Thursday, May 29, 2008

To Annotate, or not to Annotate

I’ve developed a new course in the fall that is meant to serve as an alternative ‘path’ for students at my college to fulfill their “values inquiry’ gen-ed requirement (ethics is a requirement for all students). The course is called Asian Ethics and allows students who are interested in Asian Studies (or just Asian-oriented themes) to opt-in to gen-ed courses more suited to their individual interests. My question here isn’t about the course itself, or even Asian Studies, but rather is about which translations I should use for the various Asian classics. And even here it’s not really about which translations read best (though I’d welcome suggestions there too). For me, it real thorny question is “to annotate, or not to annotate.”

Type the rest of your post here.

There are some very good annotated versions of the classics (we’re reading the Analects, Tao Te Ching, Dhammapada, and the Bhagavad Gita ) out there. Straight up let’s face it — these books are written in a difficult way that, say, Plato’s Republic is not. Call it “obliqueness” (to use Francois Jullien’s term) or the “indirect method” (to follow Kierkegaard), it’s all the same — interpreting these texts isn’t just a matter of learning to penetrate dense argumentation — it’s a matter of learning to creatively interact with a series of koan-like poetic aphorisms. Philosophy through poetry (highly ambiguous poetry at that) is enough to drive the Western student totally nuts.

Using annotated texts that provide “running commentary” through the text can, of course, help. Slingerland’s annotated translation of the Analects is a notable example, and perhaps Ames’ new annotated translation of the Tao Te Ching is another. Annotations certain “take the edge off” for the student, providing a life preserver when the student feels most lost in the text. So the question is: should we, as instructors, use them? Take Slingerland — I have his copy of the Analects, I’ve learned quite a bit from it and find it helpful (his notes on the history of commentary on given passages are very useful). But I bought the book years after trying to figure out the content of the Analects on my own, without the help of any outside commentary. So basically, when I came to Slingerland’s text I already had an interpretation of my own to work with, and the confidence to resist specific readings that he advanced for certain passages.

If Slingerland had been my first text of the Analects (it was Lau, actually), this may not have happened. My way of interacting with the text may have been seriously altered — it would have been tempting to read such a difficult book with a “Spark Notes” sitting right there, tempting you to read it and provide “easy answers” (and you know students will reach for those). I would have likely been pulled into the world of the translator, taking his/her interpretation as the gold standard for the text. As a result, the hard (but necessary) work of putting together passages and trying out interpretations may not have happened and I may well have failed to interact with the book in the way it is supposed to be encountered. Perhaps starting with an annotated text would have made the encounter passive, where it is supposed to be active.

Yet, at the same time, I’ll say it again. These texts are hard for students, and I understand that. Sometimes I wonder whether using annotated translations is the right way to go, to allow the student at least a life-preserver when they feel really lost in the text. It’s risky, though, for the reason I outlined above. So what should an instructor do?

Are there any opinions out there? Should students be forced to “tough it out” through non-annotated translations? Or should we use annotated versions to help them along?


  1. Speaking as a student currently studying (an annotated edition of) Plato's Republic, I think the right balance to strike is to set an annotated text but make it clear, forcefully and early on, that there are good reasons to be suspicious of the sometimes over-interpretative translation and annotations. There's loads of scope for creative engagement with the annotations, holding them to be the orthodoxy that needs to be constantly fought, and fought by means of engaging with the text more directly. My best teachers do that all the time -- assign a text, an interpretative essay, and ask leading questions involving either defending or refuting particular claims in the secondary literature, teaching a healthy skepticism about the secondary literature from the very start, keeping our direct encounters with the text central to our study of it.

  2. I would go with the annotation: just about anything that will help students feel like they can actually comprehend what they are reading and then engage it is welcome.

    I'm reminded of this from Jonathan Bennett, from his most excellent Early Modern Texts project; his points seem relevant here:

    "An average student, when required to read a stylistically difficult text, will either (1) confess defeat, or (2) glide along the surface of the text, getting a vague sense of having understood it. The greater disaster is (2). When so much in our world and indeed in our educational practices seduces people away from close and precise attention to the written word, it would be a sorry thing if this seduction were furthered by philosophy, which ought to be its most implacable enemy.

    For further discussion of these matters, see my “On Translating Locke, Berkeley and Hume into English”, Teaching Philosophy 17 (1994), pp. 261-9"

  3. I taught Confucius last spring using Slingerland's smaller The Essential Analects, which might strike a nice balance here. There are annotations, but they're all in the back of the book, not interspersed with the text itself. He's also pared down the number of passages in each book, leaving students less work to do.

    I found that my students were surprisingly happy to offer multiple interpretations of passages, and many disagreed with Slingerland. (Having them write down their interpretations in class before sharing them made people more likely to voice disagreeements with one another.)

    You might also bring Lau's translation to class with you, referring frequently to alternate translations that conflict with Slingerland's interpretation. That might keep them on their toes.

    One more idea: Before they do any reading, spend a day discussing five to ten really important passages in class. Get them to see how to think about these things, and get them to begin forming their own interpretations. Then send them to an annotated text.

    Be sure to report back in the fall about how this goes!

  4. Why not make sure they have access to more than one translation and set of annotations? When a student sees that even experts disagree, they know that no expert is infallible, and might be inspired to participate in the debate.

  5. Hello everyone,

    Thanks for the helpful comments. I've decided -- with some reluctance, admittedly -- to go with annotations for the Dhammapada and Tao Te Ching. So we'll see how that goes.

    Ben and Nathan (through Bennett) raise the problem that a non-annotated text might overwhelm the student (or, as Ben notes, might make the student feel woefully unprepared to interpret) and lead to "gliding" over the text and reading superficially.

    I think this is no doubt true for some students. My worry, however, is a bit different. I worry not about students feeling overwhelmed or unskilled, but rather about students thinking that passive engagements with texts is appropriate. After all, that's what they are used to. So my concern about annotations is that is "packages" the information yet again, and leads them to further buy into that passive orientation.

  6. David,

    I've had very similar experiences with the Analects. I've actually taught this in gen ed courses before (the whole book), and I teach an upper divisional course just on Confucius. I've actually come up with a few "best practices" for getting students to engage with the Analects that I'd like -- one of these days -- to whip up into an article for a teaching journal. Maybe I'll try to come up with a post on this at some point.

    On Slingerland, by the way, what book is this? My Slingerland edition has all the annotations directly underneath each analect (I use Rosemont and Ames, by the way, in class).

  7. Chris,

    Slingerland has two editions of the Analects out through Hackett. Analects (2003) contains the full text, with annotations under each passage. In The Essential Analects (2006), Slingerland gives only a "representative selection of passages" from each book and moves all of the annotations to the back.

    I hope you do get a chance to write a post or article on best practices for teaching the Analects. I'd like to see it.


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