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One of the most important books in the world is The Records of the Grand Historian. Written by Sima Qian in the first century B.C., it elucidates more than two thousand years’ worth of Chinese history. The story behind Qian’s masterpiece is fascinating. After offending a harsh emperor, Qian was forced to make a terrible choice between castration, and living as a court eunuch, or taking his own life. Conformity deemed it more suitable for him to take his own life, and in that way retain his honor. However, during the time of his punishment, his book was still unfinished, and so he chose to embrace dishonor in order to see its completion. In a letter he explained his reasoning: “If [my book] may be handed down to men who will appreciate it, … then though I should suffer a thousand mutilations, what regret should I have?”
His quote has stayed with me for years. Qian’s dedication to spreading knowledge moves me in a wholly emotional way. However, the quote is also notable because it doesn’t belong to Qian. Not quite. The quote was written by a translator named Burton Watson.
Here is the lovely gray area of language. The quote is Qian’s message in Watson’s words, a linguistic duality that winds the emotional with the intellectual seamlessly. Translation, in this way, is enormously human. It requires respect. In a world full of noise, where many talk but rarely listen, translators pour their mental energies into the words of another. Translation is also selflessness, the gift that gives twice: The writer receives a broader readership, and readers live in a world made more vivid by the extra piece of media that is now available to them. It could be said that the true genius of translation is that it transcends mortality. While I’m a supporter of multilingualism, it’s not feasible for everyone to learn every language. For example, with my interest in Latin, French, and Japanese, I may not have time to learn Qian’s tongue. Due to Watson’s incredible contribution, I don’t have to.
Spreading information is one of the noblest aspirations, whether one sacrifices his honor for it, as Qian did, or earns a degree for it, as Watson did. I want to write words and spread information more than anything. I want to work hard to make something valuable, and give the world more of the world. I’m already lucky enough to be a native speaker of English, the modern lingua franca, and I would be proud to translate worthwhile words in a language that is comprehensible to a large percentage of the world’s population.
I know of only one portrait of Qian. In it he has bold brows, long ears, and a wise face. I imagine how that face might light up – in delight or knowing satisfaction – if he knew that, even now, his work is being handed down to those who appreciate it.
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