Articles - On Terminology
1) Note on Terminology from Giovanni's
latest book (to be published in 2008).
Please click here to download
2) Extract of letter sent to 'Clinical Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine'
The following is an abridged version of a letter sent to the
editor of "Clinical Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine"
in response to an article by N Wiseman published in the same journal.
I would like to make a few comments on Wiseman's article Translation of Chinese medical terms: not just a matter of
words (Clinical Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine,
Vol. 2, no. 1).
Firstly I would like to correct some of the comments he makes
on my book Foundations of Chinese Medicine. Wiseman asserts
that in my book "the same area is described in terms of thorax,
abdomen, chest, flank, hypochondrium, epigastrium, upper part
of the abdomen, lower abdomen, lower (part of) the abdomen, upper
part of the abdomen just below the xiphoid process and hypogastrium".
I presume that when Wiseman says "is described in terms of"
he means "is translated as". This is simply not true.
It is obvious to any reader that "chest" is a translation of xiong while epigastrium is a translation of wan.
Although these terms are not in the glossary, some terms have an obvious translation
e.g. an "elbow" in Chinese is the same as an "elbow" in English.
Wiseman himself says in the following page that I translate xin
xia as upper part of the abdomen just below the xiphoid
process, thus contradicting himself because this proves that
the terms he quotes above are not translations of the same
term. Wiseman dislikes my translation of xin xia as upper
part of the abdomen just below the xiphoid process: although
long, my main priority is that this term is clinically useful.
Moreover, Wiseman translates xin xia in his dictionary
as region below the heart but this is imprecise because
the region "below the heart" could be central or lateral towards
the left of the chest: it is in fact, the midline area below the
xiphoid process. The Concise Dictionary of Chinese Medicine
confirms this when it says that pain in the xin xia region is pain in the
pit of the stomach.
Secondly I would like to make some general observations on the
translation of Chinese medical terms. In my opinion, the
most important issue facing practitioners is not how to transmit
the language of Chinese medicine (an impossible task given
the differences between Chinese and other languages) but how to
transmit the clinical skills of Chinese medicine. What
matters is not whether xian is translated as" wiry" or
"bow-string" [pulse] but whether students are able to master that
pulse quality and successfully identify it in the clinic. It could
even be argued that the excessive (if not obsessive) attention
dedicated to terminology with its ensuing "debate" distracts us
from the main task, i.e. that of mastering and communicating the
clinical skills of Chinese medicine. Of course, the language of
Chinese medicine is important in as much as it helps us to understand
the concepts behind it: thus what matters is not so much the translation
of a term but understanding the idea conveyed by a particular
Chinese character. For this reason, when I lecture and I
am introducing a new concept or disease of Chinese medicine, I
would always draw the relevant character and explain its meaning
and nuances: in my opinion that is what matters, not how we translate
it. I simply fail to see how translating zheng jia as "concretions and conglomerations" (rather than "abdominal masses")
helps students and practitioners to understand the pathology,
diagnosis and treatment of this disease (incidentally, according
to the Oxford English Dictionary both "concretion" and "conglomeration"
indicate a process, an action rather than a substance and therefore
cannot have a plural form). In his quest to establish a "correct"
terminology, Wiseman occasionally needs to invent new words such
as outthrust, an absurd situation given the extremely rich
English vocabulary. Another example of the narrowness of English translations
of Chinese terms is Wiseman's translation of cou li as "interstice" and his explanation that this is an "anatomical
entity of unclear identity". I suggest Wiseman looks
at the article "The location and function
of the San Jiao" by Qu Lifang.
Wiseman clearly reduces the meaning of "interstice" to that of
"grain" which is not correct given than li indicates the
"grain" (of various structures) while cou indicates
the "interstices" (in various parts of the body). This is
an example of how the rigid and reductive translation of a Chinese
term actually reduces our understanding of it.
Also, it could be argued that the main issue facing us in the
West is not how to translate the Chinese terms but how to find
the correspondence between Chinese terms and what Western patients actually use. For example, most authors, even
Wiseman, translate the word zhang as "distension" (or "distention").
However, English patients will never use this word and will usually
say "bloating" to indicate zhang, while Italian patients
would say gonfiore (which strictly means "swelling") and
German patients spannung. Thus, we may "correctly" translate
zhang as "distension" but students will never hear that
term in the clinic. Another example is that of men which
is usually translated as a "feeling of oppression"; however, very
few English patients will use the word "oppression" to describe
this feeling and will usually say "tightness" or "a feeling of
weight". Thus, what is the point of concentrating all our attention
in getting the terminology "right" if it is not clinically relevant?
There would be a case for producing a glossary re-translating
the translated English terms into the expressions that patients
actually use (in each Western country).
The very premise of Wiseman's article ("if we assume
that it would be a good thing for all speakers to refer to each
concept of Chinese medicine by the same term") is itself
debatable. Apart from the fact that this aim may be impossible
to achieve, is it even desirable? Given that some Chinese medical
terms are practically impossible to translate because they have
so many nuances, do the differences in translation not actually
enrich our understanding of Chinese Medicine? If someone
translates xian [pulse quality] as "wiry" and another as
"bow-string" does the reference to a bow string not help us to
visualize the wiry pulse? I translate Yang Qiao Mai as "Yang
Heel Vessel" but "Yang Motility Vessel" is by no means wrong and
it usefully conveys a particular aspect of this vessel. Why subject
all authors to a rigid, autocratic uniformity? In over 28
years of practice and teaching I have met thousands of students,
practitioners, teachers and heads of colleges and nobody has ever indicated to me that terminology is the
main issue facing the successful development of Chinese medicine in the West: the
most pressing issue facing practitioners is how to develop the
diagnostic skills of Chinese medicine. Since more and more
people are learning Chinese, as long as authors use a glossary
of terms, there is not a problem.
Furthermore, Wiseman's position is rather Anglo-centric
by concentrating so much on the "correct" translation of Chinese
terms into English. Chinese medicine is truly universal now and
is used in practically all countries of the world. Even if we
adopt the only "right" and "correct" English terminology, how
does that promote the development of Chinese medicine in the world?
Again, as more and more people are now studying at least the rudiments
of Chinese, the only universal terminology is the Chinese one.
I have taught in many countries with many different languages
all over the world and whenever there is a doubt about a particular
term I always use the Chinese term and this invariably clears
up any misunderstanding.
Moreover, Wiseman attributes a precision to Chinese medical
terminology that the Chinese texts themselves often do not have.
One only needs to look at the imprecise way the terms Heat and
Fire are often used interchangeably in Chinese books, old and
modern. Wiseman himself seems to have this difficulty in the article
when he comments on the term xie which he translate as
"to drain". However Wiseman seems at pains to distinguish xie (as in "to drain" from xie (as in "to discharge") _
as in his dictionary he asserts that xie (discharge)
has the same meaning as xie (drain) which is clearly not
A confusion of these two treatment methods in herbal medicine
would lead to dire consequences. The often imprecise use of terms
(or different uses of the same term by different authors) is due
to the fact that Chinese medicine was developed exclusively by
practising doctors not linguists, anthropologists or ethnologists.
In other instances Wiseman seems to deviate from his own rule
of translating every term literally (e.g. "Foxy mounting pattern")
quite a few times. For example, his dictionary translates Xu
Li (the throbbing of the left ventricle of the heart and the
Great Connecting channel of the Stomach) as "apical pulse" and
then as Vacuous Li, leaving the word Li untranslated.
N 1998 A Practical Dictionary of Chinese Medicine, Paradigm
Publications, Brookline, p. 497.
College of Chinese Medicine 1980 Concise Dictionary of Chinese
Medicine (Jian Ming Zhong Yi Ci Dian, People's
Health Publishing House, Beijing, p. 193.
. A Practical
Dictionary of Chinese Medicine, P. 422.
. Qu Lifang
"The Location and Function of the San Jiao" in Journal of Chinese
Medicine, no. 65, p. 26.
. A Practical
Dictionary of Chinese Medicine, p. 130.
Please click here to download a PDF on Terminology
from Giovanni's latest book
(to be published in 2008).