The historian and the philologist who study the written record of China's past in different ways and to different ends both face the problem of intractable Chinese texts. The mutual sympathy that this engenders is not unmixed with complacent condescension on the part of each toward the way the other goes about solving questions that are the concern of both, especially in the realm of translation. The historian's habit of translating the names of offices functionally (Imperial Chancery rather than Sanctum of Penetralian Scriptures for chung-shu sheng) and of simply not translating such terms as era names (nien-hao) outrages spirited philologues, who declare that the characters of which these era names are composed are words with “very transparent meanings” which can and should be captured in translation. Some years ago, having been impressed with this argument, I decided to try to translate the name of an era I was studying. What happened was that my search led me to a philologically sound, but, as it turned out, entirely erroneous interpretation.

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