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I speak modern Mandarin. I'm trying to learn classical Chinese. Reading Van Norden's Guide for absolute beginners, I'm stuck in Lesson 7, Analects 4.5:

「子曰。富與貴。是人之所欲也。不以其道得之。不處也。貧與賤。是人之所惡也。不以其道得之。不去也。」

The issue, as Van Norden points out, is that in the straightforward interpretation the 之 in the second 得之 refers to 貧與賤, which doesn't make sense. (Who would mind avoiding poverty if it wasn't "deserved", so to say?) He gives one such seemingly nonsensical translation by James Ware.

All Chinese translations I could find online say something along the lines of: 貧窮與低賤是人人都厭惡的,但不用正當的方法去擺脫它,就不會擺脫的。(https://kknews.cc/culture/j8k98re.html)

There is another version: 貧和賤,是人人所憎惡的,如果不幸,而淪於貧賤,也不可違而去之。(http://twowin.com.tw/gogo_card/chinese/p8.htm)

The first version says 擺脫 instead of 得之, which appears to be opposite. The second version might suggest that 之 in 得之 actually refers to 去 in the following sentence: getting rid of it.

Could that be the case? Then the translation would make sense, but I'm not sure whether you can 「得」 「去-ing」 something (whether 去 can count as an object of 得), if you know what I mean.

Note: Van Norden seems to suggest something of the kind in his text, but he stays rather vague and never gives his own translation of anything throughout the entire book.

EDIT Added some context contained in Van Norden's book.

Van Norden writes:

The second half of 4.5 has puzzled some interpreters, becuase the seemingly obvious way to take the grammar results in the second half of 孔子's comment not makeing sense. Can you see why? The key to understanding this quotation is correctly answering the following question: In the expression 得之, what does the pronoun 之 refer to? Normally it refers back to something earlier in the sentence. Here, I think, it refers to something later in the sentence.

James Ware's translation:

[...] Poverty and low estate are what men dislike; but if they come undeserved, don't flee them

(Van Norden: this doesn't make sense)

D.C. Lau's translation:

[...] Poverty and low station are what men dislike, but even if I did not get them in the right way I would not try to escape from them.

(Footnote by Lau: "This sentence is most likely to be corrupt. The negative is probably an interpolation and the sentence should read: 'Poverty and low station are what men dislike, but if I got them in the right way I would not try to escape from them.'")

Note that Lau's alternate translation is still quite different from the Chinese translations above.

James Legge's translation:

[...] Poverty and meanness are what men dislike. If it cannot be obtained in the proper way, they should not be avoided.

Here Legge maintains the ambiguousness of the original by using "it" and "they". What does "it" refer to here? It sounds to me like "it" might refer to the avoidance.

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  • To me, the question is more like "what does 得 mean in this sentence?"
    – joehua
    Nov 20 '21 at 0:07
  • @joehua if you decide that 之 refers to 貧與濺 then yes, that does become the question. But I'm not aware of any reasonable answer other than ~to obtain?
    – foaly
    Nov 20 '21 at 1:17
  • By the way, it should be 賤 not 濺 .
    – joehua
    Nov 20 '21 at 3:47
  • @joehua Yep, can’t edit comments though :(
    – foaly
    Nov 20 '21 at 3:48
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It just says: honesty and honour are the best policies.

之 refers to 富與貴

子曰。
Confucius said:
富與貴
wealth and nobility
是人之所欲也。
that's what everyone wants yeah!
不以其道得之。
But, if a noble man can't get that by honest means,
不處也。
a noble man cannot enjoy it.
貧與賤,
Poor and lowly
是人之所惡也!
that's what everyone loathes yeah!
不以其道得之
but, if a noble man cannot break free (from his lowly station) by honest means,
不去也。
a noble man will be content with his lot.

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  • Where does it say, or imply, “break free” in your opinion? Are you saying the second 得之 also refers to 富與貴,just like the first one?
    – foaly
    Nov 20 '21 at 7:10
  • “贫与贱,是人人都厌恶的,” 人人不要““贫与贱” This Old Chinese is can be cryptic. Read between the lines. a
    – Pedroski
    Nov 20 '21 at 23:11
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    First comment went a bit wrong! “贫与贱,是人人都厌恶的,” 人人都不要““贫与贱” This Old Chinese is can be cryptic. Don't just take it at face value. Read between the lines. The second "不以其道得之" is used to keep things poetic, 得之 refers to "通过正当的途径摆脱“ 美德是最重要的。
    – Pedroski
    Nov 20 '21 at 23:32
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「子曰。富與貴。是人"的"(之)所欲也。不以其道得"到"(之)。不處也。

Here, 之 refer to 富 and 貴. "不處也" can be explained as 不能常久(處)

貧與賤。是人"的"(之)所惡也。不以其道得"到"(之)。不去也。」

Here, 之 refer to 貧 and 賤. "不去也" means 不會離去.

IMO, the phrase 不以其道"得"之 will be more clear if change it to 不以其道"處"之 - means 不合理䖏理, 貧與賤不會離去. However, "不以其道得之" can be explained as "不循正道得來的貧與賤不會離去". At here, 不能擺脫 is the better choice of words than 不會離去.

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  • Thank you for your answer. Interpreting 得 this way is something that many translators, including Van Norden, apparently didn't think of. 處理 doesn't strike me as an obvious meaning of 得. What makes you think this is possible? Are there any examples? I added some comments by those authors to the question for context.
    – foaly
    Nov 20 '21 at 1:26
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    I don't like that sentence, while I know what kind of messages the author wanted to deliver, the sentence does not make good sense. See my update that may be getting closer to its true meaning.
    – r13
    Nov 20 '21 at 1:52
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    No, it does not make sense, as 貧濺 (poor) has nothing to do with "其道" - "that way", or the "correct way" (正途) as in the first sentence. Also, the author implies one can't escape 貧濺 if the cause for becoming 貧濺 was caused by improper conduct, then, I think 恥辱 would make a better case/example. Anyway, this sentence has flaws, or I don't really have a good understanding of it.
    – r13
    Nov 20 '21 at 2:14
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    By the way, you might want to edit the word "濺" to "賤". They are two different vocabularies, the former is "splash"; the latter is "lowly".
    – r13
    Nov 20 '21 at 2:31
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    Yes, It was copied from the original text :)
    – r13
    Nov 20 '21 at 2:34

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