Which Translation of The Analects Should I Read?

So, let’s say you want to begin a study of Confucianism. One reasonable place to start is The Analects of Confucius, but once you decide to do that, you run into a problem – which translation do you use? The number of options can easily overwhelm a newcomer; collecting them somewhat casually, that is, just buying one as I come across it and not actively seeking them out, I own nine versions and have read eight. Which you choose does matter, too. Though the most common ones are all decent enough, each translator makes different stylistic choices which will affect how much you get from the book, both in terms of understanding and enjoyment.

So, I thought I’d offer some advice to those new to the Analects. The impetus is that I’ve just finished revising my Confucian Twitter bot, in which I consulted most of these translations. I should, though, offer a few caveats. First, Chinese is Greek to me; I can recognise some of the written characters that are shared with Japanese, but otherwise, I don’t speak the language and therefore I can only judge these translations on clarity and style, not accuracy. Second, I haven’t read every available translation, though I have read those that appear to be most popular. Missing are those by Edward Slingerland, W. E. Soothill (which I own but haven’t yet read), and Annping Chin; there are probably others, as well, but I may come back and update this post in the future when I do get around to them.

Now, what I’ll do here is begin with a few general observations and recommendations, then go through and offer specific comments on individual translators, along with samples of the same handful of passages. Specifically, I’ll use 1.1 (Book 1 Chapter 1), 1.2, 2.16, 7.8, 11.11, and 15.25 (note that different editions number the chapters slightly differently, so in some cases these will be a bit off).

If you just want a recommendation and don’t need the minutiae, I’ll say that Simon Leys is the most beginner-friendly, followed by D. C. Lau. Wing-Tsit Chan has the most well-rounded translation, but his version is part of a collection called A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy, so he doesn’t include the entire work. It’s a large enough selection to give one a good idea of what the Analects are about, though, and if you’re interested in other works of Chinese philosophy then Chan provides an excellent starting-point.

Only one translation is outright bad, and that’s Leonard Lyall’s, which I’ve reviewed previously. I also would not recommend Ezra Pound’s as a first translation. Pound’s version is interesting and worth reading, but he’s very idiosyncratic, so save his for after you’ve read one or two others. Most of the rest will work well enough, though.

Finally, a note on Romanisation. Translations from the past twenty-five years or so will typically use Pinyin; before that it varies, but Wade-Giles or some variation thereof are most common. I prefer Wade-Giles partly for aesthetic reasons and partly because it’s more intuitive for native speakers of English, but it’s not a major issue, so don’t worry about this aspect too much. It only becomes an issue when cross-referencing names and places with other translations or other works about China, because it’s not always obvious how to “convert” between systems. There are charts for Wade-Giles and Pinyin, though readers of James Legge will be in a tough spot, but usually these things aren’t too hard to figure out once you’ve used them for a while. If you plan to dive into relatively recent works about China, you may want to favour a translation that uses Pinyin to make your life a little easier.

With all that out-of-the-way, here are the translations, in alphabetical order by translator:

Wing-Tsit Chan was a Professor of Philosophy at Chatham College and Professor of Chinese Culture and Philosophy Emeritus at Dartmouth College. His A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy was first published in 1963. As mentioned above, this collects many works, and I’d highly recommend it to those interested in the subject. It’s also the most well-rounded translation, always clear and in natural English. Helpfully, since he translated all the selections himself, the words used to translate philosophical terms in the Analects will match those in the other works, as well. His introductions and annotations are also consistently helpful. He uses a modified version of the Wade-Giles system, which is easily matched to other sources that use Wade-Giles but dispenses with some of the unnecessary diacritical marks, making it a little friendlier.

Note, though, that though he includes much of the Analects, certainly enough to get a feel for the work, he doesn’t include all of it. If you’re specifically interested in the Analects, then, and aren’t willing to supplement with a second translation, this may be a deal breaker. Of my selections for this article, he does not include 2.16.

Confucius said, “Is it not a pleasure to learn and to repeat or practice from time to time what has been learned? Is it not delightful to have friends come from afar? Is one not a superior man if he does not feel hurt even though he is not recognized?”

Yu Tzu said, “Few of those who are filial sons and respectful brothers will show disrespect to superiors, and there has never been a man who is not disrespectful of superiors and yet creates disorder. A superior man is devoted to fundamentals (the root). When the root is firmly established, the moral law (Tao) will grow. Filial piety and brotherly respect are the root of humanity (jen).”

Confucius said, “I do not enlighten those who are not eager to learn, nor arouse those who are not anxious to give an explanation themselves. If I have presented one corner of the square and they cannot come back to me with the other three, I should not go over the points again.”

Chi-lu (Tzu-lu) asked about serving the spiritual beings. Confucius said, “If we are not yet able to serve man, how can we serve spiritual beings?” “I venture to ask about death.” Confucius said, “If we do not yet know about life, how can we know about death?”

Confucius said, “To have taken no [unnatural] action and yet have the empire well governed, Shun was the man! What did he do? All he did was make himself reverent and correctly face south [in his royal seat as ruler].”

Chichung Huang was Professor of Chinese at Bennington College, and had previously taught at Peking University; according to his bio. from publisher Oxford Paperbacks, “he spent two years in political exile before coming to the United States,” which sounds fascinating but no details are added. This was published in 1997, and uses Pinyin.

Prof. Huang says that he takes a literal approach to translation, which makes one fear that the result will be stilted and awkward, but it works well in this case. Some passages are a little choppy, but not too bad, and he does gloss lines that are obscure without the extra “padding,” so to speak, that most translators would add for clarity. He has notes with cross-references and explanations of obscure terms and names on almost every chapter, but keeps it concise. He also keeps interpretation to a minimum, but lets you draw your own conclusions from the text. Though not my top pick, this one is worth a look and is a solid choice if you prefer a plain style, with just enough introductory material and annotations to clarify obscure points but not overwhelm you with too much information.

The Master said: “To learn something and regularly practice it – is it not a joy? To have schoolfellows come from distant states – is it not a pleasure? Not to resent when men do not know you – is it not like a gentleman?”

Master You said: “Those who are filial to their parents and obedient to their elder brothers but are apt to defy their superiors are rare indeed; those who are not apt to defy their superiors, but are apt to stir up a rebellion simply do not exist. The gentleman applies himself to the roots. Only when the roots are well planted will the Way grow. Filial piety and brotherly obedience are perhaps the roots of humanity, are they not?”

The Master said: “To apply oneself to heretical theories is harmful indeed!”

The Master said: “No vexation, no enlightenment; no anxiety, no illumination. If I have brought up one corner and he does not return with the other three, I will not repeat.”

 When Ji-lu asked how to serve the spirits and gods, the Master said: “You cannot serve men yet; how can you serve the spirits?”
“May I venture to ask what death is?”
The Master said, “You do not understand life yet; how can you understand death?”

The Master said: “The only one who achieved good government through nonaction was perhaps Shun! For what did he do? He conducted himself respectfully facing due south, that is all.”

D. C. Lau taught Chinese and philosophy at a number of institutions, including the University of Hong Kong and the University of London, and also worked on a project to digitise all extant ancient Chinese work. His translation, first published in 1979, deserves its place as among the most popular. Though this isn’t specified, he appears to use Wade-Giles.

While going through his work for my Confucian quote bot’s revisions, I consistently noticed that his translation was among the clearest and most natural, about as good as Chan’s, though there are a few passages here-and-there that are phrased a bit odd, like “at due intervals” in the first chapter below. He keeps annotations to a minimum, merely clarifying things where needed. I don’t think the Analects are particularly difficult, so his introduction and concise notes should be sufficient, but those who want either more in-depth commentary or simply hand-holding may want to look elsewhere. Nonetheless, Prof. Lau’s is the most well-rounded of the full translations, and a solid choice.

The Master said, ‘Is it not a pleasure, having learned something, to try it out at due intervals? Is it not a joy to have friends come from afar? Is it not gentlemanly not to take offence when others fail to appreciate your abilities?’

Yu Tzu said, ‘It is rare for a man whose character is such that he is good as a son and obedient as a young man to have the inclination to transgress against his superiors; it is unheard of for one who has no such inclination to start a rebellion. The gentleman devotes his efforts to the roots, for once the roots are established, the Way will grow therefrom. Being good as a son and obedient as a young man is, perhaps, the root of a man’s character.’

The Master said, ‘To attack a task from the wrong end can do nothing but harm.’

The Master said, ‘I never enlighten anyone who has not been driven to distraction by trying to understand a difficulty or who has not got into a frenzy trying to put his ideas into words.
‘When I have pointed out one corner of a square to anyone and he does not come back with the other three, I will not point it out to him a second time.’

Chi-lu asked how the spirits of the dead and the gods should be served. The Master said, ‘You are not able even to serve man. How can you serve the spirits?’
‘May I ask about death?’
‘You do not understand even life. How can you understand death?’

The Master said, ‘If there was a ruler who achieved order without taking any action, it was, perhaps, Shun. There was nothing for him to do but hold himself in a respectful posture and to face due south.’

James Legge was a Sinologist and missionary to China, who has the distinction of being the only translator I’m aware of to have translated all of the Four Books and Five Classics of the Confucian canon into English, which he did for F. Max Müller’s famous Sacred Books of the East series; the Analects in particular was first published in 1893. He’s also one of only two men here represented whose work is now in the public domain, which means that his version is free and easy to find in e-book format. That said, I’d still recommend Dover’s reprint, which also includes The Great Learning and The Doctrine of the Mean, so you can get three of the Four Books in one volume.

Legge includes an extensive introduction, copious notes, indexes, and the original Chinese text. Some of his factual information is now outdated and many annotations are rather technical linguistic points, but nonetheless, if you want not just a translator but a guide, Legge’s your man. He also is one of the few to divide the Analects not just into books and chapters, but verses, though this level of subdivision isn’t really necessary since every chapter is fairly short.

There are some drawbacks to his work, though. One is that he uses his own unique Romanisation system, which is annoying but not a major problem. Second, his is the most hit-and-miss edition of all the translations represented here. Most of his work is old-fashioned, but in a good way; this is ancient literature, after all, so a timeless quality is fine. Some passages are particularly well done, with a rhetorical power that later translators seldom match. Others, however, come across as rather awkward or overly wordy, and would probably benefit from some editing. There is a modernised version of one of his other Confucian translations, The Book of Documents, and though I haven’t read it, that sounds like a good idea. Keeping the best strengths of Legge’s version while converting his Romanisation to either Pinyin or Wade-Giles and rephrasing some of the awkward passages could produce an excellent final product. On the other hand, though, there are so many other options already that it’s probably unnecessary.

Should you read Legge? Given his influence as an early translator and the merits of the translation itself, he is worth reading at some point. If you’re on a budget, want to have The Great Learning and Doctrine of the Mean conveniently at hand, or like having some guidance, then Legge is a good choice. Otherwise, though, it’s best to look elsewhere first and come back to Legge later.

The Master said, “Is it not pleasant to learn with a constant perseverance and application? “Is it not delightful to have friends coming from distant quarters? “Is he not a man of complete virtue, who feels no discomposure though men may take no note of him?”

The philosopher Yu said, “They are few who, being filial and fraternal, are fond of offending against their superiors. There have been none, who, not liking to offend against their superiors, have been fond of stirring up confusion. “The superior man bends his attention to what is radical. That being established, all practical courses naturally grow up. Filial piety and fraternal submission! — are they not the root of all benevolent actions?”

The Master said, “The study of strange doctrines is injurious indeed!”

The Master said, “I do not open up the truth to one who is not eager to get knowledge, nor help out any one who is not anxious to explain himself. When I have presented one corner of a subject to any one, and he cannot from it learn the other three, I do not repeat my lesson.”

Chi Lu asked about serving the spirits of the dead. The Master said, “While you are not able to serve men, how can you serve their spirits?” Chi Lu added, “I venture to ask about death?” He was answered, “While you do not know life, how can you know about death?”

The Master said, “May not Shun be instanced as having governed efficiently without exertion? What did he do? He did nothing but gravely and reverently occupy his royal seat.”

Simon Leys says in the foreword to his translation that “A good translator must turn himself into the Invisible Man,” and says nothing else about  himself. I learned after a quick web search, though, that “Simon Leys” was the pen name of Belgian writer and sinologist Pierre Ryckmans. I don’t know a lot about him, but he was apparently a fierce critic of Mao and his Western admirers, which is good. He published his version of the Analects in 1997, and uses Pinyin.

Leys’s was actually the first translation I read, and though I read it a few times early on I went years without revisiting it until just this past week. I may be a little biased, but Leys’s is my favourite translation, as his is consistently the most concise and sounds the most natural in English. The only translator who does more to make Confucius sound like a native English-speaker was Ezra Pound, who tried too hard, but Leys gets it right. Aside from a few passages, anyway, but no translation is perfect.

He’s also the most beginner-friendly, mostly because of his style but also a few other small things. For example, many people in the Analects are referred to by two different names, one, roughly speaking, for formal use and the other for casual. Similar to referring to some as “Mr. [surname]” as opposed to just his given name in English. This can be confusing at first, and other translators have to constantly insert foot notes to remind the reader that, for instance, “Tzu-lu” and “Yu” are the same person. Leys, though, uses only one name per person. This isn’t quite accurate, but it’s also easier to follow; besides, the naming convention doesn’t convey anything to foreign audiences, anyway, and can be made up for by using more formal or casual language in general as needed. He does have a lot of end notes (yes, end notes, not footnotes, unfortunately), and though not as thorough as Legge he does provide quite a bit of guidance.

The Master said: “To learn something and then put it into practice at the right time: is this not a joy? To have friends coming from afar: is this not a delight? Not to be upset when one’s merits are ignored: is this not the mark of a gentleman?”

Master Yu said: “A man who respects his parents and his elders would hardly be inclined to defy his superiors. A man who is not inclined to defy his superiors will never foment a rebellion. A gentleman works at the root. Once the root is secured, the Way unfolds. To respect parents and elders is at the root of humanity.”

The Master said: “To attack a question from the wrong end – this is harmful indeed.”

The Master said: “I enlighten only the enthusiastic; I guide only the fervent. After I have lifted up one corner of a question, if the student cannot discover the other three, I do not repeat.”

Zilu asked how to serve spirits and gods. The Master said: “You are not yet able to serve men, how could you serve the spirits?”
Zilu said: “May I ask you about death?” The Master said: “You do not yet know life, how could you know death?”

The Master said: “Shun was certainly one of those who knew how to govern by inactivity. How did he do it? He sat reverently on the throne, facing south – and that was all.”

Leonard Lyall is a man of mystery; I can’t find much of anything about him, except that he published his translation of the Analects while in Italy in 1909. This means that his version is in the public domain, and that you can get it for exactly what it’s worth: $0.

Okay, perhaps that’s too harsh, but it’s the worst version featured here by a wide margin, and the only one I’d consider outright bad, mostly because he makes some rather odd translation choices. As I mentioned in my review, he uses the archaic “ye” and “thou,” but much of it is basically standard English of his era, so it’s like the tried to imitate the King James Bible but did it in thoroughly bush league fashion. Other words are overly literal, like using “two-three” to mean “few.” He has only a short introduction and hardly anything in the way of useful annotations, so honestly, of all the translations covered here, you can’t do worse, so I’m including these selections only for the sake of completeness. He appears to use Wade-Giles, but in this case, who cares.

The Master said, To learn and then do, is not that a pleasure? When friends come from afar do we not rejoice? To live unknown and not fret, is not that to be a gentleman?

Yu-tzu said. Few men that are good sons and good brothers are fond of withstanding those over them. A man that is not fond of withstanding those over him and is yet fond of broils is nowhere found. A gentleman heeds the roots. When the root has taken, the Way is born. And to be a good son and a good brother, is not that the root of love?

The Master said, To fight strange doctrines does harm.

The Master said, Only to those fumbling do I open, only for those stammering do I find the word. If I lift one corner and the other three are left unturned, I say no more.

Chi-lu asked what is due to the ghosts of the dead? The Master said, When we cannot do our duty to the living, how can we do it to the dead? He dared to ask about death. We know not life, said the Master, how can we know death?

The Master said, To rule doing nothing, was what Shun did. For what is there to do? Self-respect and to set the face to rule, is all.

Ezra Pound was the greatest and most important poet of the last few centuries. Well, in my opinion, anyway. He also admired Confucianism and was inspired by Oriental literature in his own poetry, and translated not only the Analects, but The Great Learning and The Doctrine of the Mean under the titles The Great Digest and The Unwobbling Pivot, respectively, as well as The Book of Odes. The first three came out in 1951, the Odes in 1954. Like Legge, he seems to just do whatever he feels like as far as Romanisation.

So, Pound was a great poet, but was he a great translator? Well… he was idiosyncratic. His translations are enjoyable, interesting, and at times stylistically powerful, but he’s also a notable outlier from everyone else in several passages, so though the original work is bloody Chinese and I can’t read it to judge accuracy, I can’t help but conclude that he strays from the text more than anyone else. To back up my opinion, though, I can offer the assessment of actual sinologist Joseph R. Allen, editor of Arthur Waley’s translation of The Book of Odes, who said of Pound’s edition of that work that it’s “very creative and often compelling,” but “not suitable for research.” Should you read Pound’s? Yes, but only after you’ve read one or two others.

Oh, and like Legge, he subdivides chapters into verses. You’ll also notice his inline commentary in brackets, which can be distracting and should’ve been placed in footnotes. I will say that Pound’s comments are often interesting, though again, I can’t say where exactly Pound falls on the spectrum of “scholar” and “enthusiast.”

He said: Study with the seasons winging past, is not this pleasant?
To have friends coming in from far quarters, not a delight?
Unruffled by men’s ignoring him, also indicative of high breed.

Few filial and brotherly men enjoy checking their superiors, no one averse from checking his superiors stirs up public disorder.
The real gentleman goes for the root, when the root is solid the (beneficent) process starts growing, filiality and brotherliness are the root of manhood, increasing with it.

He said: Attacking false systems merely harms you.

He said: not zeal not explain [slightly more inclusive than L.’s I do not explain to anyone who is not eager], not wishing to speak, not manifesting [L. M. slant it to equivalents of: I don’t show it to anyone who won’t put his own cards on the table.] I hold up one corner (of a subject) if he cannot turn the other three, I do not repeat (come back to the matter).

Chi Lu asked about the service for ghosts and spirits. Confucius said: You cannot be useful to the living, how can you be useful to (serve) ghosts?
“Venture to ask about death.”
Said: Not understanding life, how can you understand death? [Or “the living, how understand the dead?”]

He said: Shun governed without working. How did he do it? He soberly corrected himself and sat looking to the south (the sovereign sat on a throne looking south), that’s all.

Arthur Waley was an Orientalist, famous for his translations of Chinese and Japanese literature. His 1938 version of the Analects is among the most common and popular, and overall, deserves to be. He characterises it himself as somewhat dry and technical, which is a fair assessment, though it does remain readable enough, even if he can get a bit wordy and lacks the elegance of some other translations. He doesn’t specify, but appears to use Wade-Giles.

This was my preferred translation for several years; today I’d recommend Lau, Chan, or Leys over Waley, but this is still a solid choice and easily available. He takes a middle road as far as annotations go, providing clarifications and the occasional bit of commentary, but not a lot.

The Master said, To learn and at due times to repeat what one has learnt, is that not after all a pleasure? That friends should come to one from afar, is this not after all delightful? To remain unsoured even though one’s merits are unrecognized by others, is that not after all what is expected of a gentleman?

Master Yu said, Those who in private life behave well towards their parents and elder brothers, in public life seldom show a disposition to resist the authority of their superiors. And as for such men starting a revolution, no instance of it has ever occurred. It is upon the trunk that a gentleman works. When that is firmly set up, the Way grows. And surely proper behaviour towards parents and elder brothers is the trunk of Goodness?

The Master said, He who sets to work upon a different strand destroys the whole fabric.

The Master said, Only one who bursts with eagerness do I instruct; only one who bubbles with excitement do I enlighten. If I hold up one corner and a man cannot come back with the other three, I do not continue the lesson.

Tzu-lu asked how one should serve ghosts and spirits. The Master said, Till you have learnt to serve men, how can you serve ghosts? Tzu-lu then ventured upon a question about the dead. The Master said, Till you know about the living, how are you to know about the dead?

The Master said, Among those that ‘ruled by inactivity’ surely Shun may be counted. For what action did he take? He merely placed himself gravely and reverently with his face due south; that was all.

Leave a Reply