Wednesday, November 23, 2016

How do you translate 讀書 (독서)?

讀書 (독서) can be translated as "reading (讀書) ," "reading (讀) books (書)," "books to read (讀書), or "books that are read (讀書)." With that said, here is an interesting sentence I recently translated for a book I am writing. It reminds me that the ancient Chinese were not very different from people today:
()()()()(), ()()()(), ()()()(), ()()()()()().  
[If] a person () loves himself (自愛其身), [he] only () has () books to read (讀書). [If] a person () loves () [his] children (子弟), [he] only () has () books to teach them to read (敎之讀書).

As a pronominal adverb, () means “self” or “personally,” and since it is an adverb, it always immediately precedes the verb, so 自愛 (자애) literally means “self () love ()” or “personally () love (). That means 自愛其身 (자애기신) literally means “personally () loves () his () body (),” which can be translated simply as “loves himself.” 讀書 (독서) can mean “read () books (),” so 惟讀書 (유독서) would mean “only () read () books (),” but here there is the verb (), which means “to have,” suggesting there should be an object that follows it. That means 讀書 (독서) should be translated here as a noun phrase or clause. As a noun phrase, () would be treated as an adjective, in which case 讀書 would be translated as “reading () books (),” “books for reading,” or “books to read.” As a relative clause, 讀書 (독서) would translate as “books that are read” or “books that [one] reads.” Likewise, 敎之讀書 (교지독서) can mean “teach  () them () to read () books (),” but here it should be translated as “books to teach them to read” or “books that [one] teaches them to read.”

In Korean, the
讀書 (독서) here would be translated as “읽는 () (),” and 敎之讀書 (교지독서) would be translated as “그들에게 읽기를 가르치는 (敎之讀) ().” 子弟 (자제) can mean “children,” “sons,” or “young people.”


  1. I am not a linguist, but 子弟 most probably means "students" or "disciples" in old time, or "sons and brothers".
    For the first two clauses 인自자愛애其기身신, 惟유有유讀독書서, rather saying "[he] only has books to read", a less awkward way to translate is "someone who loves himself would have to read". The next could be alternately interpreted as "someone who loves their disciples would teach them to read".

    1. Thanks for commenting. I like being challenged because I also consider myself a student. Anyway, 弟子(제자) means "disciples," not 子弟(자제), which literally means "sons (子) [and] younger brothers (弟)" . Also, the subject is 人(인), which means "person," and your average "person" did not have disciples.

      You suggested the translation "someone who loves himself would have to read," but where is the "have to" in the sentence? 有(유) means "there is/are" or "to have," not "have to," which would be translated into Chinese as 必(필).

      In your suggested translation "someone who loves their disciples would teach them to read," you forgot to translate 惟有(유유), which means "only (惟) have (有)." The verb 有(유) is the reason I translated 書(서) as the noun "book" instead of as part of the word for "reading."

      If we assume the ancient Chinese did not teach their daughters to read, then maybe a better translation for 子弟(자제) would be "sons or younger brothers" since an elder brother would have also loved and felt responsibilty for his younger brothers.