Blog Archives

Translations of the Tao Te Ching: What Not to Read


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 to 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.

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The Hound of the Baskervilles (full audiobook)


The archetypal Sherlock Holmes novel.

Jungle Tales of Tarzan (full audiobook)


One of my favorite Tarzan books, and one which bears great similarity to the Mowgli stories in The Jungle Book.

A Princess of Mars (full audiobook)

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!

New Books!


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

Not long ago, I wrote about my experience with the Bhagavad Gītā.  In a similar vein, I’d like to write about a book that was much more influential in my life, the Dhammapada.

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.

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Your Own Personal Canon

“Canon” is an interesting word.  It comes via Greek from a Semitic original meaning something like “measuring rod”–thus, by extension, a “canon” is a “standard”.  It has come to mean a standard in the sense of the standard or officially approved writings of a particular religion.  Over the last few decades it has been extended from that to mean the accepted or approved works in a literary, cinematic, TV, comic, or other series of ongoing fictional stories–in short the “real” Star Trek or Harry Potter or such, as opposed to fanfics, pastiches, ripoffs, and other such works of heresy.   This makes an interesting connection between fandom and religion–but I digress.

What I’m interested in here is not holy writ per se nor fanboy stuff, but personal canons.  What do I mean?

I think that most thoughtful people, of whatever faith (or lack thereof), have “personal canons”–books (or other media, but for now I’m restricting it to books) that have greatly influenced them and which have continued to influence them.  Such books of a personal canon may be the scriptures of one’s religion, obviously, but are not limited to these, and don’t even necessarily include the “official” canon, at least not all parts of it to the same degree.  They may also be works of philosophy, history, literature, and so on.  They may be things we keep returning to, or things that we have been profoundly influenced by once, after which we never re-read them.  The possibilities are manifold.

A list of my own personal canon–not an exhaustive one, but representative–would look like this:

The Bible, of course; though I’d say that the most significant and influential books to me are Ecclesiastes, Job, parts of Psalms, and the Song of Songs from the Old Testament, and the Gospels (most particularly the Gospel of John), Acts, and Romans from the New Testament.  I give greater weight to the New Testament in general, not only as a Christian, obviously, but because as I’ve been re-reading the Bible, I find the nastier bits of the OT  harder to put up with.  I’ll be putting up a more detailed discussion of that issue later.

The Dao De Jing (or Tao Teh Ching, in Wade-Giles).  I have been profoundly influenced by this classic, and sometimes describe myself as a Daoist Catholic.  I first read it as a freshman in college, and have done so many times since.

The Dhammapada.  These verses from the Pali Canon, said to be the words of the Buddha himself, are ever worthy of re-reading and pondering.

The Divine Comedy and Paradise Lost.  ’Nuff said.

An Introduction to Zen Buddhism, by D. T. Suzuki.  My attitudes towards Suzuki have changed over the years–that’s a long story–but still not a bad source for a beginner to use in learning about Zen.

Jonathan Livingston Seagull, by Richard Bach, and The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, translated by Edward Fitzgerald.  Both more profound when you’re a teenager, but still sentimental favorites of mine.

Miracles and The Abolition of Man, by C. S. Lewis, both instrumental in the process of figuring out which faith to join.

Beyond Good and Evil, by Nietzsche.  I certainly disagree with him on many things, but he’s one of the best aphorists of all time, and it’s always useful and bracing to have the opposite perspective to think upon at times.

I could add more, and I could put in tons of commentary, but that’s a good start.  Let me open it up to all my readers in general here:  would you share your personal canons



Beginning today and continuing as an ongoing project, I’m going to add a couple of new tabs to this site.

There are a lot of complicated topics I talk about here, and while I frequently give links to other sites (particularly Wikipedia), I have often felt that a reading list or bibliography or reference page would be a good thing to have for those who wish to explore the topics here in greater depth. I’ve been thinking about the best way to do this, and have decided to try the following, as an experiment.

I’m going to add two tabs–new pages–to this site to the ones above (Home, About, Contact Me, and Series Indices).  One will be the Library.  I will use it to post links to PDF versions of public-domain books and articles relevant to the things I post about and discuss here.  You will be able to click on the links and read the documents, and download them for free, if you like.

The second tab will be the Store.  It will be a link to my store, which I’m gradually stocking with books I’ve read relevant to the topics we talk about here (and sometimes to books that aren’t relevant. but that are good books).  I’ll use books that I’ve read myself or that I know by reputation to be worthwhile.  The thing is that I cannot put the store here because of policies.  Therefore, I’ve created another blog, The Caravanserai, at  The Store tab will have a link to it.  On that homepage, to the right, is the link to the Amazon store–click on it, and it will take you there.  As time goes on, I may add other items to the store; but I want to see how things play out first.

Finally, the second blog won’t have as much original content as this one–it always amazes me that some people have the energy to keep up multiple blogs–but I will put up content there.  There will be movies and music, just as there are here; there will be some original essays, probably more dealing with literature, book reviews, and pop culture; and while I’ll mirror some of the content from here to there, I’ll not duplicate it all.  I’ll have some original stuff at the Caravanseri that’s not here, so it’ll be worth checking out in its own right. Meanwhile, I’ll continue with business as usual here.

It will take me a little while to get everything up and running, so please be patient.  Meanwhile, I hope you continue to enjoy the content here and that you get something out of it!

His Dark Materials, Part 2: Commitments, Propaganda, and Blurry Lines

Just to be clear, if you’ve clicked on the video before reading, I’m not invoking, nor am I exemplifying, Godwin’s Law.  Read on and you’ll see what I mean.

I began writing about Philip Pullman’s series of novels His Dark Materials with a discussion of what I believe to be the wrong reasons for dismissing, criticizing, or derogating it.  Many, especially in Christian circles, have dismissed it as a piece of atheist propaganda meant to destroy children’s belief in God.  Pullman, in essays about C. S. Lewis, has made the counter claim that Lewis, in his Narnia books, was propagandizing to bring children into the Christian fold.  My contention was that whether or not either one of them was right was beside the point in terms of the literary merit of either series of books.  What I want to do briefly here is to explore that blurry boundary between writing with a passionate aim and propagandizing, and how these relate to art.

To some extent art is about technique and skill.  The very word “technique” comes from the Greek technēs, very inadequately translated as “art”.  It is better translated as “skill” or “craft” or “art” in the sense of the “art” of doing something.  The word for builder or carpenter, tektōn (the word, by the way, which in the New Testament describes the professions of Joseph, husband of Mary, and of Jesus of Nazareth, and which doesn’t necessarily imply what we call carpentry), is related to technēs.  Without skill or craftsmanship, without having mastery of one’s craft and doing a good job at it, one cannot create art, be it painting a picture, carving a statue, building a good house, building a stone wall, writing a novel, singing a song, or making a movie.   Read the rest of this entry

Cult of Personality Tests

I go through periods where I take a lot of online “personality tests”, that is, the tests of the generally fun and sometimes goofy (and even, occasionally, insightful) sort that seem to infest the Internet like weeds.  Sometimes you have a slow evening, you run across one, it’s fun, it leads to another, and…well, you get the idea.

Anyway, it reminded me of a book I read about a year or so ago, The Cult of Personality, by Annie Murphy Paul.  You can read a good review of it here.  In this book Paul takes a look at many of the common personality tests, e.g. the Myers-Briggs, the MMPI, and so on.  Her thesis is two-pronged; first, that many if not all of these tests are at best questionably scientific and at worst outright malarkey.  She looks in depth at the creators of many of these tests and how they came up with them in this part.  Second, Paul points out that more and more businesses, employers, and other organizations are increasingly using these tests to screen, hire, and promote employees.  Since the bases of so many tests are questionable, she finds this to be a disturbing trend. Read the rest of this entry