How to translate the word “Spiritism” into Chinese?

When the project of translating The Spirits’ Book in Chinese was initiated, the immediate challenge was to figure out how to translate the specific vocabulary which didn’t exist in the language of Confucius, beginning with the word Spiritism.

The difficulty of translating certain expressions in Chinese can be inferred, for example, from the existing controversy on how to translate the word God. Protestant versions of the Bible may translate God as either Shangdi (上帝, The Great Emperor Above) or Shen (  神, The Deity) , whereas Catholic translations normally opt for Tianzhu (天主, The Lord of Heavens).

Another interesting example is the book Human Action, by Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises. There are three versions of the book in Chinese, each of them translating an otherwise simple title in a different way: 人类行为 (rénlèi xíngwéi), 人的行动 (rénde xíngdòng), and 人的行为 (rénde xíngwéi)!

Most people have never concerned themselves with matters of translation. They may have occasionally tried to assist tourists who could not explain what they were looking for in a store, or were perhaps asking for directions, but, in general, the idea that most people have of the whole translation business is that it is mostly a matter of finding in a foreign tongue the word that represents a certain thing in their native language, more or less according to the following way.

Suppose I am hungry and would like to go to a store and buy the fruit that in my native tongue is called apple. Because I’m not in my home country, I need to look up the word that represents that fruit in the language spoken in the place I’m visiting. If I’m in Spain, the corresponding word is manzana; if I’m in France, it would be pomme; in China, píngguǒ (苹果). If the word I am trying to translate is snow, I simply use nieve in Spanish, neige, in French, or xué (雪) in Chinese. This way, the basic mental framework that many people have about how translation operates is that all that is necessary is to establish one-to-one mappings of corresponding words in different language sets, as represented in the illustration below:

At a first glance, even abstract ideas may seem to conform to this simple model. Let’s say that, instead of one, I want to buy in fact three apples. The process should be then very similar. All I would need to do would be to look up the corresponding term for the word three (the word used in my source language) in the language spoken in the place I’m visiting (which is called the target language).

This basic idea about translation is not incorrect if applied to very simple examples limited to concepts shared among most languages. It doesn’t take much, however, for one to realize the deficiencies of this framework. Each language evolves according to a number of determining factors. A key factor is the greater or lesser extent to which speakers of a language need to elaborate on the elements of their environment.

Typically, when a certain concept is very relevant to speakers of a given tongue, it is common for specific terms to emerge in order to describe the subtle nuances of that concept with more precision. Many have heard about the incredibly many ways that the Inuit people have to refer to the word snow. “The Inuit dialect spoken in Canada’s Nunavik region has at least 53 ways of referring to snow, including matsaaruti, for wet snow that can be used to ice a sleigh’s runners, and pukak, for the crystalline powder snow that looks like salt.” One can barely imagine how hard it must be to translate an Inuit story that talks about the weather!

Even the concept of quantity does not develop the same way in every language. Certain Native American languages only have the concept of one, two and many, and some have an even more concise concept of smaller amount and larger amount, like the Pirahã tribe in the Amazon forest. For them, a group of five nuts is described as oggi when compared with a bunch of 10 nuts, but will be called hói, when compared with a set of two nuts. They apparently do not abstract the concept of quantity in their daily lives. Such a phenomenon would not be possible if barter existed in any fashion: merchants must keep track of commodities prices as well as their inventories, a task impossible without a minimally-developed counting system.

All this preliminary discussion is to explain why one should not expect to always find one-to-one word correspondences among different languages.

Aside from the specific needs that languages must cater to, as described above, another important factor is how they are positioned relative to one another within a given language branch.

Languages that are close to each other within a single language family will normally exhibit that type of one-to-one mapping described above more frequently. Let’s take the case of romance languages, such as Spanish, Portuguese and French. They are also called neo-Latin languages, owing to the fact that they all evolved from vulgar Latin.

Let us analyze here a couple of words that are central to our task: spirit and soul.

In Latin, those words are, respectively, spīritus and anima. They both mean breath or breeze and, by extension, life, soul, or mind (all that breathes is alive, or animated by a spirit or soul).

Not surprisingly, finding fully-equivalent terms in those three languages is straightforward: espíritus/alma in Spanish, espírito/alma in Portuguese, and esprit/âme in French. The association of words here is both semantical (in that they have essentially the same lexical charge) as well as etymological (meaning that words come from the same root). One is now ready to derive the name of the school of thought structured by Allan Kardec. If he coined the term Spiritisme in French, it’s effortless to define Espiritismo as the equivalent expression in Spanish and Portuguese. One can also infer the equivalent translation of Kardec’s foundational work—Le Livre des Esprits—without any difficulty: El Libro des los Espíritus and O Livro dos Espíritos, in Spanish and Portuguese, respectively.

If we go one step further and associate the Latin words spīritus and anima with their English equivalents, it’s clear that there exists a direct link in the case of the word spirit, but not in the case of the word soul, which comes from the Old High German sēula. Coincidentally, this is also the origin of the equivalent word in modern German, Seele. At this point we have already gathered the necessary elements to realize that Spiritism is evidently a good translation of the original French word Spiritisme, and that the title of the book Le Livre des Esprits should be The Spirits’ Book in English.

However, if English and German share the cognate word pair soul/Seele, they do not when it comes to the word spirit, which in German is represented by the word Geist. But Geist is also how to translate the English word ghost in German, as both Geist and ghost derive from the Old High German word geist. The Latin-derived synonyms phantom/Phantom also exist in both English and German, but are less frequently used. The subtle distinction to be made here, though, is that although phantom and ghost have basically overlapping meanings in English, the intersection is not complete in German, in that Geist may also refer to the concept of spirit, whereas Phantom refers almost exclusively to the concept of ghost.

In any event, we are now left with a problem to solve in German. The title The Spirits’ Book should probably be translated as Das Buch der Geister (meaning both The Spirits’ Book and The Ghosts’ Book), but how do we go about translating the word Spiritism—should we say “Geistismus” then?

Well, it so happens that German does preserve the use of Latin roots in word formation. For instance, even though one would normally translate the word rational (reasonable, sensible) as vernünftig, the word rationalism in German maintains the use of the same Latin root: Rationalismus. Similarly, opportunity is translated as Gelegenheit, whereas opportunism becomes Opportunismus. This is all to say that, yes, one can use Spiritismus to refer to Kardec’s doctrine in German.

Let’s now take a look at how entangled our semantic mappings have become:

Purple lines indicate a simultaneous semantic and etymological correspondence. Blue lines indicate semantic correspondence only. Red lines indicate only partial semantic correspondence (with or without etymological links), and green lines indicate purely etymological influence.

It becomes evident that the simultaneous semantic and etymological correspondence that exists when only romance languages are considered quickly breaks down when languages from other branches are incorporated into the picture. All the more so when a language from a completely separate family is considered, such as Chinese.

In Chinese we see something similar to what happens in German. The word most commonly used for spirit in Chinese, 精神 (jīngshén), also means mind, consciousness, or psyche. The word psychiatry, for instance, is translated as 精神病学 (jīngshénbìngxué), or, literally, the science of the pathologies of the mind. The concept of spiritual, however, can be derived from the word spiritualism, 唯灵论 (wéilínglùn), which means the doctrine of spirit issues, or the doctrine of spiritual issues. The morpheme 灵 (líng), therefore, has the central meaning we are looking for, that of spirit. It also shows up in the word soul, 灵魂 (línghún). The subtle distinction between the words soul and spirit can be confirmed by the fact that the concept of soul is linked to the original meaning of the Latin word anima. Not surprisingly, therefore, the word animism, for instance, is translated as 灵魂论 (línghúnlùn). The presence of the morpheme 灵 (líng) in both the words spiritualism and soul is a strong indication that it must be present in our choice for the translation of the word Spiritism. This is also the character used for the translation of the word spirit in existing Japanese versions of The Spirits’ Book, as well, providing further confirmation of its suitability.

Although we could have considered the use of the morpheme 灵 (líng) all by itself, it would go against the strong tendency in modern Chinese to use disyllabic words.

We settled the matter by using the word 灵性 (língxìng), which is one of the ways to translate the word spirit in Chinese, being used precisely with this acceptation, including several classical works. The word is also closely associated with the concepts of spirituality and intelligence, something which also occurs with the word spirit and corresponding translations in most western languages.

Therefore, Kardec’s foundational work, The Spirits’ Book, can then be translated as 灵性之书 (língxìngzhīshū). Finally, by incorporating the suffix 主义 (zhǔyì), largely equivalent to the suffix “-ism”, we arrive at the word 灵性主义 (língxìngzhǔyì), meaning Spiritism, or The Doctrine of the Spirits.