Monday, November 28, 2016

What does 遠水難濟近火 (원수난제근화) mean?

In Naver's Chinese Character Dictionary (한자사전), the following Chinese expression appears:
Instead of translating the expression, Naver, for some reason, paraphrases and explains it as follows:
"먼 데 있는 물은 가까운 데의 불을 끄는 데는 쓸모가 없다는 뜻으로, 무슨 일이든 멀리 있는 것은 급할 때에 소용()이 없음을 이르는 말"
Why paraphrase instead of translate? The translation is easy:
“Distant () water () is no () help () [for] a nearby () fire ().”
"먼 물은 가까운 불에 도움이 없다." 
What was so hard about that? Why put a Chinese expression in a Chinese dictionary if you do not translate it?

Anyway, believe it or not, this is not what I wanted to post about. What I wanted to post about was the original expression, the one from the "Records of the Three Kingdoms," which was as follows:
Distant () water () is reluctant () to help () [with] a nearby () fire ().
Instead of "不救 (불구)," the original had "難濟 (난제)," so I wondered why it was changed. Maybe because 難濟 was too difficult to translate? I have not seen any accurate translations of the original; they all seem to be paraphrased, sometimes in Yoda-like language.

If people were confused by the original, I do not think they were confused by 濟 (제) since both  救 (구) and 濟 (제) can mean "to help" and together form the word 구제(救濟)하다, which means "to help," "to save," or "to give relief to." Koreans and Chinese may have switched from 濟 (제) to 救 (구) to avoid confusion since 濟 can also mean "to cross a river." In other words, maybe they worried people would think 濟 meant "cross a river," especially since "water" was mentioned in the expression.

But why not use the 難 (난) from the original expression? Maybe because they could not figure out how to translate it. 難 (난) is normally associated with the meaning "to be difficult," but it is hard to use that meaning to translate this sentence, even though many people try. However, besides meaning "difficult," 難 (난) can also mean "to shun," "to avoid," or "to be reluctant," which translates in Korean as "꺼리다."

In the original, I think "distant water" (遠水) was personified with the human ability to choose to help or not. Whether I am right or not, my translation flows much more smoothly than some of the translations I have seen on the Web. Plus, I can justify my translation. That's important.

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