A long time ago I criticized the scholars who translated the Đồng Khánh địa dư chí into Vietnamese (here), because in that work the people whom we would today refer to as the “ethnic Vietnamese” are labeled “Hán” but the translators did not indicate this. Instead, they simply translated “Hán” as “Kinh,” a term that did not come into use until the second half of the twentieth century.

I think it is entirely obvious why that term was translated that way. It is because the influence of nationalism makes such terminology from the past embarrassing and painful to people in the present.

The problem, however, is with nationalism and people in the present. The past was different, and we should accept it on its own terms. The usage of “Hán” to refer to “Vietnamese” is one example of this. The manner in which people in the past talked about “religions” is another.

I was looking at a passage about the customs in Sơn Tây Province in the Đồng Khánh địa dư chí, and the final sentence of that section mentioned three different teachings/religions. This is how that passage was translated into Vietnamese:

“The Way of the Scholars [Nho giáo] occupies the largest number [of adherents], after this are [those who] follow Buddhism/the Way of the Buddha, and people who follow Christianity are very few.”

Nho giáo vẫn chiếm số nhiều, thứ đến là theo đạo Phật, người theo Thiên chúa giáo rất ít.

When we read this sentence, we see much that is familiar to us today: “the Way of the Scholars” [Nho giáo] is often translated as “Confucianism.” Meanwhile, Buddhism [đạo Phật] and Christianity [Thiên chúa giáo] are of course very commonly used terms.

Those latter two terms, however, are not in the original. Instead, the original text states that within the entire area of the jurisdiction of the province of Sơn Tây, the Teachings of the Scholars was followed by the most people, that “Shakya-Buddha [Thích Phật] also exists,” and that “those who follow the heterodox teaching [Tả giáo] are very small in number.”

Robert Ford Campany wrote a very good article a few years ago in which he talked about how Western terms for talking about “religions” in Chinese history do not match the terms that Chinese historically used themselves. He therefore argues that we need to be aware of the ways in which terms like “Buddhism” can distort our rendering of the past, because such a term brings to our minds ideas that might not have been in the minds of the people who called it “Shakya-Buddha.”

[See Robert Ford Campany, “On the Very Idea of Religions (In the Modern West and in Early Medieval China),” History of Religions 42.4 (2003): 287-319.]

While it requires some effort to determine what exactly “Shakya-Buddha” meant to the people who used that term, it requires no effort at all to see that translating “heterodox teaching” [Tả giáo] as “Christianity” [Thiên chúa giáo] is a distortion, as it completely whitewashes the bias that is in the Đồng Khánh địa dư chí. Today it might not be politically correct to see Christianity as “heterodox” but that is exactly how many members of the Vietnamese elite viewed it in the nineteenth century. Translators should not hide that fact.

This is yet one more example of the many ways in which modern Vietnamese translations of sources that were originally written in classical Chinese distort the past.