I’ve written quite a lot on this blog about the problem with using modern Vietnamese translations of historical materials that were originally written in classical Chinese (Hán).
Recently in reading Trần Quang Đức’s Ngàn năm áo mũ, I see that the author makes the same point. In his case, the reason why the modern Vietnamese translations are problematic is because the people who made the translations simply didn’t possess sufficient knowledge about clothing in the past to be able to translate from Hán accurately.
Having done a lot of research on this topic, Trần Quang Đức can translate those passages accurately, and in his book he includes as an appendix his own translation of a section of the An Nam chí lược that deals with clothing.
That’s great, however unless a person who reads the An Nam chí lược knows that Trần Quang Đức retranslated that passage, s/he will never know that there are problems with the section of that book that is about clothing, and will not know that a better translation exists. So retranslating part of a text and putting it in a place where many people will never see it, is not really the most effective way to improve knowledge.
Is there a better way? Yes there is!!
A few years ago I had the idea of creating a web page that would contain “living translations.” My idea was to put on a web page both English-language translations of texts that had been originally written in classical Chinese and the classical-Chinese sources that I based the translations on (here), and to then make it possible for people to comment on the translations.
Basically, I thought that this would be a good way to get people to point out mistakes in my translations, or in the input of the Hán text, or to simply offer alternative translations for passages that are difficult to understand, and for which we cannot be 100% sure of how to translate.
This process of getting readers to contribute to the editing or creation of texts is called “crowdsourcing” and it is a technique that even publishers are now starting to employ, as some publishers are now putting books online for people to comment on first, before they get finally revised for publication in print (and ebook) form.
However, when I was doing the translations, I didn’t have the knowledge to create a web page where this would be possible.
Well now we don’t need that knowledge anymore because there is a free plugin for WordPress that makes this possible.
Called “CommentPress,” it enables someone who is using the WordPress software to create a site where one can place text on the left-hand side of the screen, and enable readers to write comments about the text on the right-hand side of the screen.
I just spent a couple of hours this morning trying to get it to work, but I couldn’t succeed. Then I finally realized that it does not work with the free version of WordPress that I use – WordPress.com (I wish I had figured that out a little sooner. . .). Instead, one needs to either pay for an upgrade to be able to customize WordPress.com or one needs to use WordPress.org.
WordPress.org is “free,” however you have to set it up on your own server (which is not free, but it’s also not all that expensive if you use a service like GoDaddy.com). I haven’t really researched this, but I think customizing WordPress.com or using GoDaddy.com to get a domain name and hosting services would be somewhere around US $100 a year (if a knowledgeable reader reads this, please correct me if I’m wrong).
That is expensive for a poor student, but it’s not very expensive for an organization. Finally, many organizations already have server space, in which case they can just use WordPress.org on their existing server.
So getting back to Vietnamese translations, what we need to do in order to enable people’s knowledge to advance is to create a site for “living translations” (i.e., translations that are “alive” because they can be constantly updated by people who leave comments) of Vietnamese histories. The image above is an example of what this might look like.
I’m not sure if this would get publishers upset (in fact, one can already easily find Vietnamese translations online. . .), but I think that it can actually help publishers.
How? Like this:
You put the original text of the Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư and the modern Vietnamese translation on a WordPress page that is using CommentPress. You let people comment on the translation for a few years.
Then you get someone, or a group of people, to look at those comments, and you then “update” the existing version of the Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư and publish it as the “New, Updated, 2015 Version”!!!
That will make the print version of the book more appealing, and the editing will have been done for free, because it was crowdsourced. The only cost will be in getting people to look over the comments and input the changes that they agree upon.
A “living translation” and a print or ebook translation can and should be able to co-exist. It is much more enjoyable to read a book or an ebook than it is to read a text with multiple languages and comments. However, for scholarly purposes, multilingual texts are very important. And it would be particularly valuable to be able to see comments that people write in which they offer more accurate translations (such as if someone like Trần Quang Đức were to comment on the passages where there are mistakes in the translations about clothing).
The National Library of Vietnam and the Vietnamese Nôm Preservation Foundation created a multilingual version of the Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư, but it’s “frozen in time.” Whatever mistakes exist in that translation cannot be changed.
We should be able to change such mistakes, and to do so in a way so that other people can easily see the changes (rather than publishing them in books where people might never see them). Now we can easily do that. All we need is for someone or some organization to take the lead and do it.