The Gift of Translation | New York University Undergraduate Application Essay

One of the most important books in the world is The Records of the Grand Historian. Written by Sima Qian in the first century B.C., it elucidates more than two thousand years’ worth of Chinese history. The story behind Qian’s masterpiece is fascinating. After offending a harsh emperor, Qian was forced to make a terrible choice between castration, and living as a court eunuch, or taking his own life. Conformity deemed it more suitable for him to take his own life, and in that way retain his honor. However, during the time of his punishment, his book was still unfinished, and so he chose to embrace dishonor in order to see its completion. In a letter he explained his reasoning: “If [my book] may be handed down to men who will appreciate it, … then though I should suffer a thousand mutilations, what regret should I have?”

His quote has stayed with me for years. Qian’s dedication to spreading knowledge moves me in a wholly emotional way. However, the quote is also notable because it doesn’t belong to Qian. Not quite. The quote was written by a translator named Burton Watson.

Here is the lovely gray area of language. The quote is Qian’s message in Watson’s words, a linguistic duality that winds the emotional with the intellectual…

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