Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Linguistic Parity:
Multilingual Perspectives on the Declaration
of Independence

Eugene Eoyang

Reading these fascinating essays on translations of the Declaration of Independence into various languages -- including Russian, Chinese, Italian, Japanese, French, and Spanish -- what emerges is how remarkably paradoxical that document is. It is clearly both revolutionary and universal. Yet, we should perhaps remind ourselves of the inevitable contradiction in those two claims. If it is revolutionary, its precepts run counter to mainstream tradition: They contravene received wisdom and contradict normative experience, which together constitute the basis of the universal. In other words, if the declaration is revolutionary, how can it be universal?

Few would deny that the Declaration of Independence was--literally in its time and figuratively in later years--revolutionary. It departed markedly from long-standing historical traditions, yet its rhetoric and its logic--in short, its style--could not have been more classical and traditional. But what may appear heroically revolutionary, admirably original in concept, is distinctly eccentric, not to say fanciful, in the perspective of traditions other than the French, the British, and the American. Joaquim Oltra tells us, for example, that "translations of the American Declaration of Independence have not been very common in Spain"; Frank Li suggests that the ideals espoused in the declaration were scarcely imagined through the long millennia of traditional China; Nikolai N. Bolkhovitinov maintains that the document "was always a hard nut for official Russia to crack, under both the tsarist and the Soviet regimes." 1Certainly, from the perspective of traditional China and Japan, according to Frank Li and Tadashi Aruga, the ideas behind the declaration were strikingly new.

In the twentieth century the document continues to attract worldwide attention. In the second half of the twentieth century, in the transition from the colonial to the postcolonial era, when more countries have declared independence than at any other time in history, it is no wonder that the American Declaration of Independence has constituted the obvious reference, if not always the most emulatable model. (In this regard, it would have been interesting to examine the influence of this document on African nations, in English for Anglophone Africa and in French for Francophone Africa, as well as in countries where it may have been translated into the indigenous tongues.) Its importance may be said to be twofold, the concept of "independence" reflecting desires for both national autonomy and individual freedoms. United States foreign policy during the postwar years has not always supported countries seeking independence, but it has been tireless (tiresome, in the eyes of some) in promoting the cause of independence understood as individual rights. Among the "revolutions" that the United States has not supported we might cite, most prominently, those in Cuba, in Nicaragua, in Iran. An assumption of the primacy of individual rights is what lies behind the clamoring for "human rights": the rights of polities or sovereign states are not at issue, but the freedom of each human being.

If the revolutionary character of the Declaration of Independence has not dimmed in over two hundred years, its universalist claims, if we are to judge from its reception in other cultures, have not fared as well. In contrast to its unquestioned revolutionary character, its claim of universality, particularly its assertion of "unalienable Rights [to] Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness," is far more problematic. The sense of "unalienable" as "inherent" is reflected in the Japanese rendering "unremovable," but the word for "liberty" ( jiyu in Japanese; ziyou in Chinese) "meant `license' rather than `liberty' in the traditional Chinese and Japanese usage." "Happiness" seemed to pose no problems in Japanese ( k fuku ), but "the pursuit of Happiness," as opposed to "the wish to enjoy happiness," proved baffling. Even when the concept -- as in "happiness" / k fuku -- could be approximated, the counterparts in different languages have different valorizations and conjure up different values. For Americans, the pursuit of happiness is everyone's right and is, in a materialistic world, achievable, but for Chinese or Japanese, especially those who believe in Buddhism, "happiness" may seem chimerical, its pursuit futile, a vanity of human wishes. But one does not have to go even that far to discover that "happiness" is a problematic concept and far from universal in its meaning. Oltra tells us that " `the pursuit of Happiness'. . . goes against the Spanish understanding of the Catholic teaching on happiness, since this was always understood as attainable only in the other world." Pursuing happiness, in this context, may be construed as a necrophiliac eagerness to meet one's maker. 2

The notion of inherency or unalienability in human rights suggests a powerful vision of the "universal," which Thomas Jefferson implied when he asserted that these "truths" were "self-evident." Americans have become inured to the self-evidence of Jeffersonian principles, but the situation in other parts of the globe may be different. It may be that the principles of the declaration appear self-evident only to those who read English (or, perhaps to a lesser degree, French). "The concept of natural rights," Frank Li reports, "has been consistently alien to the Chinese mind." This suggests that the political rights of the individual, at least to the Chinese, are anything but "self-evident." To the Chinese what was "self-evident" for Jefferson was far from obvious: The rights might not have been merely "alien" but also "alienable." Nor can the assertion of "self-evidence" go unchallenged in other European cultures. We have already cited Oltra's observation that the declaration was not often translated in Spain. In Russia, despite the availability of the declaration since the nineteenth century, "the high principles of the Declaration of Independence . . . have never been considered as the expression of the individual rights of specific persons." Strange self-evidence that admits of a totally contrary interpretation! Even in France, which provided the intellectual soil for many of the Jeffersonian ideals, the American declaration has been "less and less relevant" to the nation's political experience, according to Elise Marienstras and Naomi Wulf. "After two centuries of translations and commentaries," they assert, "it seems that the language of the Declaration of Independence has grown apart from French political culture." The early French translators were wary of the rhetoric in the declaration: they "were acutely aware of the ambivalence arising from the confrontation between universal claims and nationalist or patriotic assertions." The framers of the French Constitution clearly did not accept the self-evident claims of the declaration: "Too universalist or too close to the `primitive' state of nature according to some, too particular to one nation and to different circumstances according to others, the American Declaration was deemed unfit for the French Assembly to copy." Jefferson's claims of "self-evidence" are not borne out by some of his own contemporaries, not even by the revolutionaries of the France he so much admired. 3

In the case of Japan, its 1946 constitution, promulgated by Douglas MacArthur, was hardly an indigenous product. Indeed, the constitution in Japan is notable in that, as Tadashi Aruga says, it represents "a sacred trust . . . of the people, the authority for which is derived from the people, . . . and the benefits of which are enjoyed by the people," but it was never actually voted on by the people: it was implemented by a conquering general. 4One does not know which is the more ironic: that a people should not have had a say in adopting a constitution that affirmed their fundamental rights or that a general should have imposed on a conquered nation a document that guarantees and protects the rights of its citizens against the autarchy of generals such as Douglas MacArthur.

It is significant that, in the case of Japan and China, despite the initial enthusiasm for the principles enunciated in the declaration, democracy did not really take root. Sun Yat-sen, the father of the Chinese Revolution in 1911, as Frank Li reminds us, repudiated democracy for China after being initially enthusiastic; and there is something poignant in Tadashi Aruga's assertion that, although the ideas of the declaration have "been transplanted to the Japanese Constitution, . . . the American document tended to lose its role as a source of inspiration for the Japanese people." Aruga describes the Japanese attempts to "japanize" the draft of the Japanese Constitution prepared by American generals and soldiers, proposing, for example, the substitution of shik (supreme) for shuken (the Japanese word for "sovereignty"). But, clearly, MacArthur held sway, and the Japanese Constitution remains a decidedly American document. 5

The "universalist" claims that Americans have made and still make (judging by the pressures on the American president to spread the blessings of freedom worldwide, even on visits to China) have two aspects, one positive, the other negative. Blithely failing to recognize that the rest of the world may prefer other blessings before the blessings of liberty, the United States has often offended not only governments (not all of them authoritarian) but also cultures where the group counts for more than the individual. In these ideological impositions, there is something of the hegemonic, but it is a hegemony different from those of imperialist countries, because this hegemony is postcolonial and persuades natives to adopt as their own goal the establishment of democracy and individual rights. In some ways, General MacArthur's imposition of a democratic constitution on Japan after Japan's defeat in World War II is emblematic of the American attitude toward repressive regimes. The unfortunate effect, however, is that many countries and many people do not appreciate being treated like defeated enemies being hectored on the blessings of democracy.

From the American point of view, the enthusiasm that the United States has for democracy represents an instinctive wish that the blessings that Americans enjoy be shared with the rest of the world. There is an arrogance in this position, because it implies that the United States is the greatest country in the world, a claim that not everyone in the world would agree with (although the number of people who want to emigrate to the United States would indicate that this view is not held only by Americans). Some of the severest critics of the United States are those who share with it the closest cultural and ideological affinities. The French, for example, have a love-hate relationship with the United States. For every Jean Jacques Servan-Schreiber who vaunted American virtues and achievements in The American Challenge, there are countless skeptics and detractors in France who see the United States as hopelessly immature, hardly worthy of its status as the world's superpower. Marienstras and Wulf remind us that contemporary commentators on the Declaration of Independence in France follow in the footsteps of the marquis de Condorcet and other French revolutionaries, "whose reception of American documents . . . exemplified the gap between the French and American conceptions of rights. Indeed, they understood that, while resting on universal principles, every nation -- and the American nation is no exception -- articulates a particular character." 6It is precisely the American assumption that democracy and human rights are universal that is problematic in United States foreign policy (and, indeed, in the current version of globalization): Americans want to spread "the American Way of Life" throughout the world, without realizing that what may be laudable in their eyes may seem patronizing to the rest of the world. The American Way of Life is a blend of libertarian precepts and capitalist values: combining them is what has shaped the American experience and, presumably, led to the nation's rise as the world's premier power. However, despite the faith of many Americans, not every person on earth, and certainly not every government, subscribes to libertarian principles as a universal good or bourgeois capitalism as an unmitigated blessing. China, for one, agrees with the latter, the thrust to national and personal wealth, but its government and perhaps most of its people are skeptical of the former, and wonder if democracy in a country of over 1.2 billion people might not undermine the stability required for the orderly and rapid development of capitalism.

Implicit in these deliberations is a motto familiar to all translators and theorists of translation: tradutore tradittore (to translate is to betray). Tiziano Bonazzi refers to "translating in its well-known double meaning of `to transfer' and `to betray' or, as we say in Italian, tradurre / tradire. " "Translating," signor Bonazzi reminds us, "is perforce betraying the original text, but it is the only way of transmitting and delivering it to foreign readers." Indeed, translation often seems impossible. As Fukuzawa Yukichi, who translated the Declaration of Independence into Japanese in the 1860s, so tellingly observed: "We translators are often perplexed by our difficulty in finding suitable Japanese words for Western words, for in many cases there are no suitable words available." 7

If it is true that translation is inherently unreliable, that is no less true with retro-translations. These papers are directed at an English-speaking audience, so comparisons with the original, which is in English, must involve an English version of the respective translations in another language. Necessary as this procedure might be, since publication is directed at a monolingual English-speaking audience, those who are familiar with the English original as well as with each language into which the declaration has been translated would have appreciated citations in the language of the translation: indeed, they would find some of the retrotranslations suspect. To cite but one example, Li's retranslation of the Chinese translation of "All men are created equal" comes out as "All countrypersons are equal." One can trace the word "countrypersons" to its constituent elements in the compound in Chinese, guoren, which consists of the word guo, meaning "nation" or "country," and the word ren, meaning "human being." The sense of the original "all men" is more universal than the Chinese translation, which means, roughly, "the people of the country," or "citizens of the nation." The introduction of "nation" ( guo ) obscures the fact that, as Elise Marienstras and Naomi Wulf point out, "Nowhere, in the founding text of the [American] nation . . . is the word `nation' mentioned." Furthermore, rendering guoren as "countrypersons" confuses the sense of "country" as a synonym for "nation" with the sense of "country" as "rural areas." "Countrypersons" conjures up the sense of "country hicks" or "rubes" (as distinct from "city dwellers") -- which is far from what the original declaration meant, nor is it what the Chinese translation intended. 8

In some ways the ideal readers for these papers would be panlinguistic readers, those who can read each of the languages into which the declaration was translated as well as English. But until that utopian era dawns, retrotranslations -- unreliable as they are -- will have to do. Even with this shortcoming, however, these analyses show -- ironically -- how the study of translations is more fruitful when the translations most conspicuously fail.

Eugene Eoyang is professor of comparative literature and of East Asian languages and cultures at Indiana Unversity and Chair Professor of English at Lingnan College in Hong Kong.
Readers may contact Eoyang at

1. Joaquim Oltra, "Jefferson's Declaration of Independence in the Spanish Political Tradition," Journal of American History, 85 (March 1999), 1371; Nikolai N. Bolkhovitinov, "The Declaration of Independence: A View from Russia," ibid. , 1394.

2. Tadashi Aruga, "The Declaration of Independence in Japan: Translation and Transplantation, 1854 - 1997," ibid. , 1413-14; Oltra, "Jefferson's Declaration of Independence in the Spanish Political Tradition," ibid. , 1370.

3. Frank Li, "East Is East and West Is West: Did the Twain Ever Meet? The Declaration of Independence in China," ibid. , 1432; Bolkhovitinov, "Declaration of Independence," ibid. , 1397; Elise Marienstras and Naomi Wulf, "French Translations and Reception of the Declaration of Independence," ibid. , 1299, 1307-9.

4. Aruga, "Declaration of Independence in Japan," ibid. , 1409.

5. Ibid. , 1428-29, 1424.

6. Jean Jacques Servan-Schreiber, The American Challenge, trans. Ronald Steel (New York, 1968); Marienstras and Wulf, "French Translations and Reception of the Declaration of Independence," 1323.

7. Tiziano Bonazzi, "Tradurre / Tradire: The Declaration of Independence in the Italian Context," Journal of American History, 85 (March 1999), 1353; Aruga, "Declaration of Independence in Japan," 1413.

8. Li, "East Is East and West Is West: Did the Twain Ever Meet?," 1435; Marienstras and Wulf, "French Translations and Reception of the Declaration of Independence," ibid. , 1324.