Translating the Yijing / I Ching correctly

The Yijing, or actually its core text, the Zhouyi, is notoriously difficult to translate. The original Chinese text is brief, and there is no punctuation. The ancient words are not as precisely defined as in modern languages, and there is not that much contemporary text available that helps to establish the meaning of them. The brevity limits the amount of context in the text itself that can be used for that. The Chinese characters, with their broad meanings, can also have several grammatical functions in a sentence. They can be a verb, a noun, etc.

This makes the text ambiguous, so that a variety of translations dissimilar in meaning is possible. Depending on the views that the translator happens to have, particular ones get selected. Here, I describe my views, as they helped shape and provide context for my translation of the Yi.

I have established several precepts about what this ancient work is like, in order to weed out the unlikely possibilities. Some of these precepts will seem rather obvious, however, it is good to have them explicit, so as to know what one is doing. Even the seemingly obvious ones haven't been taken as valid by all translators, though.

Precepts for Translating the Yijing

The Yi is useful, meaningful and insightful

The main precept that I'm starting from, is that the Zhouyi is itself a useful, meaningful, and insightful text. It is not the work of primitive savages. For many people who use the Yijing as an oracle this goes without saying, however some translators (like Richard Kunst and Richard Rutt) have taken the stance that the Yi is a savage text, containing lots of violence, and have translated it accordingly.

My own experience with the Yi as an oracle has proven otherwise. This text, in its simplicity, contains valuable psychological and spiritual insight, and seems carefully crafted.

Yi is an oracle

This brings me to my second precept, which is that the Yi is an oracle, and has been set up as such. Phrases like "good fortune" and "bad fortune," that are the simplest things one would like to know from an oracle, are already a strong indication that this text has always been meant as one. The strict structuring into 64 chapters (hexagrams), each divided into 6 lines and a hexagram text, must have a reason beyond uniformity. It does make the text very suitable to use where parts of it are to be selected by some particular process, like with an oracle. That the text as a whole categorizes experience, and does so in a uniformly structured and useful way, is another indication that this has always been meant to be an oracle text.

Being intended as an oracle, and structured so as to make this intended use possible, the authors would have made the structuring and content comply to particular rules, to have it function well as an oracle.

Oracles do work

An important aspect of the previous precept is another one, that oracles do, in fact, work. This is obviously a matter of debate. It is my experience that oracles do "magically" answer questions. It is not that the vagueness of the text merely allows for projection of ideas into it, giving only the impression of an oracle working "magically." No, oracles do answer questions, and vagueness actually obscures these workings.

For people with a purely materialistic world view, the idea of intent influencing the results of an oracle is nonsense. Such people will think that how a person exercises his will, can only go through conventionally known means. A person can physically do something to matter, and can talk to other people to influence them, thus exercising his will, but intent will never have a meaningful influence on the outcome of something not obviously connected, like an oracle.

Improving on the Yi text, especially reducing ambiguity and vagueness, has for me made the oracle more accurate. This improved precision would have made it work less well if the skeptics had been right.

Oracles do not really predict the future

Many people do use the Yijing to predict the future. However, according to many spiritual schools, particularly those that use meditation practice, the future does not exist somewhere. Reality is not like some videotape, so that you can know the future if you know how to fast-forward. Only what's there now is real, there is only the current moment. So it cannot be true that the Yijing really predicts the future.

But, as it reflects intent, and intent usually leads to something happening, one can get the impression that the Yi does predict the future. This is however not so, as intent can change due to new circumstances, or other intent can interfere.

Taking it that the original creators of the Yi were well aware of that (given the spiritual insight that is part of the text), it can be assumed that the Yi is not about the future, and does not contain elements that would refer to that.

Reports of actual oracle readings can be used to establish the meaning of lines

There are a few places on the internet where people post questions about Yijing readings. They've found their readings unclear, and request explanation from more experienced users. The lack of clarity usually comes from using oracle software that only presents the Zhouyi core text, without explanatory comments, or from using Yijing texts that aren't clear, or are incorrect.

When there's sufficient background information about the situations at hand, and the questions are about things the oracle can well provide answers to, such information can be useful. (Questions about the future, particularly when it comes to specific times or dates, are better ignored.)

It is possible to use such reported readings for determining the meaning of Yijing lines. The situations described should in some way fit with the translation. Even if the people inquiring used incorrect translations, the described situations are likely to fit with what the translation should be. Incorrect translations often contain inconsistencies in situations described, so that it is not actually possible that the people inquiring experience the incorrectly translated situations. They will experience something that fits with the originally intended meaning.

This originally intended meaning is also there in the structure of the Yi. Lines in hexagrams, as they change to other hexagrams, alone or in combination, form a structuring that is always there when the Yi is used as an oracle. It means that you cannot just have a line with a different meaning than the structure allows. This structuring does enforce the originally intended meaning, as from the original Zhouyi authors.

Yi is a map of experience

To be useful as an oracle, the text would have to describe experiences. Not only some experiences, but categories of all possible experiences. Of course there are limits to how one can describe all experiences, so there is a certain amount of simplification. This makes the Yi a map of experiences, one can look up kinds of experiences in it, or let the oracle point out where on the map one is, or where one needs to be.

Being a map, it is not likely to contain any outlandish possibilities. The situations described in the Yi must be simple and recognizable, not mysterious. The Yi is understandable, not weird.

Yi is about intent in situations

So what kind of experiences are in the Yi? As the Yi is an oracle, it will reflect intent, so the experiences will be seen from the viewpoint of what intent there is. This intent is there in situations, so the Yi describes intent in situations. It is a map of intent in situations.

Thus, a line in the Yi will not just describe a principle, as a principle is not a situation, nor is it an intent. It will not describe an emotion, as an emotion is a reaction to a situation. It does not describe what you should do, as something you "should" is something according to rules of conduct, and not a naturally occuring intent.

The meanings of lines are sharply defined

With the Yi being a map of intent in situations, the meanings of the lines need to be sharply defined situations. So the lines don't contain a heap of characters to pick and choose the meanings from that happen to coincide with your unconscious projections. They contain short stories about single situations, having a single intent.

Every line is about a single situation

The given that there is only what's there now, means that the Yi can only describe something that is there now. It is mostly not possible that a line describes a situation and something that will happen afterwards, or something that precedes it. An existing or resulting condition can only be indicated if the intent of the situation requires it.

Words like "maybe" and "if" thus can't have a place in the Yi text, as they would imply multiple possibilities for situations. "Maybe something is happening" means that there is the option that something is happening, and something is not happening. The same goes for "If something in particular is happening, then..."

Each hexagram is about a particular meaningful theme, indicated by the hexagram name

The Yijing is structured in 64 chapters, the hexagrams. While we use numbers to indicate them, the original text only has names consisting of one or two Chinese characters. These hexagram names are meaningful, and describe the theme of the lines that make up the texts from the hexagram.

There are actually translators of the Yi, like Rutt (and Kunst), who believe that the hexagram names are not meaningful. Rutt calls them "tags," considering them "no more than a convenient shorthand mnemonic reference." He mentions the wide variety of different translations of "tags" that translators have come up with, and takes that as an indication of the meaninglessness of them. I take that variety as an indication of how difficult it is to translate the Yi correctly. Not taking the meaning of the hexagram names into account is, in my opinion, a way of avoiding resolving a lack of consistency in one's translation.

I don't believe that people are capable of being arbitrary. When someone is going to create identifications for 64 identically structured chapters, one is going to use some kind of system to do it. The chapters will get numbers in a particular way, or get names that will be derived from the contents of these chapters, or will in some other way be structured, but they will not end up being arbitrary.

The Yi is a psycho/spiritual work

As the Yi is intended to be an oracle, its contents will reflect the needs of people consulting it as such. It will give relevant advice for the situations that people inquire about. People want to know what is really happening, and receive advice about it. They want to know whether a situation is fortunate or not, whether they can trust something, and whether what they are doing or intend to do is right or wrong. These are psychological matters that come up in the text.

I take spirituality as concerned with being one's true self. To be true, one needs to be aware of the real, unencumbered by psychological defenses and emotions. An oracle can connect one to the real, as it reflects true intent. From experience, I know that they Yi does actually do this.

The original writers of the Yi were looking for the truth beyond ego and the unconscious

What is really happening is a particular concern for an oracle. People do have difficulty knowing and recognizing that, as emotional defenses are often standing in the way. This is because people have an unconscious, and an ego that is inherent with that.

For the writers of the Yijing to be capable of creating this work, they must have been aware of this difficulty people have, and have developed themselves to go beyond it.  In other words, they must have been spiritual people.

When the core text was written, almost 3000 years ago, people had much less distraction from things like TV, music, newspapers, advertising, noise, and other things. This must have made it much easier than it is for modern man to observe one's inner thoughts and feelings, so that a lot of insight into that could develop. Spiritual schools based on such insight developed at these times. Thus, a text having psychological sophistication, built on that insight, was certainly possible.

Because of the limited amount of characters, there aren't multiple expressions for concepts

The Zhouyi doesn't contain much text, so there isn't much room for expressing concepts with different wordings. So different words or combinations of words must express different concepts.

The Shijing, as a contemporary text, can be used for finding out what characters mean

The Shijing, the Book of Odes, is one of the few contemporary works that are available. It can be used to find out what characters meant during that time, by supplying more context.

Ancient Chinese can be translated to modern languages

The Ancient Chinese characters have a wider range of meaning than words in modern languages. This raises the question whether it is at all possible to translate Ancient Chinese with modern language. Which words too choose?

While the words themselves may have a wide range of dictionary meaning, this is not so when viewed in their context. In context, meaning gets precisely defined. It is therefore mostly quite possible to translate the Yi to a modern language like English.

The received version is meaningful and useful

There are a couple of texts available that are variants of the Yi. One version stands out clearly, as it is the version that has been passed on since Confucian times. This is what's usually referred to as the "received version."

The received version is by some considered to not make much sense. Of course, this depends on one's understanding of the material, as well as the translator's tools, skill and knowledge. Not every dictionary offers the right meanings, not every translator has compatible knowledge and understanding.

I find the text is very comprehensible and makes a lot of sense, taking it as a psychological text and oracle. It makes so much sense, that it seems like the end result of an extensive development.

Some translators have seen the need to change the text, substituting other characters that they think are more likely to have been there in a supposed original text. They consider the received version to be a distortion of the original, and think characters have been changed in a process of copying the text.

But how can one text, about savage violence, change to a sophisticated psychological text? Of course, they don't see the received version as sophisticated. Such translators tend not to believe that oracles really work, which makes them see the text as unsophisticated. They believe that people back in the times when the Zhouyi was written were superstitious savages, and they translate the text accordingly, changing it to fit that view.

Then, there's also the Mawangdui version, a version of the Zhouyi discovered in the 1970's. Several characters in it are different than in the received version. Some translators take this version as an ellucidation. I find that the different characters do not make that much sense, and therefore I have chosen to ignore this text.

The precepts can be used to correct the translation

These precepts help weed out incorrect possibilities of translation. For instance, I'd reject a translation of a line that is about more than one single situation. Ambiguity is unwanted, and texts need to have inner consistency. Any text that can't be seen to describe a particular situation and the intent in it, is probably not translated correctly. Text about meaningless violence is unlikely to be correct. If the six lines of a hexagram do not map out one particular theme (describing various aspects of it), there is likely to be an error somewhere. Situations in the Yi are recognizable and understandable, so any talk about mysterious things is unlikely to be correct.

Untrustworthy precepts

Translators have used other precepts, that I have chosen not to use.

The Confucian texts in the Yijing other than the Zhouyi core are not necessarily consistent with that Zhouyi core

The Yijing as compiled by Confucianism contains various texts, like the Images, that have been written several hundred years after the original Zhouyi core text. The writers of these texts don't necessarily have had the same understandings as the original writers, and had some entirely different views. Their focus on proper conduct doesn't quite fit with the more spiritual Zhouyi. What they wrote thus cannot be taken to be authoritatively illuminating the Zhouyi.

Wilhelm is not necessarily right about what things mean

Many people take Wilhelm's, or the English translation by Cary Baynes of his Yijing (which was originally in German) to be the "best" translation around. The language that Wilhelm uses, which is inspired by Goethe's, certainly gives the text an aura of mysticism and authenticity, which may impress people. It has become quite popular, especially as it was the first Yijing  text that gained widespread use in the West.

But it doesn't mean that his translation is to be considered accurate. Many parts of the translation are debatable. Furthermore, Baynes' English tranlation does contain some remarkable translation decisions, like translating the German "der Edle" with "the superior man," instead of the more direct "the noble" or "the noble one." These words have some very different connotations.

Wilhelm's text is based on a Confucian interpretation of the Yijing. As described above, I consider this approach inconsistent with the core text of the Yi.

Similarities in Yijing translations are not necessarily a sign of correctness

Most translators of the Yijing are at least aware of  Wilhem's text, and usually also of others'. When a text part seems hard to translate, it is tempting to go look at what other translators have come up with. If it seems plausible, one can use such an idea.

For a reader or another translator who wants to know the correct translation, it is tempting to see if there is similarity between translations, and take that as a sign of correctness. However, when a translator has copied the idea from another text, similarity is, in fact, just the result of ignorance.

Superficiality is another cause of similarities between translations. When on the surface it seems that a particular interpretation is correct, one can, intitially, resort to translating something accordingly. Several translators might come to the same conclusion on the basis of superficial examination. But a deeper examination might result in a more correct text, that is different from other texts.

Of course, similar translations can be perfectly correct. Apparent concensus between translators however is no guarantee for that.

Trigrams

Many people, not just translators of the Yi, have used the trigrams that the hexagrams are made of to establish the meaning of hexagrams. I find that the lack of definition of the meanings of the trigrams themselves limits the usefulness of such an approach. Also, the available information about the trigrams is, in fact, a later development than the Zhouyi, so it doesn't come from the same trustworthy source.

Line position

The position (number) of a line in the hexagram often corresponds with the development of the theme. On position 1 there may be a start in the theme, in position 5 it's at its top, and at 6 it's going over the top.

While interesting in itself, I've not found this principle to be useful to establish the correctness of a translation of a line with precision. It can only guide broad, imprecise aspects of meaning, which is not where the problems are.

Correctness of line positions

The position of a line, and whether it's a yin or a yang line, supposedly gives rise to the line being "correct" or "incorrect." Together with a line being "central" or not in a trigram (so having position 2 or 5), this would tell something about the meaning of the line. However, the system doesn't seem to be entirely consistent with the Zhouyi text. It is a later development.

Fan Yao

The Fan Yao of a line in the Yijing, is the line with the same number, but in the hexagram that the original line is changing to. So, for example, the Fan Yao of line 1 of hexagram 1, is line 1 of hexagram 44, because it changes to hexagram 44.

As the hexagram a line is changing to is the hexagram with the meaning closest to that line, the line in that hexagram with the same number is even closer. The Fan Yao is closest in meaning to a line, and thus could be of help in establishing its precise meaning.

While some have found this a useful principle to use with translating decisions, I find it unreliable. Nothing can, in fact, be said about how close exactly the meaning of the Fan Yao really is. Not knowing that, it is not possible to decide on anything definitive.


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