Awhile back I discussed how as a child my absolute favorite book–books, actually–bar none were the Alice books of Lewis Carroll (Charles Dodgson). They reign supreme in my childhood literary pantheon. Second after the Alice books, though, and not extremely far below them, is The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling.
As with the Alice books–Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass–the Jungle Book should be plural. Kipling published The Jungle Book in 1894 and The Second Jungle Book the following year. Both books are often published together in a single volume nowadays. In any case, the books are collections of short stories mostly written about animal protagonists and largely (but not exclusively) set in India during the British colonial period. Many of the stories, such as “The White Seal” and the well-known “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi” are standalones. The best-known stories of the two Jungle Books, though, are the Mowgli stories. These follow the life of a human child raised from infancy by wolves in north-central India and his adventures in the jungle as he grows to adulthood.
I have written previously of the profound influence the Dhammapada had on me when I read it at about the age of eighteen. That resulted for me being for a considerable time what I’ve described elsewhere as a “pseudo-Buddhist”. During that period, I read pretty much anything about Buddhism I could get my hands on. This was actually much less than you might think. Because of immigration from China and Japan, there had been Buddhists in the United States as far back as the mid-19th Century. Pioneers such as Nyogen Senzaki had even begun to teach Buddhist practices, particularly meditation, to non-Asians by the turn of the 20th Century. Still, it wasn’t until the post-World War II era that relatively large numbers of Americans began to study Buddhism in earnest.
As these early adopters of Buddhism gradually completed their studies, becoming ordained in some cases, and setting up schools of their own, a trickle of books started to become available in the 60’s and 70’s. It wasn’t really until the late 80’s and early 90’s, though, with the increased visibility of and interest in Buddhism, partly because of awareness of the plight of Tibet and high profile advocacy by celebrities such as Richard Gere, that the trickle of books became a flood. One can find Buddhist books and magazines even in bookstores in relatively small towns these days. Back in the 80’s, even though I lived in a fairly large urban area, the pickings were much slimmer.
My initial interest, for reasons I’ve explained before, was in Theravada, the tradition of Buddhism of Sri Lanka and Thailand. As noted, though, the pickings were slim, and most of what was available at that time dealt with Zen. Philip Kapleau’s classic The Three Pillars of Zen was all over the place. I tried to read it more than once, but I never could get very far in it. It struck me as boring and irrelevant, and didn’t answer specific questions I had. I actually bought a used copy of it a couple of years ago and tried to read it again. Thirty years later, I still found it pretty much as unreadable as I had as a twenty-something, and I passed the book along. In any case, at some point in the mid-80’s–probably around ’84, though I’m not sure–I came across An Introduction to Zen Buddhism by the famed Japanese scholar of Buddhism D. T. Suzuki. That book clicked with me immediately, and I reread it time and again.
There any number of translations of the Bible, in full or in part, and more each year, it seems. There are classic Bibles like the King James and Douay-Rheims versions, modern Bibles such as the Revised English Bible and the New Revised Standard Bible, Protestant Bibles, such as the New International and English Standard versions, Catholic Bibles, such as the New American Bible and the New Jerusalem Bible; there are more traditional formal equivalence Bibles (the New King James), dynamic equivalence Bibles (the Good News Bible), outright paraphrases (the Living Bible); and on it goes. To this number has recently been added a translation of the New Testament by Greek Orthodox scholar and theologian David Bentley Hart.
Hart has made a name for himself as a scholar, theologian, and cultural commentator, having published eleven books and numerous articles in both professional journals and in venues such as The Wall Street Journal, The New Atlantis, and First Things. Hart had planned to translate the New Testament for some time, but a spell of ill health slowed him down. Finally, he completed the translation, which was released in October of 2017.
My first premise about what translation of the Tao Te Ching–or any work, for that matter–should be is that it should 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.
One of my favorite Tarzan books, and one which bears great similarity to the Mowgli stories in The Jungle Book.
This is a bit of an experiment with something new. Though this is posted at YouTube, it is a full, public-domain audiobook–in this case, Edgar Rice Burroughs’s first novel, A Princess of Mars (also the basis of the recent John Carter movie). I will be posting its sequel, The Gods of Mars soon, as well as several other public-domain audiobooks. I may make this a regular, or at least recurring, feature of the Chequer-Board, so let me know if this is something of worth and interest. Enjoy!
I’ve added several books to the Library, including an article on the development of the Elvish languages by J. R. R. Tolkien, the Voynich Manuscript (subject of this documentary), The Mystical Qabalah. by Dione Fortune, The Last Ringbearer, which retells Lord of the Rings from the perspective of Mordor (!), the Kebra Nagast, a semi-mythological history of the kings of Ethiopia, the King James Bible, and more. Have a look!
The Dhammapada is probably the most popular piece of scripture among Buddhists, and the most widely translated. The name literally means “The Way of the Dharma”. Dharma, a Sanskrit word that is very complex to translate, in the Buddhist context most frequently means “the body of teachings given by the Buddha”. More broadly, it can refer to the entire Buddhist relgion (more precisely designated as Buddhadharma). As Christian contexts will sometimes refer to “the Faith” in the sense of “the Christian religion”, “the Dharma” can likewise be construed as a synonym for “Buddhism”. Thus “Dhammapada”–the Way of the Dharma–essentially means “the way of Buddhism” or “the way of the Buddhist religion”.
A slight pet peeve, by the way. Americans tend to assume, incorrectly, that “a” is pronounced as the “a” in “father”–ahhh–in all foreign languages. The letter अ in both Sanskrit and Pali is transliterated as “a”, and is pronounced not as “ahhh” but like the “u” in “but” or the last “a” in “America”. The letter आ, transliterated as “ā”, is properly pronounced “ahh”. I’m not always consistent about using all the proper diacritics, but all the a’s in “Dhammapada” are short. Thus, the proper pronunciation of it is something like “dum-muh-pud-uh”, accent on the first syllable. Likewise “dharma” and “karma” ought to be “duhr-muh” and “kuhr-muh”. I always pronounce “dharma” correctly (though very few Americans do), but “karma” is so much assimilated that I pronounce it “kahhr-muh”, since the correct pronunciation would sound odd and confuse people. Sigh.