Sunday, June 29, 2008

The Art of Connection

I won't pretend to be a cultural anthropologist--having taken one course, almost seven years ago, in my freshman year, in college, hardly makes me an expert. But I predict that, as with TCM, we will, within the next ten to twenty years, start seeing a resurgence in interest in African herbal medicine, and possibly in the traditional "cures" of South American tribes, as well. After all, if we can derive painkillers from poison dart frogs, it stands to reason that there might just be something behind all the shamanism and "pretenses" of healing.

I've titled this "The Art of Connection" because getting at the right information is an art. Taking a literal translation of the ancient Chinese texts is a mistake, as it turns out--one could say the same about taking the oral histories of African tribes literally, too. It amounts to parsing the meaning, and not just the information, out of the words.

To give you a better idea of what it means: I'm a native English speaker (I know a little Spanish and I'm reasonably fluent in Chinese, but English is my primary language), who moved to the Netherlands last year. I've had to learn Dutch on the fly, so to speak. The words themselves are not that difficult, but the way they are used still drives me crazy and renders my dictionaries useless, because the meaning they convey has (seemingly) little to do with the words that are used. In part, this is because the vocabulary of many other languages is small when compared to English--and therefore they rely on constructions to get the meaning across--but also because there are some words in Dutch that simply don't translate well.

Nowhere is this difficulty in translation more apparent than in the English translations of the Judge Di series. Rumor has it that van Gulik originally wrote it in Chinese, and then it was translated into Dutch, and then that was translated into English. While most certainly apocryphal, if you have a bad Dutch-English translation...suffice it to say you spend more of your time wondering why the translator couldn't do a better job.

And that's just between two languages with a common root (Teutonic). How one begins to approach the art of translating between Yoruba and English is something I can't even begin to fathom.

Still, it must be done. And more to the point, it must be done well. I'd like to think that the West paid for its arrogance when the British lost the Boer War, but that's really a pipe dream, as there continue to be so many shows of blatant ignorance and arrogance about how things "should" be (most notably, the idiotic movie made by Geert Wilders). But biology doesn't give a crap about what "should" be. It just is, and whether you like the treatment has little to do with whether it works, and conversely, whether you think it should work has little to do with whether it does.

I've said elsewhere that you can't win against biology. The whole macho-thing about conquering the West" presumes that life stops once you stop--that once you figure out this, you can solve that. It's only recently that we've realized how connected everything is--dust from the Sahara feeds orchids in the Amazon--and it'll take a while before we're able to fully appreciate those connections. Maybe we should get started now.

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