Translating the Tao Te Ching

pbl012_the_first_line_dao_jing_tao_chingHaving looked at Taoism, let’s return to the issue of translating the Tao Te Ching, the first line of which, in the original Chinese, is above (it is read from top to bottom, with the columns going from right to left; thus the first character is 道,  Tào).  The above is calligraphy and not intended to be perfectly neat and readable.  The same first line in standard Chinese typeface is thus:  道可道,非常道。名可名,非常名。 This line is usually translated something along the lines of, “The Way that can be told is not the true way.  The name that can be named is not the true name.”  Twelve Chinese characters (each more or less equivalent to a single word) become twenty-two English words.  Something interesting is obviously going on here.

Translation from one language (the source language) to another (the target language) is never easy, even in the best-case scenario.  Such a scenario, in my opinion, would be the translation of a secular (non-religious, non-philosophical, and non-mystical) prose text between two closely related languages (e.g. Spanish and Portuguese) both of which are living languages.  Prose, because prose has fewer nuances than poetry and is less connected with form (rhyme, meter, and so on).  Secular, because religious, philosophical, and in particular, mystical texts often deal with concepts that have no clear equivalents in languages of different religious cultures (for example, there are no good equivalents  for the Sanskrit words dharma and karma, so they have just been borrowed into English).  Closely related languages, because they have similar vocabulary, grammar, and concepts (e.g. the Spanish “Yo hablo español,” and the Portuguese “Eu falo espanhol,” are very similar).  Living, because the meanings of words in dead languages are often obscure, and there is no one to ask about their meanings (e.g. it is not possible to ask speakers of 1st Century Koine Greek the exact meaning of “epiousios” in the Lord’s Prayer).

The Tao Te Ching is not only religious/philosophical but mystical; it is at least in parts poetry, not prose; its language, Classical Chinese, is very much different from English and any other European language; and Classical Chinese is not a living language (it differs substantially from Modern Chinese in any of its forms).  Thus, the Tao Te Ching is at the opposite end of the spectrum from being an ideal situation for translation.  We must expect more than a little difficulty in translating it, then!

The first choice in translation is whether to use formal or dynamic equivalence.  The former attempts to follow the structure and phraseology of the source language as closely as possible in the target language.  The latter attempts to recreate the meaning, regardless of form.  For example, a formal equivalence translation of the Spanish “Me llamo Juan,” would be “I call myself John,” the literal meaning of the Spanish phrase.  A dynamic equivalence translation would be, “My name is John,” since this is how an English speaker would normally phrase such a statement.  For languages that are relatively close, formal equivalence is a viable option.  The more different they are grammatically, the greater the difficulty, and the more the need for dynamic equivalence.

For example:  The first verse of Genesis in Latin is “In principio creavit Deus caelum et terram.”  A literal translation would have this as, “In beginning created God heaven and earth.”  This is not too far from the usual, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” and in a formal equivalence translation the articles would be supplied and the word order fixed, since those changes are small.  The first verse of Genesis in the original Hebrew–“בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית בָּרָ֣א אֱלֹהִ֑ים אֵ֥ת הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם וְאֵ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ“, or in transcription, “Bərē’šîth bārā’ Ĕlōhîm ēth ha-šāmayīm və-ēth ha-āreṣ“–would literally translate something like, “In-beginning-of created God at the-heavens and-at the-earth.”  A bit stranger sounding, and not surprisingly, as Hebrew, unlike Latin, is not an Indo-European language.

Chinese is also a non-Indo-European language, but it even farther removed from English.  Consider the first two lines of the Tao Te Ching, first in the original characters, then in Pinyin transcription (in order to illustrate, I’m keeping each transcripted syllable separate, to correspond to each character, though in practice they’re often written as two-syllable words):


Dào kĕ dào fēi cháng dào.  Míng kĕ míng fēi cháng míng.  Wú míng tiān dì zhī shĭ;  yŏu míng wàn wù zhī mŭ.

Now these lines are usually translated something like this:  “The Way that can be taken is not the true way.  The name that can be named is not the true name.  The nameless is the origin of Heaven and Earth.  The named is the mother of the ten thousand things.”  However, a literal, word-for-word rendering would be something like this:  “Way can way not constant way.  Name can name not constant name.  Not name heaven earth of start; is name myriad things of mother.”  I trust the problem is clear!

The difficulties discussed above are linguistic difficulties.  Next are what might be termed ideological difficulties.  In order to lay some background, the two main schools of religio-philosophical thought in China have historically been Taoism and Confucianism.  They have been seen, both by Chinese themselves and by foreigners, as polar opposites.  Very roughly and over-simplistically, Taoism is seen as individualistic, mystical, anti-establishmentarian, and focused on living life simply and well.  Confucianism, by contrast, is seen as conservative, traditionalist, and statist, emphasizing traditional family and gender roles and customary rites as a way of implementing stable government and society.  This is really an oversimplification, but it is a common perception.

In the post-World War II era, when translations of the Tao Te Ching began to proliferate, the feeling among many intellectuals was that Western culture was too rigid and closed to new ideas.  Taoist thought was seen as a remedy to this, and a great emphasis was put on the individualism, anti-authoritarianism, and spontaneity that were perceived as characteristic of the Tao Te Ching when translating it.   Now there is a case to be made that there is an element of truth in the characterization of the Tao Te Ching; but the ever-present danger of translating when in the grip of ideological enthusiasm is that of overstating what one reads in the original source, or even of reading into it what you’d really like to be there; all while not engaging with the actual source material in its original context.

The terseness and obscurity of the Tao Te Ching don’t help.  Classical Chinese is one of the tersest languages on Earth.  L. Sprague DeCamp, in his essay “Language for Time Travelers” once compared Chinese to newspaper headlines.  A typical headline doesn’t say, “The police arrested a number of people suspected of making crystal meth in a lab discovered in town,” but something like “Cops Bust Local Meth Lab.”  Imagine entire books written in this style.  Actually, don’t imagine–look at my literal translation of the first two verses of the Tao Te Ching above!  In ancient times scribes spent many years learning how to write Classical Chinese, which was far removed from the daily language even of that time.  In the case of poetic, religious, and philosophical works, the difficulty is compounded, and even ancient commentators, much closer in time than we are to the composition of the original documents of the Tao Te Ching and other ancient writings, often disagree among themselves as to what certain lines mean.

This gives moderns the perfect opportunity to impress their own slant upon their translations of the Tao Te Ching, which has been used in support of just about every ideology, worldview, and philosophy conceivable.  It sometimes seems that everyone has made his own translation in support of his position except for the Lady Gaga fan club–and as far as I know, the Little Monsters have one in progress!

In short, when one is looking at a translation of anything, really, especially if it’s religious or philosophical in nature, it’s always good to read between the lines and see if there is a religious, philosophical, or ideological ax being ground.  This is especially true of the Tao Te Ching, given its extreme obscurity in places and its great popularity with countercultural individuals with agendas to push.  No one can keep one’s views completely out of a translation, of course.  Nevertheless, one should try to be as objective as one can, and to the extent that one is not, at least come clean about one’s commitments.  The Tao Te Ching has been a magnet to people with ideologies and commitments, to whom it has been a Rorschach blot in which they saw themselves.  That is a recipe for bad translations, and something I’m always very much aware of in judging a translation.

Having pointed out what I think to be some of the dangers and pitfalls of translating the Tao Te Ching, I’d like to turn next to specific translations and consider their merits.  That will be up for next time!

Posted on 10/02/2014, in books, canon, religion, Taoism and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

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