Confucian Analects: the Burgess translation

Screen Shot 2016-05-21 at 12.08.31Consider these translations, by James Legge (1861) and Anthony Burgess (1958), of parts of the Confucian Analects.

Book IV, Ch. 4




If the will be set on virtue, there will be no practice of wickedness.


If a man be really bent on human-heartedness then he cannot be wicked.

Book IX, Ch. 28




The wise are free from perplexities; the virtuous from anxiety; and the bold from fear.


A wise man is not perplexed, nor is a human-hearted man unhappy, and a courageous man is never frightened.

Burgess’s rendition of these chapters is to be found in his novel The Enemy in the Blanket. The character Father Laforgue, a missionary

who had been ten years in China, four of them in prison,

is an admirer of the Analects. The character Hardman, who is preparing to convert to Islam, enters the priest’s house.

Hardman sat on one of the two hard chairs and saw on the table an open book which he knew to be the Analects of Confucius, row after falling row of ideograms preserving — outside phonetic change and above dialectal differences — that eminently seductive and dangerous common sense of old China.

Burgess never visited mainland China but gained a wide and deep understanding of Chinese civilization during his time in Malaya, now Malaysia, which hosts one of the largest overseas Chinese communities — about a quarter of the population.

Extracts from Burgess’s foreword to China in the Monuments of Civilisation series:

The gateway to China, ancient or modern, is the Chinese language. My own contacts with the country have been more linguistic than geographic. When I lived in Malaysia…I regarded it as my secondary duty to try to learn Chinese….I could not fail to become acquainted with China’s exported culture — its religions, philosophies, cuisines, folklore…architecture….

Chinese…is a highly logical language and it despises grammar — which, we must admit, is more decorative than useful….Chinese…reserves etiquette to verbal formulae which bespeak the graciousness of an ancient civilisation….This excessive politeness is the sign of a nation that has learned, over thousands of years, that civilisation is built on formal self-effacement….does the ‘nose’ ideogram [鼻] represent complicated layers of olfactory sensation?….even with the most abstract words you can see the ghost of [a]…pictorial image….But this is…palaeography: no living Chinese sees the original images any more than Europeans see the hieroglyph of an ox in the capital A of the Roman alphabet….such a complex system of writing could only be developed by a leisured class of priests and scholars. The ideogram stands for an ancient inequality and perhaps…a desire to mystify the common people….

There is…a higher common sense…which has been bred out of centuries of not asking too much from the world….Their cuisine can be exquisite, but it is made out of the immediately feasible, not the grandiose dreams of French chefs. The Chinese elegance…is an elegance of extreme economy….

The incrustations of a past which stretches…to remote beginnings hardly conceivable in the West, are embodied in the system of writing.

But the spoken language seems based on the principle of making much out of very little. There is an immense elegance in the manner with which a structure of monosyllables and tones can be made to serve the subtlest discourse, without the elaborate luggage of grammatical terminations and agglutinative sesquipedalia. Such a language does not take kindly to evasive political pronouncements or orotund slogans. If we are told that the Peking street in which the Russian embassy is located is called The Street of Struggle Against Revisionism, we smile at the pomposity. Call the street Fan xiu lù and the pomposity is at once deflated. For means a road…fan means to turn over…and xiu is to build….So you turn over or change a building process and you leave to the languages of the West the bloating of the image into the humourless terminology of the apparatchik.

To gain our picture of modern China out of inept translation is a sure way to falsification, and the same is true of the ancient country whose character and achievements, as well as struggles and sufferings, this volume memorialises.

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