- Confucius Analects: With Selections from Traditional Commentaries
In recent years, many new translations of the Analects have come out to indulge the seemingly robust appetite for the little Confucian classic in North America. Explicit or not, they often purport to represent the "original" Analects in modern English. Yet, the meaning of "original" may be different to each translator. Some are interested in reconstructing the philosophical structure and chronological strata of the Analects whereas others are keener on a scrupulously faithful (to some, this means "literal") rendition of the particular version that they choose to translate. While the issue of audience is of some importance to how a translation is done, it is not always clear who the intended audiences of these new translations are. It appears that as long as the "original" Analects is captured and represented in modern English, the translator's job is done. But is there such a text that can be considered the "original" Analects that is still recoverable or that can be reconstructed in the classical Chinese language? Even if there is, in what sense can one claim that an English translation of the Analects represents the "original" classic?
Intended for American college students, Edward Slingerland's new translation does not claim to be a representation of the "original" Analects. This sensible attitude and clear objective should be celebrated. And Professor Slingerland's position is understandable. Time and again, he reminds his readers of the "cryptic" quality of the original text: "many have come away from the Analects with their impression of cryptic, mysterious Eastern 'fortune cookie' wisdom reinforced" (p. viii). This "cryptic" quality perhaps has sensitized him as a translator in representing the classic to his English-language readers, for he emphasizes in his Preface that much of this "cryptic" quality "is already hidden in the translation by virtue of the choices the translator has to make in rendering the passages into intelligible English" (p. viii). Thus, this version's description promotes itself in the same strain: "This edition goes beyond others that largely leave readers to their own devices in understanding this cryptic work, by providing an entrée into the text that parallels the traditional Chinese way of approaching it" (italics mine).1
Judging from his highly readable and at times elegant translation, this reviewer finds it hard to imagine that an educated English-language reader would find the Analects "cryptic" in any way. But does this mean that all cryptic enigmas have been deciphered in this new translation? If so, then the reader may ask if it is commendable to remove these inherent textual riddles in favor of readability in [End Page 174] the process of translation. Deciphering comes with a price tag. Ontologically we may compromise the "cryptic" quality in the original, and pedagogically we may deprive the reader of the precious opportunity of interrogating the original text "in all its cryptic glory" (p. viii).
True, there are passages in the Analects that are difficult to understand, and the reason, as Slingerland is well aware, usually lies in the lack of a specific historical or conversational context. No doubt our understanding of the classic can always be enriched with the help of traditional commentaries. According to Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (eleventh edition), "cryptic" can mean: (1) secret, occult; (2) having or seeming to have a hidden meaning or ambiguous meaning; (3) marked by an often perplexing brevity; and (4) serving to conceal. However one might read the Analects, it seems inconceivable that someone would actually believe that the text "serves to conceal" anything.2 If we think that the Analects "has or seems to have a hidden meaning or ambiguous meaning" or that it is "marked by an often perplexing brevity," then it is only fair to say that the Analects is no more "cryptic" than virtually any other written text, since most written texts, especially poetry writings, may contain some subtle or hidden...