The Analects of Confucius (75 Books – XXXVIII)

Let me start by saying this: The Analects of Confucius is a strong contender for the greatest work of non-fiction ever written, and has been the single most influential book on how I think about society and politics. I’ve read seven translations of it (Legge, Waley, Leys, Lau, Pound, Huang, and Chan’s partial translation), some of them multiple times. My knowledge of the Chinese language is only barely non-zero, so I can’t really offer an opinion on which is the most accurate, but in terms of literary style, coherence, and intelligibility to the average Westerner, they’ve all been at least decent. When looking for a Kindle edition of the Analects, I came across Leonard Lyall’s translation from 1909, and since it was free (or at least cheap, I don’t remember) I thought I may as well give it a shot.

Unfortunately, Lyall gets the honour of being the first translation I’d specifically recommend avoiding.

Now, again, I can’t speak to the accuracy of the translation, but there are a few things that give me doubts about this one. For example, chapter twenty-three of Book VII reads, “The Master said, My two-three boys, do ye think I hide things? I hide nothing from you. I am a man that keeps none of his doings from his two-three boys.” Confucius is speaking to his students, but what’s up with the “two-three?” I know that in Japanese “nisan,” which is literally “twothree,” is sometimes used to mean “few,” as in “a few days,” so I assume that’s how it’s being used here. Even translating it as “few” would sound awkward in English, so it probably should’ve been left out; at the very least, don’t just leave it as “two-three,” which is something nobody would say in English. This is the type of thing people would make fun of an anime fansubber for, and is totally out-of-place in a serious translation of a classic like the Analects.

Also, you notice that “ye?” Lyall apparently wanted a biblical tone for his Analects, which is fine, but that style is difficult to really pull off. The translators of the King James Bible could do it because that was simply how people often wrote English literature at the time. Unfortunately, other than using “ye,” “thou,” and the like, the rest of the translation is just standard early Twentieth Century English. The sporadic archaisms are silly and distracting, and they don’t make the book sound more formal, authoritative, or biblical – they make it sound comical.

Though the Analects are very old and foreign to modern Westerners, I think most of it isn’t too hard to follow, but there are of course some passages where a little explanation is helpful. Lyall does have several footnotes to offer a short explanation of who this or that person is, which is good, but he offers essentially no help with interpretation or offering context for any references other than the identity of the people Confucius speaks with. He does include an index, which is helpful, but his choice of terminology is different from many other translators, which limits its usefulness, though to be fair every translator will have some idiosyncracies with terminology.

I should mention that most passages are fine, and the book’s messages do get through most of the time. It’s hard to totally screw up, say, “The Master said, The men of old were loth to speak, for not to live up to their words would have shamed them.” So, if you’re like me and just want to read every translation you can get your hands on, this one is worth the price of admission. Unfortunately, it’s only worth the price of admission.

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