Doric Orientalism: James Legge's Translation of the Shi Jin, or Book of Poetry

By Lu, Peih-ying; Corbett, John | Scottish Cultural Review of Language and Literature, January 1, 2013 | Go to article overview

Doric Orientalism: James Legge's Translation of the Shi Jin, or Book of Poetry


Lu, Peih-ying, Corbett, John, Scottish Cultural Review of Language and Literature


The Scottish missionary, James Legge (1815-1897), was a pioneering translator of classical Chinese texts. His translations of the earliest extant book of Chinese poetry, the Shi Jing or She King, include versions in his native Scots. This chapter considers Legge's metrical translations, focusing on the strategies used in the Scots translations. Keywords: James Legge, translation studies, Chinese poetry, translation into Scots.

Among Derrick McClure's many valuable contributions to Scottish linguistic and literary studies is the sustained attention he has paid to translation; latterly he has also turned from scholar to practitioner, for example rendering poetry from Gaelic, medieval Italian and Provençal into Scots. Here we pay tribute to his scholarship and talents by considering the relatively neglected work of an earlier scholartranslator, James Legge (1815-1897).

While James Legge is a kenspeckle figure in the field of oriental studies, and his work was an acknowledged influence on Ezra Pound (e.g. Xie 1999; Qian 2003; 2008), his achievements have only begun to impinge upon the field of Scottish literary studies. Girardot (2002) and Pfister (2003) offer fulsome biographical accounts of Legge's time as a missionary in Malacca and Hong Kong, when he pioneered the translation of ancient Chinese philosophy and literature into English, and his later career as the first Professor of Chinese at Oxford University, where he worked alongside Max Müller to establish comparative religion and philology as academic disciplines. The literary impact of his orientalism is discussed by Fry (2012), and Crawford (2007: 504-5) notes fleetingly that several of his collaborations in translating Chinese poetry into verse utilised the medium of Latin and North-East (or "Doric") Scots. While his biographers tend to be dismissive of Legge's literary endeavours, the Pound scholars neglect his Scots translations, and critics like Crawford and Fry mention him only briefly, this chapter takes a closer look at Legge's translations from Chinese, in both English and Scots, to argue that they offer key insights into his intercultural engagement with the literatures of China and Scotland, and that, albeit indirectly, they had a wider impact on literary modernism.

A passion for translation binds together the different stages of Legge's life and career. An early interest in and aptitude for the ancient languages is recorded in Girardot's biography. At the age of fifteen, when he was studying for an Aberdeen University bursary, and also recuperating from an accident, Legge passed his time by translating English versions of George Buchanan's Rerum Scoticarum Historia and the Hebrew Psalms into Latin, and then comparing his Latin with Buchanan's (Girardot 2002: 26). Not surprisingly, he was awarded the bursary. On graduating, Legge spent some time teaching mathematics in Blackburn, before studying for the Congregationalist ministry at Highbury Theological College. He then joined the London Missionary Society, and began his study of Chinese in preparation for what would turn out to be a thirty-five year stint as a missionary, educator and translator in Malacca and then Hong Kong. During this time, to the consternation of the Missionary Society that funded him, Legge became increasingly involved in the translation of ancient Chinese texts, and in particular the Analects, the supposed records of the writings and discussions of Confucius and his followers. Legge's enterprise had a missionary purpose in that he firmly believed that to convert the heathen it was necessary to understand their traditions; the London Missionary Society was more anxious about Legge's assiduous opening up of Confucian tradition to Western readers, suspicious that contact with Chinese religion might lose Christians to heathendom rather than vice versa. Legge finally retired from the Missionary Society in 1874, spending two years of semi-retirement in Dollar in Clackmannanshire, before becoming the first non-conformist professor at an Oxford University college. …

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