If you try to translate the word “soul” into Mandarin, then you might find it particularly difficult. In fact, you’d be right to think that it’s downright impossible because there doesn’t actually seem to be a direct translation for the word.
I came upon this translation problem one day at work, when looking over an English translation my team had made for the Mandarin word 自我. Although I didn’t know the exact meaning of the word itself, it caught my attention for its use of the character 自 which suggests the “self” and first person personal pronoun 我. Such a combination of characters seemed to entirely miss the point of a “soul”, which, in English, has ethreal or mystical connotations.
Upon looking up the word, I found that it had a simliar meaning to that of ego. And when I asked my teammates what other words Mandarin had that could possibly mean “soul”, they suggested I look at 灵魂, 精魂, or 心灵.
While 自我 is essentially psychological in meaning, the latter three are entirely of the supernatural variety. In fact, while going through the mundane work of a simple word to word translation, it appeared that I had, stumbled upon a very basic yet important difference between the languages of Mandarin and English.
Now, I am welcomed to be proven wrong, but according the collective intelligence of my team and others, there is no direct translation for the English word “soul” into Mandarin Chinese. This is no mistake, and, furthermore, it is a linguistic insight that we can use to draw deeper conclusions about the differences between societies.
Of course, the English concept of “soul” is fundamentally a religious idea that is very difficult to define clearly. Certainly it is not the ego, although the two concepts are often discussed alongside one another.
Besides 自我, we also have 灵魂, which is the other word in Mandarin that one might try to use in a translation. However this word departs from the place of the more scientific 自我 and goes almost completely to the realm of the supernatural: maybe best explained in English as a “ghost”.
The linguistic gap in Mandarin here shows us, as languages often like to do, a basic difference between Chinese and Western societies. Both groups of people have certain attachment to “that which cannot be explained”, however their explanations are divergent.
In some ways it seems the attachment to the supernatural and lack of desire for a “soul-type” object is connected to the culture of filial piety. Consider, for example, the practice of burning fake money as an offering to your ancestors’ souls in the afterlife. Or the widely celebrated holiday, 清明节, when you are expected to “sweep” the graves of your ancestors: a semi-metaphorical figure of speech to pay your respects to their spirits.
In the end, we decided leave the word 自我 in the Chinese version of the translation even though it didn’t seem to match perfectly. It was the best we could do given the circumstances, and the translation most liked by the Chinese portion of our staff.
Similar to how we couldn’t find a suitable equivalent for “soul” in Mandarin, the popularity of 自我 also suggests a deeper insight. That is, Chinese not only have a deep respect for “spirits”, but also the sciences.
It’s important that readers trying to understand China today understand this about the society. There is a unique blend of scientific/technocratic thought and supernatural tendencies which exists simultaneously. However, it’s something that isn’t forthrightly obvious and takes some poking around and digging to completely understand.
Perhaps this is because people hold these beliefs at a very deep, subconscious level. If you were to ask a person in America or in China to explain why or why not they travel home for the holidays every year, or conduct themselves in a classroom in a certain way, they would likely not be able to give you a clear answer. But there are linguistic clues, and other clues too, that we can piece together to help better understand this part of the world.