The I Ching – The Translations On My Bookshelf

I’m not religious. I’m not even “spiritual” – which is a phrase I find some folks use as a cop-out – but I do occasionally consult the I Ching. The best “divination” tools tell you something you already know, but in language that’s impossible to ignore. Being who I am – a person who will never win a prize for self-perception – I often need clue-bats of that magnitude.

As a person who has long lived by the notion of If it’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing! I’ve accumulated a few translations of the I Ching over the years. For what it’s worth, here are my thoughts on them.

Wilhelm/Baynes – first published in 1924, this is considered by many to be the definitive English-language version, despite having come to English via German. I respect it as a classic, but it can be challenging for folks brand new to the I Ching, as the language can be dense and there’s not a whole lot of context provided. Honestly, I’d like to see a modern translation of Wilhelm’s text, to see if maybe things could “loosen up” a little and render it more accessible to beginners. But that’s a minor quibble. It’s definitely a must-have if you want to learn about the I Ching. Online version – beware the unaesthetic formatting!

The Taoist I Ching by Thomas Cleary. Cleary is often regarded as the 500lb gorilla of translating Chinese classics into English, and I agree with that sentiment. I’ve several Taoist texts translated by him and they’re all very accessible without sacrificing the formality and elegance of the original text (or so I imagine it to be, given I don’t read Chinese!). His translations include helpful introductions and – depending on the volume – useful bibliographies, also. I carry Shamabala’s pocket version of his text in my purse for emergency applications of the cluebat, although I agree with those folks who assert that that text is very sparse and so shouldn’t be the only translation on your shelf. But it can’t be beat for portability. Cleary has also collaborated on a version entitled The Buddhist I Ching but I’ve not read it, so I can’t comment on it.

James Legge. Published in the 1960s, this translation can be viewed as a bridge between Wilhelm and the translations of the late 20th century. I understand that his system of transliteration has since been rendered obsolete but I shamefacedly admit that I’m not sufficiently knowledgeable about Chinese for this to have much impact on me.  My major criticism of the edition has nothing to do with the content, but the formatting. Often, footnotes will take up three-quarters of the printed page, and can make reading a rather jarring experience, which is a shame because – simultaneous to being jarring – the footnotes are extremely helpful for understanding the lines of each hexagram. In general, I turn to this translation with the Baynes version in my other hand, as it can be very interesting to compare the two.

Alfred Huang. This one is a bit controversial and justifiably so. The full title is enough to raise hackles – The Complete I Ching by Taoist Master Alfred Huang. It’s hardly modest. More importantly, though, are doubts about the translation and Huang’s commentaries. Again, I’m not in a position to consult the original text and make my own decision but I must say that Huang does seem to be rather fanciful in his interpretations of the pinyin for each hexagram. I have read accusations that Huang, essentially, made up a lot of the historical context provided for each hexagram. It’s rather a shame, as – in many ways – this text is very accessible and one I would cheerfully recommend without reservation to a beginner if it wasn’t for those, um, reservations. This version is an enjoyable and a relatively easy read, but take it with a grain of salt.

The Ritsema / Eranos Foundation edition. I’ll be honest, this one intimidates me. Physically imposing at 800 pages and intellectually humbling, I still love this book despite how it tends to loom on my shelf. Honestly, the top review on the Amazon page summarizes my concerns for and love of the book quite well, so I shan’t repeat anything here. I must admit, I only turn to this one when I’ve got a lot of time, as it’s not a pick-up-put-down kind of book. The formatting is gorgeous, too, but I cannot emphasize enough how it is not a text for beginners.

The I Ching Workbook. Before anyone throws stones at me, I’d like to point out that the workbook aspect of it is extremely useful, especially when one is just starting out as I was when I bought it. There’s plenty of white space on the pages for scribbling of notes (which I’ve done, extensively) and the economical format – the version I bought was comb-bound – doesn’t make me feel like I’m committing a sin against books when I write on the pages. It’s one of the few versions that explains the notions of “rising” and “falling” trigrams and the use of “nuclear” trigrams in a straightforward way. Unfortunately, the text veers a little too far into “new age” for my liking, and the fact that the “translator” prefers to work under a pseudonym has me rather wary. It’s only a hunch on my part, but I suspect whoever put the text together worked from other English texts, not the original Chinese. This isn’t wrong, per se, but it’s a little vexing as I don’t know how many iterations the interpretations have been through. Despite that, I recommend it for beginners in conjunction with a more traditional translation.

Translation of the I Ching is extremely challenging – the translator has to tackle a 3,000 year old cultural perspective, as well as a language that makes grown linguists cry – and there have been not a few fierce disagreements over styles and methods of translation over the years. Maintaining a small library of texts helps me keep an open mind and stops me from foolishly clinging on to one version as the “correct” one.

Which one should you start with? I recommend picking up the Wilhelm/Baynes and the Cleary translations together. I got a lot of use from the workbook, but mostly by writing things in the nice wide margins gleaned from other translations – you might find it easier to just keep a plain pen-and-paper journal of your ideas and interpretations.

In my experience, one shouldn’t try to force understanding when reading the hexagrams. One of the reasons I like to refer to several translations during any single casting is to get a broad perspective on the hexagram and the transformations (if any). This, paradoxically, often helps me better understand the clue-bat that is waiting in the wings.

Do you have a favorite translation you’d like to recommend? Please do so!

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