” Pt. 2)



In the first excerpt, which can be no later than the 7th century BC, fu means “float on liquid or in the air”; in the second excerpt, no later than the 4th century BC, fu means “travel on water,” or to “sail.”[19] The first meaning indicates motion on water and is neutral in value; the second meaning arises from the narrative context of a brilliant minister turned recluse. Leaving the political vortex at the height of his career, Fan Li’s (5th-4th century BC) fu heralds the Daoist thinker Zhuangzi’s (c. 369-c. 286 BC) use of fu in the philosophical text that bears his name.

Let us briefly examine how the Zhuangzi uses the term fu in various places:[20]


Now you had a gourd that holds five piculs. Why didn’t you empty it into a big vessel [and tie it on your waist] so you could go floating on the rivers and lakes, instead of worrying that it might be too large to dip into things!

“Free and Easy Wandering”




The sage […] discards cleverness and craftiness, and follows the principle of Heaven. Thus he suffers no calamity from Heaven, no encumbrance by things […]. His life is like floating, his death like rest. He does not ponder or deliberate, or plot for the future […]. His pure spirit flows forth in all four directions; there is no place beyond its reach. It borders Heaven above, encompasses the earth below […]. He who can embody purity and simplicity is called a “true man.”

“Tempering the Will”




Ford the rivers and float on the sea. Gaze and you cannot see its far shore; journey further and you will not know where it ends […]. Discard your encumbrances, cast off your cares, and wander alone with the Way in the land of great nothingness […]. A person who can empty himself and wander through the world—who can do harm to him?

“The Mountain Tree”




There is nothing under Heaven that does not dip and float, that stays unchanged throughout its existence. Yin and yang and the four seasons run their courses, each in its proper order.

“Knowledge Wanders North”



It may be further noted that the dynamic image of “floating” (fu) is often associated with the idea of “wandering” (you) in the Zhuangzi:


I float and wander, not knowing what I seek; I traverse at will, not knowing where I go […] to observe the absence of Illusion.

“Let Be, Relax”




It would be different if you were to ride on the Way and its Virtue, and go floating and wandering. With neither praise nor rebuke, […] you transform with time, without being stuck in one course; now up, now down, taking harmony as your measure. Floating and wandering with the source of the myriad things, you treat things as things without being dictated by things; how could you then incur any encumbrance?

“The Mountain Tree”



Carefree and unfettered in its freedom, Zhuangzi’s image of a “floating life” (which also includes a sense of “flowing” [liu流]) is spiritedly described in passage (2), in his characterization of the “sage” and “true man” as readily interchangeable terms.[21] There can be little doubt that fu, fusheng (though the compound term is not directly used in this passage) and fuyou are expansive and liberating states of existence in physical as well as spiritual terms. In the final analysis, fu in the Daoist sense is suggestive of the human spirit’s natural rhythm in parallel to the inspiring changes and transformations of the Way in the universe. This sense of fu is directly recited by Jia Yi賈誼 (200-168 BC) in his “Rhyme-Prose on the Owl,” and further echoed by Ruan Ji阮籍 (210-263 AD) in his “Biography of the Great Man”:

Let life be like floating, death be like rest. Placid as the stillness of a deep pool; drifting as an unfastened boat. Do not value oneself for the sake of life, but cultivate emptiness and float.



The Great Man is one in body with Creation, coexistent with Heaven and Earth. He floats in the world free and easy, having been constituted with the Way. He transforms in accordance with life and death, which keeps no constant form.



Jia Yi’s first two lines here are virtual quotes from the Zhuangzi (cf. passage 2 above), and his imagistic characterizations of the synonymous “man of understanding” 達人, “great man” 大人, “perfect man” 至人and “true man” 真人in his work culminate in an image of “floating in emptiness.” In addition, Li Shan’s李善 (c. 630-689) commentary in the Wen xuan文選cites this echoing remark by the great scholar Zheng Xuan鄭玄 (127-200): “The Daoist cultivates emptiness—he is empty like a floating boat.” 道家養空,虛若浮舟也。In much the same vein, the Great Man’s fushi rhythm of life is characterized unequivocally as xiaoyao; Ruan Ji’s rhetorical flourish is a resounding reverberation of Zhuangzi’s dynamic language. There is no doubt that since early times, the Chinese philosophical sense of fu is positive and liberating.

Yet how can one justifiably conclude that Shen Fu’s use of the term fusheng is closer to Zhuangzi than to Li Bai? First, the author did not write his work as a tragedy; this is evident from his gentle, positive tone throughout the entire text, which never indulges in self-pity or becomes overly plaintive.[22] In fact, it is precisely because the Korean translator feels a clear surplus of joy in Shen Fu’s account that he has picked the word “paean” in the added subtitle. Direct evidence is also seen from the simple fact that only one of the six chapters focuses on “the sorrows of misfortune” (chapter 3); the other chapters are respectively entitled “the joys of the wedding chamber,” “the pleasures of leisurely moods,” “the delights of roaming afar,” “the experiences of Zhongshan” and “the way of nurturing life.” Second, the text is essentially Daoist (much more than it is Confucian) in spirit; by nature and in experience, Shen Fu enjoys a peaceful artistic life amid nature rather than the entanglement of petty struggles and dubious schemes as a government official. A related third point is that the text shows Shen Fu to be an avid nature traveler, fond of the kind of “free and easy wandering” celebrated by Zhuangzi.

Cultural Hurdles in Philosophical Understanding and Translation

Given the solid fact that fu is imbued with philosophical and aesthetic senses in Chinese culture, rendition of the term calls for a clear recognition of the problems of intercultural philosophical translation. Thomas McFarland’s distinction between the rendition of primary and transcendent meanings may be useful here: “The vast activity of cultural equivalence is successful in translating primary meanings, which correspond to the words of the poem and its statement of fact, but unsuccessful in its attempt to translate transcendent meanings, which correspond to the inner spirit of the poem” (1987, p. 75). What is said of “the untranslatability of poetic essence,” “invariably and without exception vitiated by the principle of attenuation,” is applicable to the translation of philosophy and culture as well. If “float” at least preserves the primary meaning of fu, the conceptualized renditions of fu are variations on a narrow core meaning that manages to capture but one negative and superficial sense of the original term. Empirically, the “fleeting/unsettled” interpretive slant can only be applied to the third chapter of the text: as attested by the positive spirit of the other chapters and especially by the author’s joyous experiences in nature, the primary sense of fu is expansive, liberating and uplifting. The target-language correlatives are not only reductive in their inability to match the connotative range of the original term; they are also distorting in lowering its semantic level in the source culture. One cannot simply attribute this limitation to an Indo-European penchant for abstract conceptual thinking (which includes the Malay and Hebrew versions), for that is merely the “active” dimension of the issue. In a veritable sense, the cultural intervention, whether actively willed by the translator or not, can be seen as involuntary: Lin Yutang may indeed have misled target-language translators not fully cognizant of the multiplex cultural meanings of fu, but in the final analysis, not even a thorough understanding of the concept would have enabled the translators to find a target-language correlative to the Daoist philosophical term. After all, is Shangdi上帝any closer to “God” than “the Way” is to Dao道or “energy” is to qi氣?

In essence, the mediating acts by the target-language versions are acts of “naturalization” (also known as “domestication” or “appropriation”/“assimilation”),[23] a target-culture-oriented approach that tries to naturalize what is alien in the source culture within the familiar terms of the receptor culture. From the translator’s point of view, whose expression takes place within the target language, the gravitational pull towards naturalization is quite likely to exceed that towards foreignization: indeed George Steiner once remarks that translation “aims to import and to naturalize the content of the source-text and to simulate, so far as it is able, the original executive form of that content” (1975, p. 333). This is generally in line with Nida’s belief in dynamic (functional) equivalence, which sees translation producing as far as possible the same effect on target-language readers as the original produced on source-language readers, and which is skewed towards naturalization as well: translation “aims at complete naturalness of expression, […] it does not insist that [the receptor-language readers] understand the cultural patterns of the source-language context” (Nida, 2004, p. 156).

Translation theorists, of course, are well aware that the premise of dynamic equivalence faces serious challenges on at least three fronts. First, Nida admits that in practice, equivalents are most difficult to find “when both languages and cultures are disparate” (ibid., p. 157). Second, the notion of dynamic equivalence is not universally accepted without question even in concept; thus Antoine Berman sees translation as “the mode of existence by which a work reaches us as foreign. A good translation retains this strangeness even as it makes the work accessible to us,” in contrast to “[a] bad translation… which, generally under the guise of transmissibility, carries out a systematic negation of the strangeness of the foreign work” (1992, p. 224, n. 46, 5). This argument becomes all the more pronounced when the genre factor comes into the equation; indeed Peter Newmark goes so far as to contend that for

[…] the artistic work with a strong local flavour which may also be rooted in a particular historical period […] if the culture is as important as the message (the translator has to decide), he reproduces the form and content of the original as literally as possible […] without regard for equivalent-effect […]. In fact, if the creative artist writes for his own relief […], then the equivalent-effect principle is irrelevant in the translation of a work of art; the translator’s loyalty is to the artist, and he must concentrate on recreating as much of the work as he can.

1988, p. 11

In practice, the issue is more or less a matter of balancing polar positions, and handling the source text in a living, flexible way, since the text will call for different strategies at different points. Suffice it to say that the price of avoiding “foreignness” altogether in order to make the rendered version easily intelligible is a sure reduction and distortion of cultural reality.

The reductive renditions of fu call to mind something once done in early medieval China (3rd-4th century), when Buddhist texts were translated into Chinese. The translators made use of methods that ranged from adopting individual terms and concepts in the indigenous traditions, to the more formal, rigid adaptation system of ge yi格義or “matching concepts,” in which a group of Buddhist ideas were rendered with an “equivalent” group of Daoist (sometimes Confucian) ideas.[24] As one can expect, such a method of “projective fabrication”[25] was bound to lead to errors and distortions, so that the practice of analogical matching was discarded in the fifth century. Far more difficult to resist altogether was the continual use of Daoist terms (occasionally even Confucian terminology in later eras) to elucidate Buddhist ideas on the perceived ground of inner connectedness, which shows the inevitability of cultural mediation in the translation process. The 20th-century translators of Fusheng liuji were not engaged in matching concepts, to be sure, but the practice and pitfalls of naturalization, i.e., recasting the unfamiliar in terms of the familiar, remain essentially the same.

Regardless of the extent to which thought is shaped or determined by language, there is no doubt that different cultures construct mental, emotional and spiritual realities with varying degrees of difference. If there is any validity at all in Bonnefoy’s claim that English is oriented towards the concrete and empirical while French is an essentialist language of abstract ideas, it can only add weight to the argument that Chinese, with its partly pictographic or imagistic characters, tends even more towards the concrete and empirical. The French sinologist Jacques Gernet obliquely supports such a perspective: “[in Chinese it is] so difficult to express how the abstract and the general differ fundamentally, and not just occasionally, from the concrete and the particular” (1985, p. 239). As an image and a spiritual state, fu exemplifies Gernet’s point well: it is a term which English preserves as “floating” and French conserves as “passing cum inconstant” or “fleeting” via conceptual domestication. What complicates Gernet’s observation even more is that classical Chinese is a more condensed and evocative language than modern Chinese: if Chinese is already a “high context culture” in which meaning exceeds language to a greater degree than a “low context culture” like German (Katan, 1999, pp. 183 and 212), such a general challenge is heightened for the translator of classical Chinese texts, where terms are often imbued with rich philosophical and aesthetic import.

As pointed out by Roger Ames, the major problem facing Western-language translations of Chinese philosophy is that “the semantic content of the core philosophical vocabulary is not well understood,” because the renditions employ a domesticated vocabulary that “perpetuates a pernicious reductionism.” Underlying such an act is the reality that “a particular world view is sedimented in the language of a culture and the systematic structure of its concepts, encouraging certain philosophical possibilities while discouraging others” (1995, p. 731). Making a distinction between a rational (logical) and an aesthetic sense of order, Ames draws attention to differences between dualistic and correlative modalities of thinking in the Indo- European and Chinese world views.[26] He sums up the Western mode of thinking as follows:

[T]he development of our philosophical and religious thought was the presumption that there is something permanent, perfect, objective and universal which, existing independent of the world of change, disciplines it and guarantees natural and moral order—an eternal realm of Platonic eidos or “ideas,” the One True God of the Judeo-Christian universe, a transcendental strongbox of invariable principles or laws [...]. The model of a single-ordered world in which the unchanging source of order stands independent of, sustains, and ultimately provides explanation for the sensible world, is a familiar if not often an unconscious assumption in our tradition.

1995, p. 731

Gernet has made an analogous point some time earlier: “According to Aristotle, it is normal for all things to be at rest, whereas for the Chinese, in contrast, universal dynamism is the primary assumption” (1985, p. 210).

Admittedly broad generalizations subject to debate, these statements by Gernet and Ames nonetheless help to explain why a thinker like Heraclitus (c. 535- c. 475 BC), who bases his thought on the principle of flux and change, cannot occupy a central position in mainstream Greek or Western philosophy: change is an entity of a lower order that does not reach the highest plane of philosophical or religious architecture in the metaphysical hierarchy. In the Western conception of cosmogonic order, there is the fundamental premise of an ontological disparity between the transcendent source of order and the world it orders, that what changes (including the world of physical nature) is inferior to and less real than what is presumed to be permanent. In terms of McFarland’s “transcendent” level of meaning, there may be little difference between “floating” and “unreal” or “fleeting” for the European(ized) translators. This cultural gap in philosophical orientation may also help to explain why most translators of Fusheng liuji seem unable to fully appreciate the positive, liberating side of fu, and end up reducing the term to some negative variant of “inconstant”: fu is fluid, changing, shapeless, spontaneous and unfixable, aesthetic rather than logical or rationalistic. The cultural mediation that took place in the translation process is not only unavoidable; it is partly instinctive as well. Interestingly enough, the Swedish version may be seen (in Ames’s terms) as an overzealous attempt to counteract the mediation—a turn from the rational to the aesthetic.

Concluding Remarks

As has been pointed out by more critics than one, it is experientially true to the point of cliché that every act (though not every word) of rendition entails interpretation. Put in another way, “linguistic structures inevitably pose the question of modes of thought” (Gernet, 1985, p. 239); in the words of Walter Benjamin, translation is “removal from one language into another through a continuum of transformations. Translation passes through continua of transformation, not abstract areas of identity and similarity” (1916, p. 70). However intractable they may be, verbal problems in translation pale before those rooted in aesthetic, cultural and philosophical elements, which are not transportable across cultures standing distinctly apart from one another. Grasping these factors inherent and integrated in a literary text is intuitive and instinctive, not amenable to the strategies of translation. When T. S. Eliot (1888-1965) describes Ezra Pound (1885-1972) as “the inventor of Chinese poetry for our time” (1948, p. 14),[27] he is at once alluding to the ambiguities of cultural mediation or even fabrication in the translation process. Much the same can be said of Lin Shu’s林紓 (1852-1924) earnest “translations”—or rather reinventions—of Western literature in early 20th century China.[28]

The ultimate difficulty in translation, especially in translating texts encoded with cultural content, will always be the basic question of untranslatability: assertions about the dynamic (re)creativity of translation amount to an acknowledgment of this insuperable problem. What is untranslatable is not so much the metaphysically indefinable or ineffable element (which is rooted in the limits of understanding and expression in the source language itself), as it is the cultural-historical (or spatial-temporal) factor. In translation as much as in literary expression, to add is often to reduce, and to define is to distort and mislead.

It can be seen from the analysis above that in the absence of an ideal equivalent, “float” is the most literal, precise and effortless rendition of fu in both conceptual sense and imagistic resonance. The most neutral and simple choice often turns out to be the best option, avoiding reduction and preserving associative potential by refraining from defining and thus contracting the connotative parameters of the original text. Cultural mediation in translation is unavoidable, and need not result in controversy on a technical level: thus one usually needs, for instance, to Westernize traditional Chinese dates or find near-equivalent terms for Chinese food dishes. Cultural mediation that entails recasting aesthetic and philosophical elements is much more difficult to handle; to expect any effort in translation to fully render a term like fu is to ask what is genuinely impossible. Where culturally specific ideas are concerned, there can be no dynamic equivalents for translation: the cultural codes which translation tries to carry across languages can never be covered in full. Nevertheless, if the source-language term cannot be naturalized and the target-language vocabulary cannot be recast, one viable strategy will be to abide by the original’s basic semantic meaning, keeping reductive or distorting interpretation of the text to a minimum, and letting the translated language generate its artistic chemistry.

Since there can be no identity between cultures and languages, translation is not a mirror, but an interpretive re-creation that must “betray” in order to be “loyal to the spirit” (Barnstone, 1993, pp. 260-261). Given the variations and deviations seen in the renditions of a short textual title like Fusheng liuji, one may add the obvious point that “betrayal” entails its own artistic logic and cultural parameters. If language is partly universal and partly culture-specific, verbal artists, in particular poets, have always known that there lies in verbal expression a subtle, indefinable communicative frequency amenable to art rather than science, which a translator can access in order to partly bridge distances in cultural, aesthetic and metaphysical realities. In the words of Berman’s reminder, “we must struggle relentlessly against our fundamental reductionism, but also remain open to that which, in all translation, remains mysterious and unmasterable, properly in-visible” (1992, p. 180).[29] This is not to turn translation into mysticism, but to acknowledge the limits of the endeavor and the limits of language itself on the basis of common reason. In Daoist terms, the translator has the option of minimizing the pitfalls of cultural mediation and distortion by not being overly clever or active: “non-action” (wuwei無為), or taking no unnecessary action, can be a key virtue in translation as well.