What does Confucius say in English translations : A textual analysis of the Analects

Research output: Conference Papers (RGC: 31A, 31B, 32, 33)32_Refereed conference paper (no ISBN/ISSN)peer-review

View graph of relations



Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 2007


The Analects is a selection of words and deeds of Confucius, compiled by his disciples and later followers, which contains twenty short chapters or books, recording mainly recollections of conversations between Confucius and his disciples or between Confucius and rulers of some of the feudal states around 5th century BCE. The focus of these conversations is “on the practicalities of interpersonal relationships, personal cultivation in the context of those relationships, and the relationship of personal cultivation on the part of rulers and ministers to the conduct of government” (De Bary & Bloom, 1999, p. 42). The Analects is the single most important source for people to understand the thought of Confucius. However, can people get exactly what the Master says through the Analects?A general consensus can be reached on the meaning of some of the most important terms or concepts, in spite of the inherited ambiguities representing different points of view which would inevitably lead to different and sometimes conflicting interpretations. But further confusion can still be caused when they are translated into foreign languages. For more than 3 centuries, since Jesuits had contacts with Chinese scholars in the 17th century, Confucius’s Analects has been translated into numerous versions in Western languages. Each rendition stands for an attempt to make this ancient Chinese classic accessible to Western readers. However, is total access to the Analects possible through the translations? If we use English translations as an example, a terse sentence in Book XIII: Zi yue: “Bi ye zheng ming hu (必也正名乎)!” has been rendered into the following:1) The Master replied, ‘What is necessary is to rectify names.’(James Legge, 1893);2) The Master said, it would certainly be correct language (Arthur Waley, 1938); 3) The Master said, ‘If something has to be put first, it is, perhaps, the rectification of names’ (D.C. Lau, 1979); The word “ming” literally means “name”, which appears in Legge’s, and Lau’s translation, while in Arthur Waley’s, it was translated as “language”. There are various other versions, each making a choice from the many possible interpretations of the original message. In the English translations, the original open-endedness and ambiguity of the concepts behind the Chinese word are lost, and the various Chinese exegetical traditions ignored. This article reviews a wide variety of translations by both Western and Chinese translators in the attempt to examine: 1) How messages have been interpreted through various translations; 2) Do translations of different time period represent certain characteristics of their own ages? 3) Do Western and Chinese thinking habits affect the rendition of the book? 4) The language style of different translators. Works of different ages by Chinese and Western translators are compared and commented through examples. ReferencesDe Bary, Wm. & Bloom, I. (1999). Sources of Chinese Tradition, Vol. 1, 2nd Edition. New York: Columbia University Press. Lau, D. C. (1983). The Analects (Trans.).Hong Kong: Chinese University Press. Legge, J. (1893). The Chinese Classics, vol.1 (Trans.). Taipei: SMC Publishing 2001 facsimile reprint of 1893 Oxford edition.Waley, A. (1938). The Analects of Confucius (Trans.). London: G. Allen & Unwin.