Sunday, January 31, 2010

Xin Xin Ming and Classical Chinese

The other day, I came along this great poem, the Xing Xing Ming, attributed to the Third Patriarch.

Reading the different versions of the poem, I notice that a lot is lost in translation. Let's just start with the title. It has been translated as: Trust Mind Inscription, Inscription on Trust in the Mind, Inscribed On the Believing Mind, On Believing in Mind, On Faith in Mind, Trust in the Heart.

This is already a bad sign. Lucky for me, I live in an age of the internet. I can therefore command more translating power than the Son of Heaven in old China, despite the fact I don't know a lick of Chinese.

Now the title is: 信心銘

The first character, 信, is xin. It is actually made of two characters: a man to the left, and on the right the character for speech. It generally means trust, as in you believe the person who is talking.

The second, 心, is xin, heart. Now xin is a tricky word in Chinese. It can mean the whole mental apparatus, including thoughts and feelings that evidently the ancient Chinese did not distinguish as much as we in the West. Another is consciousness, or citta in Sankrit. Another is heart, essence, or core. When some one says mind, it leaves out the heart and core. When one says heart, I think of emotions, or a sort of cliched sincerity. But this word is so much bigger. In ancient Chinese, the character for love is xin dancing. The character for hate is the xin covered. This is a very big concept.

The third is 銘, which is means an inscription. Again, looking at the characters, you have a character for engrave, and also the same character ming in the Tao Te Ching that stands for the name that cannot be named.

So I might translate this as: Believing in the Heart-Mind Inscription. But even this doesn't capture the dynamic nature of the Chinese characters.

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