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Tao Te Ching
August 29, 2011 7:54 PM   Subscribe

Tao Te Ching - Peter A. Merel's Interpolation
posted by MetaMonkey (44 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite

 
Yep that's the Tao te Ching alright. Any questions?
posted by Mike Mongo at 7:58 PM on August 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


Metafilter: the meta that cannot be filtered.
posted by clvrmnky at 8:07 PM on August 29, 2011 [4 favorites]


Yea, the tao te ching is one of my primary go-to sources for inspiration, wisdom, the answer to most of my questions.. but.. is there anything more to this post? Who is Peter A. Merel, and what is the significance of his interpolation?
posted by Philby at 8:08 PM on August 29, 2011


Go up to ~/fsu and browse around and you will soon learn that the way that can be linked to is not the true way.
posted by wobh at 8:11 PM on August 29, 2011 [2 favorites]


What about extrapolations? Least-squares fits?
posted by oonh at 8:11 PM on August 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


This tao has been selected by Point as one of the Top 5% sites on the World Wide Web !!
posted by b1tr0t at 8:18 PM on August 29, 2011 [2 favorites]


Hooray for Orientalism?
posted by Horselover Phattie at 8:18 PM on August 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


moar
posted by fleetmouse at 8:22 PM on August 29, 2011 [3 favorites]


A tiny copy of the Mitchell translation was on my person for several years.
posted by swift at 8:38 PM on August 29, 2011 [2 favorites]


Caveat: This document attempts to draw the texts of several popular English translations of Lao Tse into a consistent and accessible context. It is based on the translations of Robert G. Henricks, Lin Yutang, D.C. Lau, Ch'u Ta-Kao, Gia-Fu Feng & Jane English, Richard Wilhelm and Aleister Crowley.

This work is not a translation, but an interpolation. It does not represent the original text; the original, if there was an original, has been jumbled, mistranscribed and reinterpreted many times over many thousands of years, and is here cast into a language that is incapable of presenting its poetic structure and philological connections.

Even an original text, translated as faithfully as possible, might remain inaccessible to the modern reader unable to place it within its original context. The intention of this work is to construct a document that closely corresponds with the best modern translations of Lao Tse, but which is blunt, easy and useful to read within a modern context.

posted by msalt at 8:43 PM on August 29, 2011


Oh gawd, the Aleister Crowley translation (under fleetmouse's "moar" link) is just gloriously weird and bad. I love it.
posted by nebulawindphone at 8:46 PM on August 29, 2011


If it's not by Doctor Wu I'm not interested.
posted by nanojath at 9:02 PM on August 29, 2011


I have always rather liked Tao and Method--which seems a genuine effort, at least, and one not obviously in ignorance or bad faith, to get at the root of what's in this most perfect, most evocative, and most crazily distorted books.
posted by LucretiusJones at 9:11 PM on August 29, 2011


I wish people would spend less time endlessly translating this same book into English, and more time, say, reading the Chuang Tzu/Zhuangzi.

Also good: Warp, Weft, and Way, a blog of classical Chinese philosophy written by a number of scholars in the field.
posted by msalt at 9:23 PM on August 29, 2011 [6 favorites]


moar

egads!
posted by Twang at 9:37 PM on August 29, 2011


Ursula K. LeGuin did a translation that I quite like. A bit different than the others.
posted by neuromodulator at 9:37 PM on August 29, 2011 [3 favorites]


Here's her first chapter, for reference:

The way you can go
isn't the real way.
The name you can say
isn't the real name.

Heaven and earth
begin in the unnamed:
name's the mother
of the ten thousand things.

So the unwanting soul
sees what's hidden,
and the ever-wanting soul
sees only what it wants.

Two things, one origin,
but different in name,
whose identity is mystery.
Mystery of all mysteries!
The door to the hidden.
Purple monkey dishwasher.
posted by neuromodulator at 9:44 PM on August 29, 2011 [2 favorites]


I wish people would spend less time endlessly translating this same book into English, and more time, say, reading the Chuang Tzu/Zhuangzi.

Hear, hear! Chuang Tzu was by far the best thing I've ever had to read for a philosophy class, hands down. Totally delightful. I've only read the Mair translation though - is there a better translation I should try?
posted by dialetheia at 9:44 PM on August 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


"...is there a better translation I should try?"

A.C Graham's translation usually gets points for academic rigor. I find Watson's translation a lot more readable and fun. (And, of course, I'm trying to read it in the original, but it's taking me forever.)
posted by jiawen at 9:55 PM on August 29, 2011


I've had this translation in my bookmarks for years; I think I first saw it somewhere on askme. I really like it; it feels plain, his translations of the more obscure chapters feel understandable, and... I don't know, it just works for me more than the Mitchell version or more academic translations.

I also totally dig the bare-bones site design. The Lao Tzu I have in my head would not spend a ton of time making his website hip.
posted by Rinku at 9:57 PM on August 29, 2011


Somehow I wasn't aware that either Aleister Crowley or Ursula Le Guin actually knew any Chinese at all, let alone were able to read Classical Chinese. I can't think of a more naked act of hucksterism than to go publishing a "translation" from a language you don't even know. What is it exactly about the Daodejing, I wonder, that seems to so consistently provoke it?
posted by strangely stunted trees at 9:58 PM on August 29, 2011 [3 favorites]


Somehow I wasn't aware that either Aleister Crowley or Ursula Le Guin actually knew any Chinese at all, let alone were able to read Classical Chinese. I can't think of a more naked act of hucksterism than to go publishing a "translation" from a language you don't even know. What is it exactly about the Daodejing, I wonder, that seems to so consistently provoke it?

I used to think the same thing, but I don't really care anymore. I think it's possible to read different translations, find the meaning the text has for them, and then put that into English. The cool thing about the Tao te Ching is that it's possible for someone to make a new translation from other english translations by thinking about it on their own. It's a feature, not a bug.
posted by Rinku at 10:01 PM on August 29, 2011


It's absolutely a bug, like a game of telephone where most of the players have also tried to insert their own half-assed Orientalist idea of Ancient Eastern Wisdom. When you're compiling a bunch of translations together with no reference to the source work or its original language, it's certainly not possible to "make a new translation". When, on top of that, half of the source translations you're working with were written by dilettantes or axe-grinding cranks, your results are worse than useless.
posted by strangely stunted trees at 10:13 PM on August 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


I really don't think it's worth being cynical about. As long as you take the time to differentiate between the different kinds of translations, I don't see the problem. Translators (or rather interpolators) like Mitchell and LeGuin and Merel here are telling us what the Tao means to them, and I really don't have a problem with that.

The tao is explicitly not about the words it contains. That's the whole premise. This isn't a text that I really see a need to get really concerned about textual purity with. The Tao is totally a game of telephone. On some level everything is a game of telephone; that's one of the things I get from it.
posted by Rinku at 10:19 PM on August 29, 2011 [3 favorites]


Tao Te Ching - The original post-modernist manifesto.
posted by j03 at 11:23 PM on August 29, 2011


I've read at least twenty translations of the Tao Te Ching over the last 40 years and Gia Fu Feng's remains my favorite: http://terebess.hu/english/tao/gia.html
posted by rmmcclay at 11:56 PM on August 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


I've only read the Mair translation [of Chuang Tzu] though - is there a better translation I should try?

I'm very fond of Thomas Merton's abridged version. His approach is based not on the study of ancient Chinese linguistics, but on a lifetime of meditation, which seems equally valid.

Also, Chuang Tzu is very large and probably best described as an anthology of like thought from roughly the 4th Century BCE, not a book by one writer. It varies widely in tone, perspective and quality. Most editions avoid the cruft by sticking to the Inner Chapters (the first 7 of 33), which seem a bit more cohesive, but also vary.

Merton, however, produced a slim volume with beautifully elegant versions of gems from throughout the book. Burton I think is the only complete English version, so Merton is the only other place to see many of these, such as Ch. 26 ("Where can I find a man who has forgotten words? He is the one I would like to talk to.")
posted by msalt at 12:10 AM on August 30, 2011 [2 favorites]


I can't think of a more naked act of hucksterism than to go publishing a "translation" from a language you don't even know. What is it exactly about the Daodejing, I wonder, that seems to so consistently provoke it?

Merton and Le Guin never claimed to translate -- she is quite careful to call her book a "version." Each of them worked literally for decades on their versions, and worked closely with a well-received academic translator -- J.P. Seaton for Le Guin, and John Wu for Merton -- on the linguistics of the text. So I don't think hucksterism is a fair charge for them.

Crowley, I can't speak to. Mitchell seems a bit more vulnerable to criticism because he touts his record in translating other works (e.g. Rilke) while downplaying the fact that he doesn't speak Chinese.

Seems to me, there are two essential skills to a translation or version -- first, understanding the nuances of the original, and second, finding words in the new language to convey them. The fact that Merton and Le Guin are writers rather than linguists may hurt them in step one, but it may also help them in step two compared to drier academics.
posted by msalt at 12:22 AM on August 30, 2011 [3 favorites]


Calling it an 'interpolation' is a little off-putting, isn't it?

I suppose something like 'polished up version' is intended. I don't even like the sound of that much, but the usual sense of the word is surely about the insertion of new, and by implication spurious, material?

When someone makes a dubious choice like that, it sort of saps your faith in what they might have done with the text itself.
posted by Segundus at 12:26 AM on August 30, 2011


You're right, Segundus. Frankly it's a misuse of the term interpolation in this case.
posted by rmmcclay at 5:28 AM on August 30, 2011


You can read the Tao Te Ching as saying, basically, "Hey, guys, this isn't rocket science. Don't get hung up on whether it's right. Just relax and do it." It's maybe not the deepest or the most accurate reading. I don't know. But it's an available reading; you can read it that way; and it's a common message for people to get out of the book.

I think it's also part of why you see so many amateur translations. It's like the book itself is granting you permission!

"It says right here, I should just relax and go with my intuition. Well, my intuition says this character means 'path,' and I'm gonna go with it. Thanks, mister Lao Tzu! I knew you'd understand!"
posted by nebulawindphone at 6:06 AM on August 30, 2011


You can read the Tao Te Ching as saying, basically, "Hey, guys, this isn't rocket science. Don't get hung up on whether it's right. Just relax and do it."

Yeah but you never know, the person who translated might have slipped in a subliminal McDonald's advertisement or something...
posted by Theta States at 6:32 AM on August 30, 2011


"If you can talk about it, it ain't Tao."
posted by webmutant at 7:46 AM on August 30, 2011


Crowley suppossedly took the James Legge English translation and just made it more "poetic" and "Crowleyan."
posted by njohnson23 at 9:08 AM on August 30, 2011


A lot of translation of the Daode Jing feels mired in orientalism to me. "It's all exotic and inscrutable," the thinking seems to go, "so translate it however it feels good."

The Daode Jing is actually a pretty political book. While it has tons of wordplay and double meaning, that doesn't mean that far-reaching personal reinvention of it are as valid as well-researched, from-the-original translation. ("Valid" in the sense of authoritative, or hewing to the meaning of the actual text. Every personal interpretation is equally valid insofar as it gives personal meaning, but subjective truth ain't necessarily objective truth.)
posted by jiawen at 9:59 AM on August 30, 2011 [2 favorites]


Peter Boodberg's Chapter One is a sentimental favorite, and I always wished there were a complete version, if only to stare at it with one eyebrow raised.

"Lodehead lodehead-brooking : no forewonted lodehead;
Namecall namecall-brooking : no forewonted namecall."
posted by Earthtopus at 10:05 AM on August 30, 2011 [2 favorites]


WTF?
posted by Crabby Appleton at 11:20 AM on August 30, 2011


Calling it an 'interpolation' is a little off-putting, isn't it? ... the usual sense of the word is surely about the insertion of new, and by implication spurious, material? When someone makes a dubious choice like that, it sort of saps your faith in what they might have done with the text itself.

This is from Peter Merel's introduction to this translation:

Structural Changes

The last three lines of chapter 28 have been moved to the end of Chapter 27.
The last three lines of chapter 39 have been moved to the end of Chapter 26.
The last three lines of chapter 47 oppose most translations.
The first three lines of chapter 54 have been moved to the start of Chapter 38.
The last two lines of chapter 55, a repetition of the last two lines of chapter 30, have been removed.
The first line of chapter 60 has been moved to the start of chapter 59.
Chapter 64 is split into two chapters, 64a and 64b.
In chapter 64a the order of the second and third paragraphs is reversed.
The last four lines of Chapter 67 have been moved to the start of Chapter 68.

posted by msalt at 12:28 PM on August 30, 2011


Webmutant's link takes you to Ron Hogan's version (PDF), which he describes as a "slang paraphrase" in the style of Mamet and Tarantino. I don't know how rigorous it is, but it's fun to read, and a good extreme of non-stuffiness. Here's chapter 4:

How much Tao is there?
More than you'll ever need.
Use all you want,
there's plenty more
where that came from.
You can't see Tao, but it's there.
Damned if I know where it came from.
It's just always been around.
posted by msalt at 1:34 PM on August 30, 2011 [5 favorites]


How much Tao is there?
More Tao than you can imagine!
posted by Crabby Appleton at 11:17 AM on August 31, 2011


That's an absurd amout of Tao!
Who ordered all this Tao anyway?
posted by nebulawindphone at 1:39 PM on August 31, 2011 [1 favorite]


That's just what's on the menu -- bottomless cuppa Tao.
posted by msalt at 2:42 PM on August 31, 2011 [1 favorite]


If you stop worrying about what's in the cup, then you always get free refills!
posted by nebulawindphone at 1:21 PM on September 1, 2011


The tao that can be drunk ain't the tao, yo.
posted by Horselover Phattie at 1:25 PM on September 1, 2011


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