Chapter 14 from François Jullien’s The Book of Beginnings
A Margellos World Republic of Letters Book. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2015. Originally published as Entrer dans une pensée, ou Des possibles d l’espirit, by Editions Gallimard, Paris, 2012.
Jody Gladding, translator
Where to begin with Jullien’s extraordinary musing on the process of translation? The illustration above is as good as any. The Metropolitan’s exhibit card informs one that the immortals depicted are playing weiqi, which they describe as “a chess-like game.” Anyone who has ever played either chess or weiqi, more commonly known as Go, will understand just how limited, and limiting, if not actually false, that comparison is.
Suffice it for introduction that in the pages below Jullien, both as a sinologist and translator, calls into question a wide and deep tendency among translators to create cultural equivalencies in the interest of maintaining an apparent green zone of safety for their readers and themselves. His writing on this subject brings into an almost tactile relief the dangers that underlie the pervasive recourse to the “known” as a touchstone for translators, and by extension analogy-makers everywhere.
The book from which this chapter is taken examines the first passages of the Bible in Hebrew, Hesiod’s Theogony in Greek and the Yijing in Chinese. In these three foundational texts he identifies – and to the degree possible, unlocks – the distinct codes that underpin the modes of thinking that produced them, and the streams of belief, thought and action they both represent, and continue to influence.
We hope this sample of Jullien’s written thought will stimulate our readers’ interest in his work. Fortunately, a number of his books have been translated into English, this one by Jody Gladding, who also did superb work on Michèle Métal’s Wild Geese Returning: Chinese Reversible Poems, Hong Kong, Calligrams, The Chinese University Press, 2017.
A final note: Jullien’s first sentence refers to a “Confucian commentary that we have read.” We have omitted it here since it has no direct bearing on the observations he makes below.
The editors would like to thank Margellos Republic of Letters/Yale University Press for permission to reprint the article.