Lau was an expert in Classical Chinese and translated many Confucian and Taoist works for the Penguin Classics series. He also helped develop London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies into a world-renowned center for studies of Chinese culture and philosophy. His translation of the Tao Te Ching, originally made in 1963 and revised periodically (I think he did a revision in the 1980’s taking into account the Mawangdui manuscripts) is still in print, and can be read online here. I have to say upfront that this is not actually my favorite translation. The literary style isn’t bad, but Lau can be a bit stilted at times, and he is definitely less poetic in style than many translators. Why, then, is his my go-to translation? The answer in brief is that I trust him more; but that will require some unpacking.
I’ve ended up writing more essays on the Tao Te Ching than I’d originally intended over in the “Your Own Personal Canon” series. Taoism has been an interest of mine for many years, and I may well return to Taoism even after I’ve finished the essays on the Tao Te Ching. Thus, I thought it would be a good idea to set up yet another index in which to collect the Taoist essays–and here it is!
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.
Having 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!
As I said last time, a discussion of the translations of the Tao Te Ching was beyond the scope of that post. I’ve thought about it and decided it’s beyond the scope of a single post, period. This post is a sort of preliminary: a brief discussion of Taoism, its terminology, and its practices. This will give a background against which to discuss the founding and principal text of Taoism, the Tao Te Ching.
Any description of an entire religion in a blog post is, of course, going to be ridiculously compressed. Instead of waiting till the end, I’ll give a suggested reading right now. Probably the best introduction to Taoist ideas for Westerners is Benjamin Hoff’s classic The Tao of Pooh. Despite its humor and its use of the Winnie the Pooh books as a device for introducing the concepts, it is well-written and actually does a good job of getting across basic Taoist concepts. I’d recommend it to all. Meanwhile, I’ll proceed with my (alas, inferior) description.
Continuing in my series “Your Own Personal Canon”, about books that affected me in a deep or profound way, I now want to discuss the Tao Te Ching.
The book, traditionally said to have been composed by the sage Laozi, whose name is an alternate title for the book, is probably the most widely translated piece of Chinese literature, and perhaps one of the ones spelled in the most different ways. Its title in Chinese (shown above in calligraphy) is 道德經. The older systems of Chinese transliteration, of which the Wade-Giles is the most influential, usually render the title “Tao Te Ching“, occasionally spelling the “Te” as “Teh”. The most widely used system now, and the one official in Mainland China, is Pinyin. In Pinyin, the syllables are respectively transliterated “Dao”, “De”, and “Jing”. The combination (or lack thereof) into syllables varies: it may be given as Dao De Jing, with the transcription of each character written as a separate word, or as Daode Jing, or as Daodejing. The pronunciation is the same regardless of script. The first syllable rhymes with the “Dow” of “Dow Jones”; the second with “duh”, as in the sound a person makes if confused; and the last rhymes with the first syllable of “jingle”. Technically, the first consonant of the “Dao” and “De” is actually an unvoiced “t”, not a “d”. To hear the difference, say “tall” and then “stall” and listen carefully. The “t” in “tall” has a puff of air after it–that is, in linguistic terms, it’s aspirated. The “t” of “stall” is unaspirated and sounds almost like a “d”. In English, the unaspirated “t” never comes at the beginning of a syllable; in Chinese, it does. Listen to a Spanish speaker–“t” in Spanish is never aspirated–for a good idea of how the “d” of “Dao” should sound. “D” is used because that’s how it sounds to speakers of many European langusges, such as English. “D” (unaspirated “t”) was written as just “t” in Wade-Giles; and the aspirated “t”, just “t” in Pinyin, was given as t’ (a “t” followed by an apostrophe) in Wade-Giles.
Similarly, the “J” of “Jing” is not really a “J”, but like the “ch” in the word “cheese”, but with no puff of breath (i.e. it’s unaspirated). It was represented in Wade-Giles by plain “ch”, while its aspirated equivalent is ch’ in Wade-Giles and “q” in Pinyin. As to the vowels, “ao” is like the “ow” in “cow”; “e” in Chinese is like the “u” in “but” or the last “a” in “America”; and “i” in Chinese is like the “i” in “machine”. This holds for both transliteration systems, though some variants of Wade-Giles use “eh” for “e”.
Whether or not one can pronounce it properly, the meaning of the title, Tao Te Ching (I’m using Wade-Giles from this point on out of nostalgia, since that was still used in most translations at the time I first read it), though containing much nuance, isn’t too difficult. “Tao”, though a very complex concept in Chinese thought, is almost universally translated as “Way” (usually, though not always, capitalized). Occasionally it is left untranslated as “Tao” or “Dao”. “Te” means “virtue” or “power”, though I rather like Victor Mair’s rendition of it as “integrity”. “Ching” could be “book”, but in Classical Chinese is usually translated as “classic”. When Buddhism entered China several centuries after the composition of the Tao Te Ching, the word “ching” was used as a translation for the Sanskrit sutra (or Pali sutta). Thus, possible translations of Tao Te Ching would be “The Book of the Way and the Power”, “The Classic of the Way and Virtue”, and others along those lines.