Notes on Translations of Ancient Literature

[related writings: What is Worth Reading?, Notes on Translations of Ancient Literature, Lessons in Research of a Past Time, The Kinds of Literature and the Extraction of Ideas]

Two recent posts have been about finding a good, if not the best translation and/or publication of ancient literature: Dao De Jing (道德經) and Zhuangzi (莊子) and Plutarch’s Lives. I took the notes and the lesson from those posts and placed them here.

notes on publishers

  1. Penguin [Classics]
    • good, simple book format (which is becomes more important when reading digitally): intro, then straight to content
    • most often has (/ probably can afford and copyright) the best translation
    • for prolific authors they to divide works by several books often with different translators, which would make word choices inconsistent, and reading a bit more cumbersome (again, doubly important for digital reading)
  2. Oxford [World’s Classics]
    • similar [to Penguin], but in the case of Plutarch’s Lives, failed by excluding content


  1. none
    • if one doesn’t like the Penguin edition, then some other random publisher may have a better publication (physical format, digital format, extra content) or translation (Hackett, Basic Books, Yale, Cambridge, etc.)
    • if one wants complete works, again, some other random publisher may have it (ex. Modern Library for Aristotle and Plutarch’s Lives, Hackett for Plato, Landmark for Ancient Greece historians, etc.)
      *. Delphi Classics eBook
      – made for digital! Translator is probably limited to those that are available for free, which could be crusty.
      x. Harvard [Loeb Classical Library]
    • avoid, billingual Greek and very literally translated English, made for anal academicians. Perhaps for ease of secondary translators?


  1. none – probably some random native translator who is capable of thinking like an ancient native person, such as Yutang Lin and Wing-tsit Chan for ancient Chinese philosophy
    • A Source Book in Indian Philosophy by Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, Charles A. Moore (Princeton)
    • A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy by Wing-tsit Chan (Rongjie Chen) (Princeton)
      – published after helping Watson with Sources of Chinese Tradition (Columbia)
    • The Wisdom of China [and India] by Yutang Lin (Random House, Modern Libary, picked it up)
      – he wrote a history of Chinese philosophy and even translates the Chinese sources, which I thought were the best translations of Laozi and Zhuangzi. For the India portion, I believe he writes the history, but selects translations of sources.
    • Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy by Ivanhoe and Norden (Hackett)
      0.5 Columbia (Watson, Mair)
    • seems like a niche monopoly here. Better than Penguin and Oxford for Laozi, and maybe Zhuangzi too (doesn’t this show how insular and analytic (read: anal) Harvard and Oxford are? And on lesser level, how insular even Columbia is for not having more, smaller societies?)! Also has anthologies and “source books” for literature and everything else respectively, which basically cover the entirety of a civilization’s past:
    • Introduction to Asian Civilizations series: Titles beginning with “Sourcebook” are comprehensive, “Encompassing social, intellectual, religious, and literary traditions”; Titles with “Sources” is an ”abridged introductory collection [that] offers students and general readers primary readings in the social, intellectual, and religious traditions”. So, it seems that they are composed of social, intellectual, and religious histories. That’s a huge feat. That makes this series, as far as the East goes, the most valuable source that I have found thus far.
      Sourcebook of Korean Civilization: Volume One: From Early Times to the 16th Century by Peter H. Lee
      Sources of Korean Tradition: Volume One: From Early Times Through the 16th Century by Peter H. Lee, Yôngho Ch’oe, Hugh H. W. Kang
    • Victor A. Mair is the editor of The Columbia History of Chinese Literature, The Shorter Columbia Anthology of Traditional Chinese Literature _, _Columbia Anthology of Chinese Folk and Popular Literature, and a translator of at least Laozi, Zhuangzi, and Xunzi.
    • Burton Watson is the translator of a ton of things all over East Asia (Hanfeizi, Xunzi, Mozi), and often a editor of the anthologies by Columbia, including one for Chinese poetry, The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry: From Early Times to the Thirteenth Century, and one for Japanese poetry, From the Country of Eight Islands: An Anthology of Japanese Poetry.
      *. Shambhala
    • I ran into this publication for Laozi (3 good translations) and Zhuangzi, quite modern and good

a recent lesson

**The Oxford and Harvard editions are _"scholarly"_, which for us mortals translates to _less accessible_, which opposes one of the tenets of art, making them detrimental to life. Leave those insular schools and their [publishing] presses to their insular selves. For the future: simply get the Penguin edition, if not, jump into a crusty old translation, more convenient if it's within a [reader or sourcebook](, if not, _do something else_.** Rahil, [Translations of Plutarch's Lives](

– a forum thread about the best translations of Ancient Greece classics