- Another Installment of a Crucial Translation
Although the Shih chi or Shiji (Grand scribe’s records), written about 90 b.c.e., is one of the fundamental texts of Chinese civilization, it still awaits a full rendering into English. (I will defer to Nienhauser and employ Wade-Giles transcription in this review, but I wish that he had used pinyin.) This volume is the sixth in William Nienhauser’s ongoing translation project. It is a monumental undertaking, for which Nienhauser has enlisted the assistance of an international consortium of scholars. Once again, those efforts have paid off handsomely.
The only comparable endeavor was Burton Watson’s 1961 two-volume translation of exactly half of the Shih chi’s 130 chapters (with another dozen or so chapters published later), and now Nienhauser’s team has bested that number with a total of 74 chapters translated. Yet the two projects are quite dissimilar. Watson presented Ssu-ma Ch’ien’s words with very few explanatory footnotes, and the effect was not only to introduce this groundbreaking Chinese historian to Western audiences, but also to make him sound a bit like the Penguin editions of Herodotus or Thucydides. Nienhauser, by contrast, offers fully annotated translations where the footnotes often take up half the page or more.
It seem to me that this latter strategy is a better fit for Ssu-ma Ch’ien’s work since the structure and style of the Shih chi suggests that it was not meant to be read linearly. To understand Ssu-ma’s meaning — which can sometimes be a puzzle — it is necessary constantly to compare what he has written in one chapter with how the same event or character is depicted in other chapters of the Shih chi. So the footnotes in Nienhauser’s volume refer not only to geographical identifications, cultural explanations, historical details, chronology, and textual variants, but they also include references to parallel accounts elsewhere in the Shih chi, with specific notations of alternative narratives or omitted details. For instance, on page 387, we read the story from Shih chi chapter 112 of how Chu-fu Yen drove the King of Ch’i to commit suicide; at the bottom of the page is a footnote outlining the quite different version of the tale as it was related in chapter 52.
Ssu-ma Ch’ien’s innovative historiographical form does not present a single version of the past; rather, it invites readers to consider events and figures from multiple angles, in different contexts. To read the Shih chi’s five overlapping sections of annals, chronological tables, treatises, hereditary houses (lineage [End Page 159] histories), and memoirs is to be drawn into a conversation among the book’s constituent parts. Nienhauser and his fellow translators guide us through some of the intratextual dialogue, but their annotations also bring us into three additional conversations.
The first is with the Han shu — the second book in the Chinese Standard Histories, written about two centuries after the Shih chi. The Han shu covers much of the same history as its predecessor, often in much the same language, and the subtle differences between the two texts can sometimes be revealing. The footnotes in the Shih chi offer a continuous comparison between parallel accounts in the two histories, and on pages 306–308, there is some useful material to add to the debate on whether certain passages in the Han shu were actually written first and then copied back into the Shih chi (see also p. 344 n. 212). Similarly, the footnotes bring us into the 2,000-year Chinese commentarial tradition. From the Han dynasty to the Qing dynasty, the Shih chi was the focus of tremendous scholarly attention, and Nienhauser and his collaborators help us follow the twists and turns of...