Translation is a means to remove a linguistic barrier and enable communication. But that way of understanding the problem is too simple, for the notion that the barrier to be overcome is a matter of unfamiliar language assumes that words carry meaning independently from their larger social/cultural context. The interesting challenge of the translator is to bridge not only a language barrier but also the temporal and cultural gap between the milieu of the source and the milieu the reader. Standing with one foot in each milieu, the translator is aware of assumptions, understandings, and expectations that belong to one but not the other. In the case of philosophy, this is often the major point of interest: adventurous readers come to texts from distant times and places hoping to discover something new, a challenge to the world of their accustomed thinking. But to really “hear” something new most often demands sufficient linkage to the familiar; absent such linkage, the material translated simply sounds bizarre, and the translation has in fact failed. And even worse, traditions themselves die and become museum pieces when they fail to “translate.” I will argue that the two most central concepts in Neo-Confucian discourse, i (li) and ki (chi), generally translated as “principle” and “material force,” represent a rather extreme example of this problem. A close analysis of the difficulties that emerge in this case will also serve as a sketch of the general terrain that renders the translation of Neo-Confucian thought difficult. In philosophy the paradoxical reality is that at precisely the points where there may be the most to learn the barriers to com-munication are often the highest.


Neo-Confucianism, T’oegye Yi Hwang, Yulgok Yi Yi, i (li), ki, translation