Reading Confucius in Translation: Something New This Way Comes
Decades ago the issue of “translation effects” came to lodge in my brain, in the course of reading Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy.
This is a staggeringly rich and beautiful work — but of course I read it in English, so what that really means is “a staggeringly rich and beautiful work by William Hutchins based on Mahfouz’s original Arabic version.” I’ve often thought, ever since, that a work in translation is really a fresh act of authorship.
During the course of an ongoing learning journey, I read The Analects of Confucius in translation, and wrote a short paper about “translation effects”.
I wrote about translations in my previous essay on Virgil and Sophocles; but the act of writing a paper allowed me to be more thoughtful and granular. And so here is an essay based on the paper with the main points minus the citations :).
TL;DR: This may seem brilliantly obvious, but: translators have so many choices to make that a translated work of any kind is really something new. Special note: many religious texts are read in translation, so think about that for a bit.
Here is the good news about Simon Leys’ translation of The Analects: Leys’ extensive notes show us, in detail, challenges with the text, problems with word choices, and the influences of his own strongly held beliefs.
And so I took a closer look at how much leeway a translator has in this instance, and the effect it has on the received meaning in English.
Textual challenges abound in any translation. In The Analects, that includes the structure of the work, the lack of punctuation, and inevitable errors in transmission.
The structure of The Analects is such that translation choices can have an outsized effect. There are 512 analects, organized into 20 sections, and there is no clear order or narrative drive to the text. Many of the analects are just one sentence long and a single word change can entirely change the meaning of a brief aphorism.
Classical Chinese has no punctuation which multiplies the translation possibilities. In the note to 10.17, for example, we are told that “Shang ren hu?” Bu wen ma can also be read as “Shang ren hu bu?” Wen ma. The former implies that Confucius “did not inquire about the horses” — and the latter means that he did!
Portions of the text are garbled or corrupt, offering more room for translator judgment. As Leys says in his introduction: “The text is a patchwork: fragments from different hands have been stitched together, with uneven skill” (p. xii). These fragments were assembled at different times and then handed down from antiquity, leaving much opportunity for textual degradation. But while the text may be corrupt, the translator still has to make choices, and these choices lead to different interpretations for the reader.
The translation of individual words in The Analects also involves choices that can have a sizable effect. The complexities of Chinese and English, which belong to entirely different language families with negligible historical intermingling, oblige any translator to make decisions that can entirely change the translated meaning.
The crucial word ren (analect 4.1) is a great example. In the editor’s introduction we learn that Pound translated ren as “manhood”; and that Ames and Rosemont translated it as “authoritative conduct”. Leys, in his note, describes the word as the “supreme virtue” and translates it as “humanity” or occasionally “goodness”. He also tells us that all of these words are “irremediably inadequate”(!).
Another good example is the word shi (analect 4.9) which Leys translates as “scholar”. But, as he informs us in his note, D.C. Lau arrived at “gentleman” and Waley translated the word as “knight”. Each of these words means very different things in English and the choice changes the import of the underlying one-sentence analect.
The choices described above — which represent a tiny fraction of all the choices to be made — are not minor amendments. They can entirely change the received meaning of an analect and, in the case of an important word such as ren, arguably the meaning of The Analects as a whole.
Leys uses the notes to articulate his philosophical beliefs to an uncommon degree for a translated work. There is some really juicy stuff in the notes that I will spare the reader here — suffice it to say that these notes are unlike any other notes I’ve read.
Back to the translation effect of Leys’ personal beliefs. One very good example — which is exhibit A in “this is why you should read the damn notes” — is that Leys believes that human civilization faces imminent collapse. He says so many times, and here are three examples:
In the introduction: “In one fundamental respect, there was a certain similarity between his time and ours: he was witnessing the collapse of civilization” (italics in the original).
In the note to 3.1: “Confucius had a tragic awareness that he was witnessing the disintegration of civilization — and for us today, it is this very awareness that, at times, gives such a modern ring to his anguish.”
In the note to 4.20: “the breakdown the modern world is presently witnessing may endanger the very survival of our civilization”.
If you think the world is burning down, that has to affect how you translate things! We can see this in analect 19.13.
Leys tells us in his note to 19.13 that the traditional translation of the word you in this analect is “left-over energy”; he chooses to translate it as “leisure”. Using the word “leisure” changes the tenor of the analect in a manner that supports Leys’ view, articulated at great length in the note, that the decline of Western civilization is associated with the reduction of leisure time (for politics and culture “are the province of the gentleman” who is alone in having any leisure time).
I read pretty widely, but I have the memory of a sieve. Translations have been on my mind for a very long time, and I am very grateful I was able to analyze this one. Of course now I am left with: what did I actually read and can we still call it The Analects of Confucius...?