Confucius: virtue is not left to stand alone

Tim asked:

I have been stumped as to a Confucius saying that I really need some truth and guidance on. Ok, The saying ‘Virtue is not left to stand alone. He who practices it will have neighbors.’ I wanted to get a Chinese written version of the first part ‘Virtue is not left to stand alone’ and I got the translation from a website, but they told me that ‘Virtue is not left to stand alone. He who practices it will have neighbors’ is the ‘American Version of his quote. That the real translation is simply ‘Virtue Not Alone’. Is this true? Everything I have found over countless hours on the internet shows the longer version. I cannot find anywhere just ‘Virtue not alone’. So which is the TRUE REAL words of his quote? if their a Confucius quote, and the longer version is the Americanized version? please help, because for a year this has been bugging me to find a true answer to this.

Answer by Shaun Williamson

I don’t speak or write any Chinese but the one thing we can be sure of is ‘Virtue not alone’ is not an English sentence and therefore cannot be a translation of anything that Confucius wrote.

Confucius was a literate individual so it is not right to translate his sayings into pidgin English. He didn’t speak or write pidgin Chinese. A minimum translation would have to be ‘Virtue does not exist alone’ or ‘Virtue is never alone’.

Translation is a difficult business but translating Confucius is not as difficult as translating Chinese poetry so I see no reason to doubt the common English translations. If you are really bothered by this then the answer is to study the appropriate dialect of written Chinese so you can translate it for yourself. Alternatively do some research on English translations of Confucius and decide which one is likely to be the most accurate.

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

Chinese is a language full of implicit semantics. In this it is unlike European languages, where the alphabetical system of written communication tends to spell everything out word by word.

You get the same problem also when translating European languages into each other, though not as bad. But, as an example, you can’t translate ‘understatement’ into German, there is simply no word for it. So what does a translator do? Use several words to encircle the meaning. Something like happens with your quote.

The Egyptian hieroglyphs and the earlier Sumerian cuneiform pose problem like this too. Being pictorial, you could in principle read them in any language whatever, by which I mean that the actual words you pronounce when you read them are not tied to the Egyptian or Sumerian language. So in alphabetical languages, the grammatical structure may require you to speak more words than appear in the writing.

From this you can see that any language which relies on writing other than alphabetical, often contains more words than are written. The readers would generally know what meanings are implied by the way the actually written words are arranged.

So to get back to Confucius: Although there are only three words, every Chinese would understand the implications that have to be spelled out in English.

Which means, that the same Chinese expressions may vary from one translator to another, because they all have to add words not found in the original.

So, take consolation that translators from the Chinese do not usually wilfully distort their text, but do what they can to render it into English, which often cannot be done intelligibly without adding and/or embroidering.

2 thoughts on “Confucius: virtue is not left to stand alone

  1. Hi, you’re in luck because I’m Chinese. The quote is 德不孤,必有邻。It means “The virtuous will not be solitary, they are sure to have neighbors.” It is not exactly the meaning but it is the closest translation as Chinese is very different from English.

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