by Terence MacNamee

A Japanese professor has remarked that his people have Chinese writing “in their cultural DNA”. Indeed, Japan is part of the Sinocentric world, and its wonderful culture, though distinct, is inconceivable without all the arts of civilisation learned from the mainland over centuries of coexistence.

The Japanese writing system is the best illustration of this. The Chinese ideograms are pronounced not as Chinese but as the equivalent Japanese words. And these Chinese ideograms have been supplemented – but not replaced – by a sort of syllabic writing that better expresses the very different structure of the Japanese language.

French scholar Jean-Noël Robert describes the historic relationship of Chinese to Japanese as “hieroglossia”. In such situations, he says, the civilising language learned from outside is regarded as a sacred language that guarantees the rightness of the civilised language that emulates it. Chinese was regarded as a perfect language for designating the world, and Japanese, because it used Chinese characters, also came to be regarded as a perfect expression of the world.

As Robert points out, the civilised language comes to participate in the sacredness of the sacred language through the process of translation and adaptation, and becomes sacred in its turn. This was true of Japanese in relation to Chinese, just as, in the West, Hebrew, the sacred language of the Bible, through translation, lent a mantle of sacredness to Greek, which then lent a mantle of sacredness to Latin.

This hieroglossia, as Robert further points out, involves more than what we know as translation. In the case of translation, the translated version replaces the original text in the source language. The reader, because he has the translation, can forget about the original. But here we have a kind of ongoing symbiosis. We are dealing with languages that don’t go away after translation but remain present, still embedded in the language that is supposed to replace them.