Translations of the Tao Te Ching: What Not to Read


My first premise about what a translation of the Tao Te Ching–or any work, for that matter–should be is that it indeed be a translation.  That is, someone learned the source language of the work in question, became an expert in that language and in the milieu of the work to be translated, in particular, and then translated it into an effective and readable literary form in the target language.  It’s not enough to know the source language (plenty of native English speakers can’t read Shakespeare with understanding) or the target language (all too many translations are written in nearly unreadable “translator-ese”, lacking the slightest sensitivity to literary style).  These are, however, minimal requirements.  If you don’t know both languages, you’re disqualified.  Writing your take on something written in a language you don’t know, whatever it is, is not translation.

Now I appreciate that few of us have the time and resources to learn the original languages of every work that interests us.  Even if I were of independent means and no worries, I’d hardly have the time to learn Sanskrit, Pali, Classical Chinese, Classical and Koine Greek, Biblical Hebrew, Classical Arabic, Aramaic, Akkadian, Sumerian, Ancient Egyptian, Georgian, German, Spanish, French, Latin, Russian, Portuguese, and all the other ancient and modern languages of various works that hold interest for me, and to do so well enough to read these works easily and well.  A few brilliant polyglots can do that; I can’t.  Thus, I keep various translations of works that are meaningful to  me in order to switch from version to version for greater nuance, more readability, etc.  I have, for example, nine translations of the Bible in full or in part, six of the Tao Te Ching, and two or three of the Bhagavad Gita.  Making one’s own personal version of a meaningful book from a variety of translations is a natural and human thing to do.

Certainly, I have no objections to collaborations, where one person has the linguistic expertise and does the actual translating, while the other polishes the result to give it a good and effective literary form.  Such efforts are laudable .

I can even understand attempts to give a modern interpretation, where there is no question of translating.  Clarence Jordan‘s weird and wonderful Cotton Patch series transposes New Testament concepts to a modern American context (though Jordan actually knew Greek).  Ron Hogan does something similar (although in his case not directly from the Chinese) with his interesting Tao.  Jeremy Puma’s series of retellings of various works from the Nag Hammadi library are also in this vein.  I think Puma’s statement of his goal is applicable to the works of Jordan and Hogan, as well, and are perfectly legitimate and useful:

The texts presented here are not translations from the original languages of composition, but reimaginings of these timeless stories in such a way that modern audiences might finally appreciate the wealth of information contained therein, and the living tradition that they represent.

I have absolutely no beef with this, and in fact I support it.

What I do object to is people who make a version of a work in a foreign language that they don’t themselves know, based on existing translations by other people, and then marketing their version as if it were a real translation, and making grandiose claims regarding their superior insight, to boot.  As I’ve discussed before, Coleman Barks and Stephen Mitchell are two of the worst offenders in this.  At least Barks sticks mainly to one author in one language he doesn’t know, whereas Mitchell has “translated” the Bhagavad Gita without knowing Sanskrit, the Tao Te Ching without knowing Chinese, and the Epic of Gilgamesh without knowing Akkadian or Sumerian. It’s true that he never claims to have actually translated these; but they are marketed as translations, and I know of people who were unaware that they were not, in fact, actually translated by someone with knowledge of the original language.  Whatever the literary quality of Mitchell’s productions, they are not translations (I’ve not read any of them in full, but the snatches I have don’t impress me that much as to style–he’s OK, not great).  Thus, I cannot recommend them; more than that, I actively oppose them.

This, then, is a list of paraphrases of the Tao Te Ching that were not translated, and which I therefore place on the “avoid” list:

The Tao Te Ching:  A New English Version, by Stephen Mitchell.

The Way of Life According to Lao Tzu, by Witter Bynner.  I’ve discussed here and here why I can cut Bynner some slack and why he has more credibility than Mitchell.  I’ve also noted that this book was very meaningful to me in my youth, and was my first introduction to Taoism.  Nevertheless, I can’t recommend it as a translation, since it’s not.  It is of a high literary quality, and it would be worth reading as a supplement to an actual translation; but it shouldn’t be the first Tao Te Ching one reads.

Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way, by Ursula K. LeGuin. I have great respect for LeGuin as a science fiction author.  Her novels and short stories are deservedly classics.  In this case, however, LeGuin has done essentially what Mitchell did.  She somewhat crankily criticizes earlier translations for being too patriarchal and too much focused on esoteric wisdom, suggesting that her rendering is more “accessible to a present-day unwise, unpowerful, and perhaps unmale reader, not seeking esoteric secrets, but listening for a voice that speaks to the soul.”  With all due respect, this comes off to me as being every bit as pompous as Mitchell’s claim that his Zen training “brought me face to face with Lao-tzu and his true disciples and heirs, the early Chinese Zen masters.”  In both cases the claim is made that Laozi has been misrepresented by translators and that the author in question, though not knowing a word of Chinese, has a better grasp of what Laozi really meant, by meditation, in Mitchell’s case, and by–well, I  have no idea–in LeGuin’s case.

The first problem with this is that it tries to distort a work from a different age and culture to fit modern viewpoints.  My attitude is that one should, as much as possible, let ancient works speak for themselves, and if they clash with modern sensibilities, deal with that in commentaries. Explain or disagree all you want–just don’t bowdlerize the texts.  The second problem is the arrogance and sloth combined.  If Mitchell or LeGuin feels so much about the Tao Te Ching and think they have so much to contribute to understanding it, then why don’t they go and learn Chinese and actually translate it, so they can have a proper framework in which to express those insights?  God forbid one should actually do the work of language learning and translation!  In any case, I would not recommend LeGuin’s translation, either.

The last translation I’d reject outright is this one:

Dao De Jing: A Philosophical Translation, by Roger Ames and David Hall

This is indeed a translation–one of the authors (I forget which one) actually knows Chinese.  However, the book is marred by the same arrogant, “After all these centuries, I have finally figured out the inner secrets of this book” attitude.  Ames and Hall are both academic philosophers, which in this context is a bad thing.  Their thesis (as far as I can divine it) is that the mystical esoteric take on Taoism is wrong and that the philosophical basis for the Tao Te Ching is really more like that of Western philosophy, especially pragmatism.  I say “as far as I can divine it”, because the book is full of sentences like this, from the introduction:

We will argue that the defining purpose of the Daodejing is bringing into focus and sustaining a productive disposition that allows for the fullest appreciation of those specific things and events that constitute one’s field of experience.  The project, simply put, is to get the most out of what each of us is:  a quantum of unique experience.

You get the picture.  The introductory essays and afterword are far, far longer than the translation itself (not a good sign) and are all full of such jargon.  The translation is very eccentric, too.  Just one example:  For some reason the authors insist on taking the word dào, one of the most important and fundamental words in the whole book, as a verb instead of a noun.  Thus, they translate dào not as “way” but as “way-making”.  Not only is this a rather odd choice that not even native Chinese-speaking translators have ever chosen, but it has a cumbersome and ugly sound in the context of the translation.  This book is definitely one to avoid.

Having dealt with translations to avoid, we’ll look at ones to seek out the next time.

Posted on 11/02/2014, in religion and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

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