Discourses and Sayings of Confucius - Legge vs. Ku Hung-Ming

Discourses and Sayings of Confucius - Legge vs. Ku Hung-Ming

Discourses and Sayings of Confucius - Legge vs Ku Hung-Ming

(PD) "Discourses and Sayings of Confucius" copyright page.

Larry Neal Gowdy

Copyright ©2019 March 03, 2019

One of the obstacles of an individual translating original Confucian texts is that of having previously read academic translations, especially those by Oxford professor of Chinese, James Legge. Having previously read academic translations, the translations' word-choices would naturally come to the individual's mind when attempting to translate the original words, and thus, the academic translations' words would negatively influence how the individual would approach their own translations. The solution is easy: simply not read academic translations.

All translations of all languages — including one's native language — are fully dependent on the translator himself possessing a firsthand understanding of the topic that the foreign words speak of: no one can accurately translate a topic if the person does not know what the topic is. Almost universally, academicians have no skills and no knowledge beyond the memorization of undefined words. Also, no known academic translation of Confucian texts was accompanied with firsthand experience of the topics within Confucianism, which made void all of the translations.

Neither education nor academic employment is able to supersede the necessity of firsthand understanding.

Legge's translations are horrendously bad with an almost continuous stream of contradictions and absurdities that do not so much as approach close to the Chinese sentences' concepts. My opinion of Legge's translations is not lonely. The following is a quote from the preface of The Discourses and Sayings of Confucius by Ku Hung-Ming (1898 - Shanghai: Kelly and Walsh, Limited) [Note: The European English spelling and grammar is as was presented in the book.]:

"It is now forty years since Dr. Legge began the publication of the first installment of his translation of the 'Chinese Classics." Any one now, even without an acquaintance with the Chinese language, who will take the trouble to turn over the pages of Dr. Legge's translation, cannot help feeling how unsatisfactory the translation really is. For Dr. Legge, from his raw literary training when he began his work, and the utter want of critical insight and literary perception he showed to the end, was really nothing more than a great sinologue, that is to say, a pundit with a very learned but dead knowledge of Chinese books. But in justice to the memory of the great sinologue who, we regret to hear, has just recently died, it must be said that notwithstanding the extremely hard and narrow limits of his mind, which was the result of temperament, he was, as far as his insight allowed him, thoroughly conscientious in his work.

To an earnest student who can bring his own philosophical and literary acumen to study into those ponderous volumes known as Dr. Legge's translation of the "Chinese Classics," no doubt some insight into the moral culture, or what is called the civilisation of the Chinese people, will reveal itself. But to the generality of the English reading people we cannot but think the intellectual and moral outfit of the Chinaman as presented by Dr. Legge in his translation of the Chinese books, must appear as strange and grotesque as to an ordinary Englishman's eyes, unaccustomed to it, the Chinaman's costume and outward appearance."

The absence of firsthand understanding is prevalent throughout all known academic translations of Confucian texts. One example is from what appears to be section 17 of Yang Huo:

Ku #I-3: "Confucius remarked, 'With plausible speech and fine manners will seldom be found moral character.'"

Legge's translation: "The Master said, 'Fine words and an insinuating appearance are seldom associated with virtue.'"

Ku's interpretation — purposefully intended to be rudimentary and slanted for English-speaking people who prefer a conversational structuring of words — likely appears highly reasonable for individuals within some English-speaking cultures, but the interpretation appears to be more than a little incorrect in other cultures. Within a modern English culture, the translations' idea of 'plausible speech' and 'fine words' might indeed be valid for the average person who cannot recognize vocal and facial expressions of deceit, but, however, for individuals who are able to hear deceitful voices and to see deceitful facial expressions, the sentences then imply a speaker's manner of deceit.

And right there, again, the translator's translation, and the listener's interpretation, all rely upon each individual's own personal firsthand understanding of the topic. One person might observe 'loud voice and face' and believe that the speaker is speaking honestly, but, other people immediately recognize deceit in 'loud voice and face'. Similarly with a 'skilled' voice — one of much memorization of words — is always empty. The emphasis here is that 'skilled' words are learned, where the speaker's own personal emphasis of effort was to gain a 'skillful' voice, while the speaker's own personal emphasis of effort was not applied towards attaining and improving his own inner qualities; that is, all 'skillful' speaking must therefore be hollow, dishonest, and with disregard of one's own inner self-quality.

My own draft of the sentence reads: 'Zi say: Skillful speech cause appearance little benevolence'. That is, 'skillful speech, causes an appearance of possessing little benevolence'. Original words: [1] qiao= cunning, deceitful, timely, skillful: [2] yan= character, say, speak, speech, talk, word: [3] ling= cause, command, decree, make, order: [4] se= appearance, color, description, expression, look, quality: [5] xian= few, fresh, little, rare: [6] yi= sentence particle to express declaration or exclamation, or carry: [7] ren= benevolence, compassion, humane, kind, merciful.

Similar to English, each original Chinese word is a concept of itself, and each word's definition wholly and permanently rests upon each person's own history and awareness of one's own life to define what each word implies to each individual. Accepting the Chinese words to imply what dictionaries state to be English synonyms, then by combining the concepts, the sentence's meaning ought to be close to the author's intentions: ([7] benevolence + [5] little) + ([4] appearance) + ([2] speak + [1] skillful) + ([3] cause).

Asian languages also often place word concepts and emphases in an opposite flow as what is common in English. As an example, in English it might be said 'Mary be the most beautiful', while in an Asian language it might be spoken as 'Beautiful most be Mary'. In English, Mary is the focal point of importance, and described by the lowered importance of the last word. In an Asian language, the example sentence's focal point of importance is upon a personal quality that is then followed by the less important concept of who has the quality. If the Confucian sentence had implied a similar Asian sequencing of emphases, then in English it might have been preferred to translate the sentence similar as 'Appearance (of) little benevolence, skillful speech cause'.

When a sentence's most important focal point is reduced to a low importance, then the sentence's meaning is perverted and lost. The implanting of English mental patterns does great harm to Chinese sentences... causes confusion... causes aberrant ideas... causes sentence disharmony. Academic translations purposefully strive to achieve an academically acceptable accuracy of English grammar, which is an irrational thing to do to a foreign language. The Chinese language is the Chinese language, it is not the English language, and it is irrational to believe that the Chinese language ought to conform to English grammar, but, that is precisely what almost all known translations have attempted to do.

Nevertheless, the Confucian sentence speaks of 'little benevolence', also speaks of 'skilled speech', also speaks of 'appearance' and 'cause'. Regardless of the chosen synonyms, and regardless of sentence's sequencing of concepts, the sentence's underlying concept appears to be pointing at a manner of speaking that causes the appearance of little benevolence, which, therefore, renders the 'skillful' word to perhaps be the best choice because the word closely relates to 'cunning' and 'deceit'.

Of the many different authors of Confucian texts, the only one known that maintained a rational presentation of ideas was Confucius himself. Probabilities are high that Confucius was bright enough to immediately recognize deceit within 'skillful' words, and probabilities are also high that most other people during the era were much like today, of not being able to recognize deceit within 'skillful' words (e.g. politicians, televangelists, etc.).

If the quote had been of someone other than Confucius, then the common translations might be sufficient enough because of the words not having meaning to the listeners anyway, but, to individuals who can hear and see deceit, Confucius' words are quite good and accurate.

But also, some people evaluate kind, soft, gentle, caring, slow, thoughtful, flowingly toned, articulate words, to be highly skilled of the mind and heart from where the words originated, while the people also evaluating normal speech to never be skilled. To those individuals, it is absurd to be told that kind words cause an appearance of little benevolence. One's own personal life history and life's thoughts dictate how the sentence is to be interpreted. The only rational translation of the sentence is that the first word best points at 'cunning deceit', and all of the other words then fall into place very easily regardless of sequencing.

From Li Ren section 3:

James Legge translation: "The master said: It is only the truly virtuous man who can love, or who can hate, others."

Ku #IV-3: "Confucius remarked, "It is only men of moral character who know how to love men or to hate men."

First glance, tiny glance, disinterested glance, vague peripheral vision, already the translations are recognized to be outrageously absurd. Virtuous people hate people?? Hate is virtuous?? Moral character contains the ingredient of hate?? It is moral to hate people?? Whatever Legge and Ku's bizarre concepts of 'virtue', 'moral character', and 'hate' might have been, I personally do not want to know.

The sentence structure itself is not uncommon, but, the sentence's interpretation is greatly benefited by first remembering Zi's mental patterns. By inserting Zi's mental patterns, the sentence then falls precisely into place, makes sense... makes exceptionally good sense, and is quite good. Li Ren Chi Dao - Inner Tone Harmony Way has the rational translation.

Within western philosophy and western academia, there does not exist a rational explanation of what 'virtue' is, nor what 'moral character' is, nor what 'hate' is. If a word has an unknown meaning, then speaking the word will not magically make the word known to the listener. Each of the words mean what they mean to each individual, and no two humans on earth share the identical same definition.

In Ku's defense, he (allegedly) learned Chinese after first learning several European languages, plus he had already read Legge's translations, and similarly as how many people suffer mental damage from having endured the attempting to reason the words heard from people suffering from dementia, Ku followed Legge's lead, and perhaps unwittingly interpreted the words within a very similar pattern as Legge's.

'Hate' is composed of numerous ingredients, some of which include intense selfishness connected to a violent subconsciously-driven outburst of wanting other people to physically obey what the hateful person wants (immature adult temper-tantrum). 'Hate' has no relationship to the concepts of 'virtue' and 'moral character' which imply the possession of numerous creative harmonious inner qualities including inner calm and being intellectually conscious, while not being selfish nor animalistically violent. It is a thinking problem for an individual to not know that 'virtuous' people do not 'hate'.

The next Legge quote is from Zi Han section 25, while Ku's translation is from a different book that has the same wording within an expanded sequence of sentences:

Legge: "The Master said, 'Hold faithfulness and sincerity as first principles. Have no friends not equal to yourself. When you have faults, do not fear to abandon them.'"

Ku #II-8: "Confucius remarked, '... Make conscientiousness and sincerity your first principles. Have no friends who are not as yourself. When you have bad habits do not hesitate to change them.'"

Where begin? The idea of purposefully not being a friend to someone else, just because they might not be as smart and beautiful and perfect and flawless and wonderful and angelic as one's self, well, that's just stupid, cold, and callous enough to believe in the translations as being valid.

No two humans are identical, the same, nor equal. It is impossible for people to be equal; simply not possible in Nature.

The sentences might could infer to not have a friend of similar principles, but that interpretation reads-into the sentences things that the sentences do not appear to infer.

Ku's version is superior on two points... he used the English word 'change' which possesses the plausibility of being a semi-suitable synonym for 'gai', and Ku also chose 'not as yourself' as a synonym of 'similar'. Legge's choice of 'equal' is irrational on all points.

The sentence is difficult, yes — very, very difficult, especially if a person has first read Legge's translation — but again placing Zi's mental patterns upon the words, the sentences then make good sense... actually very good sense... extraordinarily uncommonly good sense unlike anything else that can be found in modern philosophy, modern academia, and modern science. The sentences point to a thing that is very obvious and simplistic to people who can observe their own minds and bodies, but apparently invisible to people who are not aware of themselves. Many individuals — like Legge — do not and cannot self-observe themselves, none possess a definition of any word, and so within the absence of knowing what words mean, the individuals' translations cannot have meaning also.

Zi — as was presented within the original Chinese books' many quotes — was not stupid. Translators ought to first accept the reality that if a quote is translated to infer a stupid thing, then the translation is almost assuredly itself in error. Common translations infer Zi to have been a very stupid man.


As a whole, and as a general rule of thumb, if an individual's own translation of a sentence closely matches Legge's, then it is reason enough to suspect that the individual has made a serious error.

Ku's translations are somewhat better than Legge's, but, nevertheless, Ku presented — on purpose — his translations within a conversational phrasing of commoner English, as well as of academically acceptable English grammar, which loses the heart and concepts of Zi's words. Very obvious is that Ku followed Legge's lead in how sentences were to be constructed, which again caused many of Ku's translations to suffer a loss of sensibility.

My occupational source of income for over thirty years was in the analyses and trouble-shooting of electrical, electro-mechanical, and electronic devices. It is habit, a learned way of approach, to first dig and find all logical faults without concern of popular opinion, and to then fix the faults down to the component and design level. I apply a similar approach to all that I read. For about three and a half years I studied one group of connected ideologies... I found all of the ideologies' words to be false, except one word. The one word could not be found to have fault. The manner of how the word was used, was wrong, but the word itself remains valid and not needing fixed. Zi's words — surprisingly and remarkably — are almost all very rational, and do not need fixing. Translations need fixing; not Zi's words.

In a nutshell, Legge's translations exhibited an absence of durational mental patterns, combined with imaginative story-telling. Ku's translations exhibited European culture-based mental patterns that followed very similar mistakes as Legge's. Both individuals were heavily and negatively influenced by academia, and both were absent of a firsthand understanding of the related topics.