Monday, September 26, 2016

Is 以 (이) really that hard to understand?

In the first chapter of his book, "A New Practical Primer of Literary Chinese," Paul Rouzer talks about the usage of the character 以 (이).  He writes the following:
以: This is one of the most frequently used characters in literary Chinese, and it has a very wide application. It was originally a verb meaning "to take," "to use." Eventually, it started to be used in combination with other verbs (what English language scholars often call a coverb). It serves the same purpose as English prepositions like "with," "by means of," and "through." It usually comes before the main verb, and it is followed by its own special object.
Is Mr. Rouzer really saying 以 (이) is no longer used to mean "to use" or "to take"? If he is, then I disagree. Here is the first example sentence and translation Mr. Rouzer gives to demonstrate the use of 以:
“Heaven repays with disaster the person who does evil.”
Notice that Mr. Rouzer seems to have translated 以禍 (이화) as "with (以) disaster (禍)." Instead, consider the following translation:
“Heaven () uses () disaster () to repay () those who do evil (爲不善者).”
Perfect! Why translate 以 (이) as "with" when the original meaning of the verb works just fine? And by doing it my way, you do not have to translate out of sequence. If 以禍 (이화) were to come after the verb, instead of before it, then I would also translate it as "with (以) disaster (禍)," but "using (以) disaster (禍)" would also work.

Here is the second example Mr. Rouzer gives:
“The wise person leads the petty person with virtue.”
Instead, I suggest the following translation:
“A sage (聖人) uses () virtue () to guide () a petty person (小人).”
I do not understand why Mr. Rouzer seems to go out of his way to translate 以 (이) as "with" when its original meaning of "to use" works just fine.

Here is my suggestion: When 以 and its object come before the verb, translate it as either "to use," "to take," or "to consider," depending on the intended meaning. When 以 and its object come after the verb, then you can translate it as "with" or one of the other meanings Mr. Rouzer suggested.

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