The new year begins, and one resolves to read the pile of academic journals that have accumulated under the socks and wine bottles in the corner. Yes, I know, faithful LI readers – where to start? Slavic Studies? The Psychoanalytic Journal of Society and Culture? American Studies?

Well, we recommend that you fling off the footware and testimony of bibulous nights from your winter copy of Journal of Religion, for there’s an article about one of those obscure figures we have all read and not read – the sad fate, that self-annullation, of the translator. The translator in question is James Legge. Anyone who has read any of the “Oriental Classics,” picked up an anthology of Confucian texts, or pondered the Tao Te Ching in a cheap and older paperback has read Legge. He was one of the indefatiguable Victorian era translators, like Max Muller. Yet what do we know about the man?

An article by D.E. Mungello entitled A Confucian voice crying in the Victorian wilderness *. Norman J. Girardot, The Victorian Translation of China: James Legge's Oriental Pilgrimage renders a portrait through a review of the recent book by Legge’s defender, Girardot.

What does Legge need to be defended from? Mungello puts the two sides of Legge’s unscholarly reputation pretty well:

“For a century after his death in 1897, Legge remained to most people an obscure Victorian anachronism. He was criticized from several sides. On the one hand, fellow Christian missionaries attacked him for his claim that the Chinese had recognized God in their ancient texts. They were appalled by his willingness to translate the ancient term Shangdi (Lord Above) as "God," which most of them regarded as blasphemous. They were even more appalled when he removed his shoes at the Altar of Heaven in Beijing in 1873 because he felt he was on "holy ground" (p. 87). On the other hand, professional sinologists criticized him for reading too much religious significance into Confucian and Daoist texts, which they preferred to interpret in more agnostic and secular terms. While Legge's translations were regarded as significant achievements, he was regarded essentially as a translator, without substantive intellectual breadth or depth. Those negative judgements diminished Legge's reputation for a century after his death. Now they have been revised in a carefully researched work by Norman J. Girardot. This revised assessment is not just about Legge, but even more about a fundamental reassessment of the importance of religion in Chinese philosophical teachings, particularly Confucianism and Daoism.”

Legge’s problem is, in a microcosm, the problem of the Victorian age – one in which the dominant intellectual current was a seemingly incompatible mixture of positivism and religion.

Legge was raised in a pious Scottish household – one of those where, as Legge puts it, "the voice of Moses was allowed ... too often to overpower the voice of Christ.” This, of course, is a typical Victorian dichotomy – a way of transforming Christ into a sentimental figure out of Dickens, good with children and stern about industrial accidents, but otherwise comfortable taking tea with Gladstone.

Legge became a missionary, and he developed a fascination with China. Alas, according to Girardot, “He was a good Latinist but lacked a musical ear, and this frustrated his desire "to speak and write as a Chinaman" (p. 34). Consequently, the master translator of ancient Chinese texts never mastered the tonal variations in the various Chinese colloquial dialects and could speak in only halting fashion with contemporary Chinese.” Legge was the opposite of a swashbuckling translator like Burton, of Arabian Nights fame, who viewed the mastery of languages as a sort of athletic achievement, with himself the decathlon champ. Nevertheless, Legge hied for Hong Kong soon after the British stole it. His first wife was made of too thin a material to endure the Far East, and like many a Victorian colonizer, Legge was soon left a widow. However, on a trip back to Britain he found himself a more durable mate. Apparently, as the minister of the Union Church, Legge advanced in Hong Kong society.

Legge wasn’t, however, the most successful of missionaries. Girardot tells the story of three Chinese boys that Legge took back to England with him as exhibits of the work of the English Christ in the Far East. They were seen by the queen, but on their return to Hong Kong, they quietly departed from Christian doctrine, and one of them even became a crook.

Legge’s translations would never have had the circulation they have had without Max Muller. The grafs about Muller are, to LI, fascinating. We have always enjoyed the dark brown volumes of the Sacred Books of the East. LI’s first acquaintance with Buddhism and Daoism was made when we were knee high to a post-structuralist, in the Decatur, Georgia public library. We stumbled across some of those volumes, checked them out, and found them absolutely puzzling. They were heavy with notes and Chinese writing. Every once in a while something like Biblical grandeur would glimmer out of a sentence or two. But obviously, we were in a very different world than the one projected by the Clarkston Georgia Baptist Church. At the same time, uhbeknownst to us, hippies around the world were getting turned on to the I Ching, which Legge translated -- although his translation was soon supplanted. Still, it must have puzzled his ghost.

Here are the grafs about Muller:

“One of the more fascinating subtopics of Girardot's work is his treatment of Legge's professional association with Max Muller (1823-1900), whose Sacred Books of the East Series (1879-1910) established the academic discipline of comparative religion. This was an age characterized by massive literary projects. The Sacred Books of the East project was one of several large team efforts of scholarship (including Benjamin Jowett's multivolume edition of the Greek classics and the Oxford English Dictionary) involving the Oxford University Press. Several large commercial publishing projects had been undertaken at that time, including the Encyclopedia Britannica and Leslie Stephen's Dictionary of National Biography, which appeared in sixty-three volumes in the years 1885-1900. But whereas these more commercial projects were very profitable, the Oxford University Press projects were published with great uncertainty about whether they would recoup publication costs. Hence, it was essential that a project like the Sacred Books of the East had a prominent scholar like Muller who could convince the press that the noble motive of advancing learning justified the financial risk. The series eventually produced fifty volumes in the years 1878-1910, and Legge's contributions were among the most significant. Moreover, the series generated a small profit for the press.
Girardot is fascinated by the contrasting lives of Muller and Legge. Whereas Legge was the quiet, misunderstood, and underrated missionary-scholar who lived an austere life, Muller was one of the academic stars of his age, constantly in the limelight and a welt-connected "prolific academic entrepreneur" (p. 2). Friedrich Maximilian Muller was born in Dessau the son of a German poet, published a work on Sanskrit fables at the precocious age of twenty-one, studied at Paris, and arrived in England in 1846 to edit Sanskrit manuscripts preserved in London and at the Bodleian Library in Oxford. Unlike Legge, Muller cultivated an active social life in England, mixing with literary figures, meeting politicians, and visiting Buckingham Palace. He married the socially prominent Georgina Grenfell.”

If, like LI, you find this kind of information inexplicably fascinating, read the article.

PS: For a truly bizarre view of Girardot's book, go to this First Things review. The victorian world view is not as superannuated as one would like to think. Alas.