Lost in translation: Implications of Ogyu Sorai’s Rejection of the Wakun Method for Modern Readers

Ogyu Sorai (1666-1728) is perhaps best known for his political writings, yet his attitude towards language and the reading of Chinese texts is arguably of equal importance to any reader. As Thomas Kasulis outlines, the predominant way of reading classical Chinese literature in Japanese was the wakun method, in which a Chinese text was read with Japanese sentence structure and grammar. In doing so, this created what Sorai called a ‘bizarre and contrived hybrid” of both Chinese and Japanese1 . This simple description neatly gets to the heart of one of the greatest barriers of learning and interpretation of any reader: that of translation. In order to truly learn and understand classical Chinese texts, Sorai argued for learning the Chinese readings first, thus becoming familiar with the syntax and flow of spoken Chinese, and only then could one begin to translate it into more understandable Japanese.

Sorai argued that this ‘Japanification’ of Chinese readings and forcibly altered sentence structure led to an overcomplication and loss of information. Furthermore, he argued that since this translation itself came from the Heian era, it was by the time of the Tokogawa Shogunate some several hundred years out of date, and therefore written in an antiquated, archaic style that most ordinary Japanese readers would find it difficult to understand anyway2 .

His solution was to learn the original language before one can truly begin to understand its meaning. However, this is problematic for several reasons. Firstly, Kasulis points out that Sorai had the benefit of a classical education under the Hayashi family, and had the ‘rare skill’ of being able to read and understand both Classical and modern forms. He was then able to set up his own school in order to teach this new method, dubbed Nagasaki after the area with the highest bilingual population at the time3 .

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, this approach has major implications for the modern reader. Learning a language outside of state-mandated education is often time-consuming and can be prohibitively expensive, whether engaging a private tutor or using some other form, such as an online service. Thirdly, there is the issue of breadth. Sorai, being first and foremost a Confucian scholar, had only to learn Classical and modern Chinese. A difficult task, perhaps, but a singular one to which he devoted himself. For those whose interests are not quite so narrowed, it could easily leave one overwhelmed, thinking that all languages of interest must be mastered before one could even attempt to study anything of note.

Fourthly, there is the simple question of whether Sorai was right at all. The Nagasaki method came under criticism even in his own lifetime, notably from another Confucian Scholar, Arai Hakuseki, who pointed out the illogicality of the method in general, since the bilingual residents, being predominantly fisherman, had learnt Chinese from sailors and so could hardly be placed in the same linguistic realm as the Sage Kings of old4 .Taking this criticism, it would seem to rather invalidate Sorai somewhat.

The final conclusion then, would seem to be a balance between Sorai and a more favourable attitude towards translation. By all means, learning and immersing oneself in a chosen language is desirable for life-long study, or even if one simply has a great love of a particular culture. However, to enforce learning and total understanding before even attempting to study a piece of literature outside of one’s native language is simply not possible in the modern world. A better way, therefore, would be to find our own Sorai, someone who has already done the difficult task of translation, and use that instead as the basis for study. Naturally there will be errors, and one may have to change or alter a sentence to fit with the individual demands and peculiarities of a different language, but this is inevitable. To reverse the well-known saying, its not the way that you say it, but what you say that is most important.

  1. Thomas P. Kasulis. Engaging Japanese Philosophy : A Short History. (University of Hawaii Press, 2018), p. 347 []
  2. Ibid, pp. 348 []
  3. bid, p. 349 []
  4. Ibid, p. 349 []