R U Global — The Analects of Confucius

The Analects, by Confucius. Translated by Arthur Waley. London: Everyman Publishers, 2000.

The Essential Confucius: The Heart of Confucius’ Teachings in Authentic I Ching Order: A Compendium of Ethical Wisdom. Translated and presented by Thomas Cleary. Edison, NJ: Castle Books, 1998.

The Analects of Confucius (Lun Yu): A Literal Translation with an Introduction and Notes by Chichung Huang. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Reviewed by Harold Henkel, Associate Librarian

Hear thou, my son, and be wise, and guide thine heart in the way.
-Proverbs 23:19

Set your heart upon the Way, support yourself by its power, lean upon Goodness…
-Analects 7:6

Open any article about the culture of China, Korea, Japan, or Vietnam, and you are likely to read that the defining factor explaining the assumptions and character of those countries and their peoples is the Confucian inheritance. Nearly everyone understands that Confucius (551 BC – 479 BC) is of incalculable importance for understanding the cultures of East Asia, but how many of us have actually read him?

The work for which Confucius is known in the West, The Analects, is a collection of aphorisms and bits of dialogue divided into twenty short “books,” but with no readily-discernable thematic organization. The word “analects” (from Greek analekta) means simply “miscellaneous written passages” or “literary gleanings.” The Chinese title, Lun Yu, according to translator Chichung Huang, means roughly “ethical dialogues.”

The Analects, though short, are not readily understandable without commentary, so it would seem important for first-time readers to pick the best edition. Finding a best edition however is rarely possible because all translations are compromises between achieving literal accuracy and capturing in English the original sense. The Library has well over twenty versions of The Analects. I shall briefly consider here just three.

Arthur Waley (1890-1966), studied classics at Cambridge before teaching himself Chinese and Japanese. According to scholar Sarah Allan, Waley was the most influential translator of the twentieth century, who “attempted to re-create the sense of the original work, not simply render its original meaning.”

Thomas Cleary (b. 1949) is probably the best-known and most prolific contemporary translator of Buddhist, Taoist, Confucian and Muslim classics. Although he has a Ph.D. from Harvard in East Asian Languages and Civilizations, Cleary holds no academic post, saying that he prefers to “stay independent and reach those who want to learn directly through my books.” His edition of The Analects (1992) attempts to organize the sayings into themes of moral instruction.

Chichung Huang, according to Oxford University Press, is “a Chinese scholar born in a family of Confucian teachers and schooled in one of the last village Confucian schools in South China.” His translation of The Analects (1997) carries the sub-title “a literal translation with an introduction and notes,” and the publisher also claims that it is “far more literal than any English version still in circulation.”

Here for purpose of comparison is how Waley, Cleary, and Huang handle Analects 1:4, in which Master Zeng discusses the importance of self-examination:

Waley Cleary Huang
Every day I examine myself on these three points: in acting on behalf of others, have I always been loyal to their interests? In intercourse with my friends, have I always been true to my word? Have I failed to repeat the precepts that have been handed down to me? I examine myself three times a day: have I been unfaithful in planning for others? Have I been unreliable in conversation with friends? Am I preaching what I haven’t practiced myself? I daily thrice examine myself. In counseling men, have I not been wholeheartedly sincere? In associating with friends, have I not been truthful to my word? In transmitting something, have I not been proficient?

Which version is best? Lacking Chinese, I must take it on trust from Oxford that Huang’s version is the most literally accurate. For my part, Waley’s is stylistically the best prose, but Cleary’s is also perfectly acceptable. Since all three translators include helpful footnotes or endnotes, I would probably choose Waley, but keep Huang to consult where Waley is vague. I would also keep Cleary on hand for his always excellent notes and commentary.

It need hardly be said that the growing power and influence of East Asia in world affairs makes an acquaintance with Confucius and The Analects essential for anyone wishing to understand this vital region. An even greater reason for making the effort to read Confucius is the opportunity to learn wisdom from one of the world’s great teachers.