Lost in Mistranslation: It’s Always Darkest before. . . When?

June 4, 2017 § 2 Comments

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Political commentator Bill Kristol, speaking earlier this year at a Harvard forum titled “The Future of News: Journalism in a Post-Truth Era,” had some good things and some bad things to say about the state of modern media. For the most part, he said, he’s optimistic; but he understands the need for caution, closing his talk with the following:

I ran into John McCain this morning, actually, at National Airport—he was coming in from somewhere, I was flying out. I asked him how things were going, and he responded with one of his favorite quotations. I think it’s a fake quotation, actually—he really said it to me, but I think his description of it is fake. He said, “As Chairman Mao always liked to say, ‘It’s always darkest before it turns pitch black.’”

I’ll cast my lot with Kristol: I think McCain is misquoting Mao Tse-tung. And McCain probably knows it, too, but that hasn’t stopped the senator from Arizona from making it one of his go-to lines. In fact, he used it so much during his 2008 presidential campaign that it caught the attention of China’s news outlet Huanqiu.com. The author there, Wang Qichao, writes that McCain’s catch phrase is no more than a parody of what Chairman Mao really said: “It’s always darkest before the dawn.”

Now that’s an expression I’m familiar with. But is it truly a Mao-made metaphor? According to Wang, it comes from Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung (also known as The Little Red Book). But I’m thinking this may be one of those cases where a well-known saying is misattributed to the kind of well-known figure who gets credited for most everything quote-worthy (think Benjamin Franklin and Martin Luther King, Jr. in the US).

In the article, Wang writes that Mao’s saying is “黎明前的黑暗,” which is a Chinese idiom that translates as “darkness before dawn.” The closest thing from Mao I could find in Quotations is “黑暗即将过去,曙光即在前头,” which originally comes from a report given by Mao, “The Present Situation and Our Tasks,” in 1947. Here’s the relevant passage in English, with the specific phrase in bold:

The Communist Party of China, having made a clear-headed appraisal of the international and domestic situation on the basis of the science of Marxism-Leninism, recognized that all attacks by the reactionaries at home and abroad had to be defeated and could be defeated. When dark clouds appeared in the sky, we pointed out that they were only temporary, that the darkness would soon pass and the sun break through.

Regardless of how close either of these may be to “It’s always darkest before the dawn,” a form of that phrase predates Mao by a few hundred years. Back in 1650, preacher and historian Thomas Fuller wrote,

[I]t is always darkest just before the Day dawneth.

Here is the passage that includes the phrase:

Afterwards, whilest David was marching (at least wise in presence) with Achish against Saul, the Amalekites in his absence burnt Ziglag, carrying away all the people therein captive. Griefe hereat so prevailed in Davids men at their return, that in anguish of their hearts, they were ready to stone him. Could better be expected from them? Behold their originall, they were at first, men in debt and distress, whose severall discontents made them generally contented to join together; so that not David, but his necessities chose them to attend him, who now in adversity discovered their impious dispositions. But David to avoid this showre of stones ready to rain upon him, run for shelter to God his Rock, in whom he comforted himself. Thus, as it is always darkest just before the Day dawneth, so God useth to visite his servants with greatest affli∣ctions, when he intendeth their speedy advancement. For immediate∣ly after, David not onely recovered his loss with advantage, but also was proclaimed King of Israel: though some war arose for a time between him and Ishbosheth.

It’s an interesting saying, “It’s always darkest before the dawn.”

Scientifically speaking, is just before dawn the darkest part of the night? That depends on when you say dawn begins. Certainly, at midnight, it stops getting darker as soon as it starts getting lighter.

But the phrase’s deeper meaning, at least the way we use it today, is that we shouldn’t give up, no matter how grim the circumstances. Victory is undoubtedly ahead. The trouble with this thinking is that it’s self defining: If things get worse, then you’ve not yet reached the darkest point. If they get better, then the worst has ended. And if you surrender, then you can’t know that the sun wasn’t about to rise.

Does darkness sometimes signal a coming dawn? Yes, I believe it does. But always? It’s not quite that simple. As memorable as they may be, six words aren’t enough to handle all the philosophy and theology needed for that topic.

Stay tuned: On August 21 of this year, many in the US will see the first total eclipse observable on American soil since 1979. I wonder what McCain will have to say about that.

(Bill Kristol, “Bill Kristol: Remember, Demagogues Thrived Long before the Internet Disintermediated the News, Too,” Nieman Lab, February 1, 2017; Wang Qichao, “McCain Repeatedly Misquotes Chairman Mao,” translated by Mark Klingman, WorldMeets.us, August 7, 2008, Chinese version at Sina.com; Mao Tse-tung, “敢于斗争,敢于胜利,” 毛主席语录, People’s Press, 1965; Mao Tse-tung, “Dare to Struggle and Dare to Win,” Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung, Foreign Languages Press, Peking, 1966; Mao, Tse-tung, “The Present Situation and Our Tasks,” Selected Works of Mao Tse-tung, Foreign Language Press, Peking, 1947; Thomas Fuller, A Pisgah-sight of Palestine and the Confines Thereof with the History of the Old and New Testament Acted Thereon, 1650)

[photo: “Breaking Dawn,” by B Gilmour, used under a Creative Commons license]

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