Columbia University Press is publishing a complete translation of the Huainanzi, a Han-dynasty compendium of philosophy and statecraft which has been of great interest to scholars for many years but is only now receiving a full English translation
We are lucky enough to have John Major, one of the translators here for a guest post on the process of translation and also to answer a few questions.
In March of this year Columbia University Press published The Huainanzi: A Guide to the Theory and Practice of Government in Early Han China, a translation of a classic work of early Chinese philosophy written under the general editorship of Liu An, King of Huainan, and presented to the Han imperial throne in 139 BCE. My colleagues and I in the translation team hope and expect that this first-ever translation of The Huainanzi into English will make an important contribution to the study of Chinese intellectual history by opening a fascinating window into currents of thought in the early Han dynasty.
The process of translating this massive and challenging work may be of interest.
In about 1994 I mentioned to my friend Hal Roth (Harold D. Roth, Brown University) that I was thinking of doing a full Huainanzi translation, and he replied that he was thinking of doing the same. So we decided to join forces; that’s how the project got started. Both of us had already devoted large amounts of our professional attention to the Huainanzi. We believed that it was under-appreciated in the field of early China studies; everyone in the field knew of Liu An’s great work and perhaps consulted it for comparative purposes when working on other texts, but few people at that time had made The Huainanzi the focus of their research. It was the last really major work of Chinese philosophy from the early imperial period that still lacked a complete English translation. (A Paris-based group beat us to the distinction of publishing the first Western-language translation; their French translation was published in 2002.)
We landed a Chiang Ching-kuo fellowship to begin the work in 1996-98. Jay Sailey, an independent scholar who also had a longstanding interest in The Huainanzi was initially part of the project but later dropped out; a few years into the project two additional participants came on board. The final team consisted of John Major, Sarah Queen (Connecticut College), Andrew Meyer (Brooklyn College) and Hal Roth. Michael Puett (Harvard) participated in the translation of chapter 13, and Judson Murray (Wright State U.) participated in the translation of chapter 21. But the core team was the four of us.
The project took so long — about fifteen years — partly because the text is quite large (the published translation runs to just over 1000 pages) and also quite difficult (it is in standard Classical Chinese but there are many textual issues to deal with and some of the language and the technical terminology is far from transparent). Also all of the participants had other ongoing obligations; it was never possible for everyone on the team to work on the project full-time, all the time. The last three years or so were very intense and we all basically put aside as much as possible of our other research and writing to concentrate on the Huainanzi, but even so, there were courses to prepare and teach, administrative work to be done, other research and writing commitments to honor, and so on. But we were determined to work as a team rather than simply dividing up and parceling out the work (as the French group had done); we were convinced that approaching the text in a truly collaborative fashion was the key to making the translation as accurate and graceful as possible. The procedure that we adopted was complicated. We began by dividing up responsibility for doing first-draft translations of all of the 21 chapters. Then each draft was read and critiqued by all other members of the team, revised, read and critiqued again, and further revised. The aim was to make the final versions as complete, accurate, and seamless as possible, no matter who did the initial draft. From 1998 to 2009 we met for four or five very hard-working weekends per year at Brown to hash out difficult passages and discuss, for example, uniform ways of translating important terms. The last stage of translation consisted of reading the entire work aloud — taking turns, one person would read while the other three followed along in the classical Chinese text, looking for errors. That took many, many hours, but it proved to be extremely worthwhile.
Manuscript preparation itself was a big job that took about two years: peer review, revision; copy-editing, more revision; page proofs, corrections; appendices, index, etc. It was a huge undertaking just in the physical sense; the final typescript ran to over 1600 double-spaced pages.
Working as a team was really essential to the project; it was a much more complicated way of doing the task than a solo effort might have been, but the result is much better than any of us could have done alone. Intensive, long-term collaborative work is quite common in the natural sciences but relatively rare in other fields; I think that the success of this project demonstrates the merits of such close collaboration in the humanities despite its complexity and the hard work required to implement it.
The Huainanzi is full of fascinating material, and the effort of translating it was more than repaid by the intellectual challenge of doing the work and the satisfaction of having it turn out well. And we are delighted with the actual published volume, which was extremely handsomely produced by Columbia University Press. It is gratifying that the first printing sold out within three months, and the book is already in its second printing. It is very satisfying to have this work finally out in the world.
John S. Major