Wen Huang and Dagny Dukach

When it comes to translations of ancient masterpieces, the late David Grene, who had taught classics at the University of Chicago for 63 years, noted: “Most translations must be made anew in each generation. As the words of the translator’s language live on and change, those he has employed in his translations express less adequately or misleadingly the idea of the original.”

Grene’s fresh translations of Greek tragedies are classics in their own right. Generations read about the masterpieces of Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles through The Complete Greek Tragedies (1960, University of Chicago Press), which sold more than three million copies. The New York Times called Grene, who co-edited and co-translated the stories into English, “one of those [translators] who have made the classics live for this generation.”

“Grene’s translations had an enduring influence on students who were studying classics and people outside the world of scholarship,” says Wendy Doniger, the Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions in the Divinity School and a renowned Sanskrit translator.

She says Grene inspired a new school of translators at UChicago, who have taken up the challenges of retranslating ancient classics since the 1970s. Three UChicago scholars—Doniger, Prof. Anthony Yu, and Prof. David Tod Roy—spent decades rigorously researching and reinterpreting ancient Indian and Chinese masterpieces. Their exemplary works have set the standard in the field of literary translation, reviving interest in ancient classics that had become taboo, due to censorship or public misperception.

“Translation is the basis of all other scholarship,” says Doniger. “The very first thing you do when you study another culture is to learn the language and learn to translate the most important works in it. Translation opens up the world to the beauties of these cultures that they have.”

Wendy Doniger and Kamasutra

Wendy Doniger can still remember the moment when she decided to translate the Kamasutra, an ancient literary masterpiece in Sanskrit, which has, over the centuries, acquired the reputation of a “sex bible.”

In the late 1990s, Doniger taught a Sanskrit course at UChicago that required the reading of  Kamasutra, composed by the Hindu author Vātsyāyana around the third-century A.D. The class chose the most widely known 1883 translation by Sir Richard Francis Burton.

One day, a student’s question about the precise meaning of a sentence in  Kamasutra prompted Doniger to check the translation against its original Sanskrit text. To her surprise, the original line meant something completely different.

“I hadn’t studied the book in Sanskrit and just stupidly assumed that the Burton version was the one that everyone used and it had to be accurate,” says Doniger. She examined more passages and discovered that the Burton version, popular among English readers for a century and half, was riddled with errors and inaccuracies.

Sir Richard Francis Burton
Sir Richard Francis Burton Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Moreover, Doniger says Burton’s translation obscured the book’s contemporary attitude toward relations between men and women, men and men, as well as women and women.

For example, in the original version, the discussion of adultery takes the rather egalitarian view that a woman who does not experience the pleasure of love may leave for another man—posing a stark contrast to the traditional patriarchal line that one finds in most Sanskrit texts. Kamasutra's relatively equitable views, which were revolutionary in the 19th-century England, are not present in Burton’s translation.

In another passage, Doniger says Vâtsyâyana presented in his Sanskrit text a non-judgmental description of a sexual act between two men, one of whom was a closeted homosexual. However, in the Burton edition, the homosexual man has become, either inadvertently or intentionally, a “eunuch.”

Kamasutra cover
In her translation, Prof. Wendy Doniger sought to refute the notion that the Kamasutra was 'a dirty book,' claiming 'the book is about the art of living, about the whole eroticized world of pleasure.' Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

“By mistranslating the word, Burton kept the English reading public from knowing that Kamasutra contains one of the earliest passages in the world that showed a tolerant attitude toward a closeted homosexual. It was quite stunning,” adds Doniger.

The numerous errors and inaccuracies made Doniger realize that “the world needs a new translation of Kamasutra.”

Doniger hoped that her new translation and research would help dispel the misperception of Kamasutra as “a dirty book” solely about the positions of the sexual act.

“In fact, only 1 percent of the whole text involves sexual positions,” she explains. “Kama means ‘love, pleasure, sex,’ while sutra means ‘a treatise, or a scientific work.’ So, the book is about the art of living, about the whole eroticized world of pleasure. It’s about food and soft moonlight and good music and flowers strewn all over the bedroom. It’s about the whole web of interpersonal relationships, which has an erotic basis—how you meet someone you’re going to marry, how you deal with a married woman or a married man, and so forth.”

Doniger, who began translating Sanskrit at the age of 17 when she was still a student at Radcliffe College, already had translated, to much acclaim, several ancient classics in Sanskrit, including Hindu Myths: A Sourcebook, The Rig Veda and The Laws of Manu, before devoting several summers to the retranslation of Kamasutra.

To help readers fully appreciate and understand the book, Doniger says a translator has to provide proper social context, bringing readers into ancient India. “You can’t just have the text itself,” she explains. “You have to reconstruct a world around that text. You need to read up on the history of the text and the commentaries. You have to back up on the text to show when it was written, what certain words meant then and what the particular customs were, through footnotes and a comprehensive introduction.”

For her introduction, Doniger collaborated with Sudhir Kakar, a well-known Indian author and psychoanalyst, who translated modern Hindi commentaries on Kamasutra, in order to incorporate contemporary Indian scholarly research into the new version.

UChicago Prof. Wendy Doniger
Prof. Wendy Doniger in her UChicago office Photo by Tom Rossiter

Her translation and advocacy  also has revived interest in India, where Doniger says there has not been much scholarship on the book because it is still considered a taboo subject. “The Kamasutra is important because in Indian poetry, the love of god was often depicted in the same intense metaphorical terms as sex.”

Doniger’s translation, released in 2002 by the Oxford University Press, proved to be a success, with The New York Times calling her interpretation “a radically different view of the famous sex manual.”

Doniger, who has made translation an important part of her scholarly pursuit at UChicago, says different translations serve different purposes. “You don’t get it right the first time, and people will keep translating,” she adds.

David Tod Roy and The Plum in the Golden Vase

In September 2013, the Princeton University Press published volume five of Chin P’ing Mei or The Plum in the Golden Vase, the final segment of Prof. David Roy’s translation of one of China’s most well-known erotic novels. The release marked the completion of a 30-year endeavor to reintroduce to Western readers a Chinese classic he had discovered more than 60 years before.

Roy, professor emeritus in East Asian Languages and Civilizations, was born and raised in China’s eastern city of Nanjing, where his parents were American missionaries.

In 1950, the 16-year-old came across a copy of an unabridged Chinese edition of The Plum in the Golden Vase at a used bookstore in Nanjing. Written anonymously in the 16th century, the book is considered a literary masterpiece, but the unexpurgated version has been banned throughout the centuries as a pornographic book for its raunchy depictions of a merchant’s various sexual practices with his six wives and concubines.

“At that time, I was very turned on by reading something pornographic,” Roy recalls.

The Plum in the Golden Vase

He took lessons from a Chinese scholar and excelled at what many Westerners considered the most challenging part of learning Chinese—the written script.

As he plodded through the book, he “soon found it fascinating in other ways as well.”

The Plum in the Golden Vase was a far more sophisticated work of literature than had been recognized by most people,” he said at a UChicago faculty gathering in 2009. “The rich details about daily Chinese life at the time made it an invaluable work for students of Chinese society.”

In 1967, Roy moved to UChicago, where he was given the opportunity to teach a graduate seminar on a topic of his choice. He picked The Plum in the Golden Vase, which he had studied and taught at Princeton—but only one Divinity School graduate student signed up.

“And it was interesting, because he was a missionary kid like myself,” Roy says. “So here we were, studying the most notorious work of pornography in Chinese literature.”

Roy ran the seminar for two years, and he says teaching the book in Chinese deepened his understanding. “Every time I taught this book, I became more convinced of its importance and impressed by its rhetorical sophistication,” he says. “What inspired me to undertake a translation of The Plum in the Golden Vase was that I felt it was really an experimental work, virtually without precedent; the book is highly structured, and employs extraordinarily complex rhetorical devices of the kind one normally finds in Western fiction or the works of James Joyce and Vladimir Nabokov.”

In those days, two English translations of The Plum in the Golden Vase were available: an edition penned by Clement Egerton in 1939 under the title The Golden Lotus and an abridged version retranslated from the German by Bernard Miall in 1947. In the Egerton version, the more explicit sexual descriptions were rendered in Latin; many quotations from earlier Chinese poetry and prose were omitted.

“Prior to World War II, many translators of Chinese fiction tried to make their translations read as much like Western fiction as possible,” says Roy. “So they would skip or cut or modify the particular rhetorical devices that made the original so fascinating to me.”

Roy started the translation in 1982 at the age of 48 and the work consumed many of his summers. The first volume was released in 1993, and the next was finished eight years later. At the age of 65, he took early retirement, which enabled him to complete the remaining texts before ALS struck him in 2012.

The book has nearly 3,000 pages involving more than 800 named characters. Roy has added 4,400-plus endnotes to explain the thousands of uncited pop-culture and literary references in the original novel. More importantly, he cited and translated some 900 passages of poetry and parallel prose descriptions in his book.

UChicago Prof. David Tod Roy
In an interview, Prof. David Tod Roy said he spent nearly two years and nearly 10,000 index cards indexing each line of poetry, parallel prose and proverbial sayings in 'The Plum in the Golden Vase.'


While translating a scene in chapter 29 involving fortune-telling, Roy says he spent two years reading traditional Chinese fortune-telling manuals and trying to master the system.

When asked by Tableau magazine what it felt like to have finally finished this masterpiece, Roy replied, “It felt great, mainly because I could thumb my nose at the people who said I would never finish.”

In the New York Review of Books, Jonathan Spence, an eminent historian of Chinese history and professor emeritus at Yale University, said that Roy “annotated the text with a precision, thoroughness and passion for detail that makes even a veteran reader of monographs smile with a kind of quiet disbelief.”

Yihong Zhang, who translated some of Roy’s notes into Chinese as part of his doctoral dissertation at Beijing Foreign Studies University, told The New York Times: “It’s not just a translation, it’s also a reference book. It opens a window onto Chinese literature and culture.”

Anthony Yu and Journey to the West

Anthony Yu, the Carl Darling Buck Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in the Humanities and the Divinity School, became acquainted with Journey to the West, a renowned 16th-century Chinese novel, when he and his family were fleeing to mainland China after Japan had occupied his native city of Hong Kong in 1941.

To shield and distract him from the horrors of war, his grandfather would entertain the 3-year-old Yu with stories about Monkey or Piggie, popular characters in Journey to the West.

“Pretty soon, I was crazy about the stories, and would badger my grandpa all the time, whether we would be in air-raid shelters or fleeing from some terrible dangers,” recalls Yu. “At the same time, he started buying comic book versions of the novel to help me learn Chinese characters through the illustrations.”

Widely known to the English world as Monkey, the book is considered one of the four great classic novels in Chinese literature. It tells the story of the pilgrimage of a learned monk and his three supernatural disciples—a monkey, a pig, and a river demon—to fetch Buddhist scriptures from India. Over the course of the adventure, the group fights demons and overcomes various obstacles while traveling across China.

By the end of World War II, Yu had read the book in its entirety. “I didn’t know, however, what kind of prospect the book would bring,” he jokes.

Journey to The West art

Yu, who attended the Fuller Theological Seminary and obtained his PhD at the University of Chicago, focused his training on European languages and Western religious and literary traditions. But he was well-versed in Chinese classics because of his passion for Journey to the West and other Chinese ancient works.

While teaching at UChicago’s Divinity School in the late 1960s, Yu met former dean Joseph Mitsuo Kitagawa, who happened to be a fan of Journey to the West. Kitagawa strongly encouraged Yu to expand his academic focus to include not only Western religion and literature, but Chinese classics as well.

H.G. Creel, who headed UChicago’s Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations, was so impressed with Yu’s masterful command of Journey to the West that he invited Yu to take up a post in his department. “Creel’s appointment provided me with the best contacts and resources I needed to teach and study Chinese classics,” Yu says.

While perusing the different Chinese and English editions of Journey to the West, Yu realized that “although it was such a literary masterpiece, there was only one English translation available.” It was a 1942 abridged version translated by British scholar Arthur Waley. Waley, who rewrote one-sixth of the text and removed all the verses, had long been criticized for “being unfaithful in its abridgment and arbitrary adaption of the original work.”

Kitagawa and David Grene, who had mentored Yu on Greek literature, and Elder Olson, his cherished teacher of English literature, encouraged the novice to retranslate the classic and bring it to English-speaking audiences in its entirety.

Prof. Anthony C. Yu describes how Journey to the West appeals to readers of ages Video Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tYPyfEPsX9U Asia Society

Journey to the West, with more than 100 chapters written in both prose and poetry, is an intrinsically complicated and difficult text to render. Yu spent years researching the diverse literary and religious (Taoist and Buddhist) references in the texts, materials that had baffled all the modern native Chinese scholars of the early 20th century. He became the first translator to cite and translate all the poems and songs, and, in his revised edition, to identify exhaustively direct and indirect references to both the Daoist and Buddhist canons of sacred scriptures, which he says are essential in understanding the author’s meaning.

The first volume of Yu’s work, published by the UChicago Press in 1977, was seven years in the making. Yu finished the other three volumes in 1984.

David Lattimore, a China-born American author and educator, in his New York Times review of the completed set calls the “splendidly comprehensive” 96-page introduction “the most original part” of the book. According to Lattimore, Yu’s research “gives us a glimpse of his own investigations into relations between the novel and obscure portions of the vast, little known Taoist canon” and has done “full justice to the adventure, lyricism and buffoonery of The Journey to the West.”

Yu would never have guessed that the stories his grandfather shared with him in air-raid shelters years ago could have turned into a life-long affair. Following the release of Volume Four, Yu finally “felt comfortable enough” to teach Journey to the West.

Starting in 2004, Yu began updating and augmenting the annotations, as well as revising and expanding the introduction to reflect new scholarship and modes of interpretation. Most importantly, he updated the translation itself. The University of Chicago Press issued the revised edition in 2012. Meanwhile, Yu also completed an abridged version under the title The Monkey and the Monk in 2006.

In a 2014 article in the Journal of Chinese Religions, Robert Hegel, professor of Chinese language and literature at Washington University in St. Louis, reviewed the revised edition of “Journey to the West.” He says Yu’s translation has “provided a signal service, especially to students,” and it is “a truly enjoyable read that provokes contemplation at every turn.” The intellectual depth of the book and its “stylistic sophistication” make it “one of the world’s greatest works of religious literature.”

According to Yu, Western culture is entirely made up of diverse and vastly different languages. “Without translation,” he says, “there cannot be Western culture and there cannot be Western knowledge. We cannot teach Survey of Western Civilization as part of the Core Curriculum of our University without translations.”

In the history of Chinese literature, Yu says there were five long works of prose fiction produced between the 14th and 18th centuries. They have been recognized for their lasting impact on developing the novel as a genre in both Chinese and East Asian literary cultures. Fortunately, each one of these master texts had attained at least one complete major English translation during the second half of the 20th century, and two of these translations happened to have been done at UChicago.

Originally published on February 2, 2015.