Review: I Ching: The Book of Change, by David Hinton

hinton i chingI Ching: The Book of Change
by David Hinton
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2015, US$20
Hardcover, 137 pp
ISBN-13: 978-0374220907

David Hinton evokes the mystical and mythical in this translation of the I Ching, taking it as a “proto-Daoist” work. Unlike his many prior translations such as the Analects, Mencius, Tao Te Ching, and numerous Chinese poets which clearly are translations, Hinton’s I Ching is quite different, and perhaps best experienced as an interpretive work rooted equally in poetry and scholarship.

Each hexagram includes the hexagram Judgment, the Commentary on the Judgment (titled “Presentation”), the component trigrams, the Image text, and line texts. In the back of the book are a limited number of notes, “how to consult” instructions, and a finding chart arranged in the Fuxi sequence.

In many places, Hinton’s translation is not that different from that of others. But at times, he employs his own idiosyncratic language that begs decoding, such as “the dedication of a bird sitting on eggs,” which in the Wilhelm/Baynes I Ching translation is “sincere.” Occasionally, the language is wildly different: compare these translations of Hexagram 5, Line 1:

Hinton: “Anticipation among farmland fertility altars: If you rely on moondrift constancy to bring forth great bounty, how could you ever go astray?”
Wilhelm/Baynes: “Waiting in the meadow. It furthers one to abide in what endures. No blame.”
Rutt: “Waiting at the suburban altar. Favorable for a heng ceremony. No misfortune.”

Or, Hexagram 18: “All origins penetrating everywhere, decay’s maggot-bowl brings forth the wild bounty of crossing a great river….” Or Hexagram 22, which in Wilhelm/Baynes is “Simple grace. No blame,” Hinton renders “In pellucid elegance moving with the beauty of cowrie shells, you never go astray.”

As only about forty hexagram names are more-or-less recognizable, readers would have benefited from a list of names plus Chinese characters and romanization. Those names that are different are sometimes drastically so, such as “Delicate Nurturing” (Hexagram 9, Wilhelm/Baynes’ “Taming Power of the Small”), “Heron’s-Eye Gaze” (Hexagram 20, “Contemplation”), “Inception Thicket” (Hexagram 4, “Youthful Folly”). Readers might also wish for a glossary of Hinton’s unique terms, and for numbering of notes (there is no indication on the pages themselves when there is a note in the back). The experienced I Ching user might want more background on translation rationale, and source material.

Hinton’s I Ching is a slim volume and nicely produced. It is suited for divination use and for inspirational readings. However, it does require readers to immerse themselves into his unique ideas and wording which are sometimes more opaque than the standard interpretations.