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.”
There are some very good annotated versions of the classics (we’re reading the Analects, Tao Te Ching, Dhammapada, and the Bhavagad 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?