On Reading-Part VI: Beyond the West
The Indians and Chinese were creating great literature long before English became a language. We tend to focus on English first and then European classics. We tend to forget there is exemplarily literature in the great cultures of the East. At one time this was because the cultures were alien and the languages unfamiliar but with wide-spread translation, immigration and air travel this should no longer be an excuse.
The Mahabharata, the great Indian epic of over 200,000 lines of verse might just be the greatest book ever written. While the original is probably overwhelming for even the most dedicated readers there are many excellent and enjoyable abridgments in English (or just about any other language). Other great works of Indian literature that we should all read include the other great epic Ramayana, and the many great collections of Indian stories.
Chinese poetry is one of the most subtle and complex inventions of the human mind. It benefits from the peculiarities of the Chinese written language and a culture that is rich in allusion, ritual and implied meaning. Absolutely none of this is conveyed in translation. In English these multifaceted gems often come across as vague, obscure and pedestrian. Chinese prose on the other hand is largely unhindered by these problems. Much of the richness, beauty and humor come across well in translation. The Analects of Confucius is an exception. However, Chichung Huang has put together an excellent translation with notes to each saying that help a western reader navigate and understand what in previous editions came across as odd or obscure.
Guanzhong’s Romance of the Three Kingdoms
Wu Cheng’en’s Journey to the West
Shi Naian’s Outlaws of the Marsh
Cao Xueqin’s Dream of the Red Chamber
Analects of Confucius (translation and notes by Chichung Huang, Oxford, 1997)
Murasaki Shikibu’s Tale of Genji
Kim Man-Jung’s Dream of Nine Clouds
HoKyun’s Hong Kiltong
Hyegyong’s A Record of Sorrowful Days