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Plato Goes to China: Participles, Ontology, and Chinese Translations of the Euthyphro 10a-11b

Jialin Li

My paper is concerned with the translation into Chinese of the participles in 10a1-11b5 of Plato’s Euthyphro, with the larger goal of testing scholarly hypotheses on the relationship between language and thought. Robert Wardy (Aristotle in China, Cambridge University Press, 2000) designates the hypothesis that “basic linguistic structure at once encourages and constrains the development of philosophical tendencies and doctrines” as “the guidance and constraint hypothesis.” Historically, Chinese philosophy lacks ontological ideas of the sort characteristic of Western (especially Greek) philosophy, and the Chinese language, whose verbs are not inflected, lacks participles. Is there a relation between these two missing elements? The translation of the Euthyphro passage is a worthy case study because it is an ontological discussion expressed through a debate on participles.

In 10a1-11b5, Plato makes fine distinctions between Greek participles and their corresponding finite verbs to demonstrate that participles are strictly narrative instead of descriptive, despite their adjectival appearance. Therefore, participles cannot serve as an adequate definition of something like “piety” (to hosion), which is an independent and non- relational concept (Hall, Philosophical Quarterly 18 (1986), 1-11; Paxson, Phronesis 17 (1972), 171-90). This annulment of participles as a legitimate vehicle for definition is closely linked to the topic of ontology, because it reflects how Plato wants one to answer the ontological question “What is X.” Therefore, the difficulty of translating the Greek participles in the passage into Chinese could either corroborate or complicate the “guidance and constraint hypothesis,” because at least in this case, the meaning of the participles is foundational to the expression and development of Plato’s argument on ontology.

I first examine seven Chinese scholarly translations of the Euthyphro, dating back to the earliest one, Zhang Shizhu and Zhang Dongsun (1932) in classical Chinese. I find out that the language in the seven translations is influenced by Chinese philosophical and literary traditions, and could in turn influence the philosophical interpretation of contemporary readers. Although the philosophical acumen created by Greek participles can only be conveyed through a rather literal translation that preserves the original grammatical forms intact, most Chinese translators choose not to do so, due to certain grammatical, linguistic, and stylistic features of Chinese language. I manage to produce a rather literal but intelligible translation. The fact that such a literal translation can be constructed reveals that, although historically some characteristics of Chinese language might prevent Chinese thinkers from choosing the same path of reasoning as Greek thinkers, it does not necessarily mean that Chinese thinkers are innately unable to express and develop this kind of reasoning. 

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