Friday, June 12, 2009

What does 聖人吾不得而見之矣 mean?

These days I have become interested in learning to read classical Chinese and have been looking around the Internet for some good sites discussing the grammar. Today, I came across THIS FORUM, which has some interesting posts on classical Chinese grammar. However, in one of the posts, I came across a translation that does not really make sense to me and am wondering if it might be a mistranslation. The following is the Chinese sentence and the translation in question:

聖人吾不得而見之矣 (성인오부득이견지의)

"A sage, I shall not get to see." (ex. 292, Analects)

聖人(성인) - sage

吾(오) - I

不得(부득) - not get

而(이) - ??

見(이견) - to see

之(지) - him

矣(의) - (doesn't it indicate past tense?)

The thing I do not understand about the above translation is that the translator seems to have ignored the characters 而(이) and 矣(의). What is the purpose of 而(이) in the above sentence? Wouldn't it make better sense if it were not there? Also, doesn't 矣(의) indicate an action has already been completed? If so, then why wasn't the sentence translated in the past tense? Is it possible that the above translation is wrong?

In Korean, the word 부득이 (不得已) means "unavoidably" or "obliged," which just happens to have the same pronunciation as the 不得而 (부득이) in the sentence above. Isn't it possible that the 不得而 in the above sentence was meant to mean "obliged," and that the sentence was meant to be in the past tense? Also, wasn't he addressing the sage, instead of referring to him?

Consider my suggested translation:
聖人吾不得而(已?)見之矣 (성인은, 내가 그를 부득이 봤어요.)

"Sage, I was obliged to see him."
I am afraid I am ignorant of the text in question, so my translation may not make any sense in the context of things, but, if so, could someone please explain to me the meaning of 而(이) and 矣(의) in the original sentence? Is it just a conincidence that 不得已(부득이) and 不得而(부득이) have the same pronunciation in Korean?


  1. The passage is from the Analects and means, "Sages, I have not gotten to see." (I.e., "I have not had the opportunity to meet sages.")

    -- Gary Rector 유게리 (柳憩里)

  2. You can see this passage in context, with an English translation, at . Note that the phrase 不得而知, with equivalent grammatical structure, is a Classical expression still used as an idiom in modern Chinese meaning "unable to know" (see 而 is a linker of verbs in serial construction, and has a wide variety of semantic imports. It is often translatable into English as "but" or "and", but sometimes is best rendered without any English equivalent.