Twenty-nine Tao te Chings.
January 11, 2009 7:14 PM   Subscribe

Twenty-nine Tao te Chings, a line at a time. For Sunday evening, a spare, meditative post. The Tao-te-Ching in 29 translations, line by line and side by side. I'll leave you to investigate the writings on your own; here alone are just the words to consider. Suggested: Mitchell.

Previously: tao
posted by Tufa (99 comments total) 56 users marked this as a favorite
posted by nosila at 7:21 PM on January 11, 2009

The Whincup translation is the best, imho, and not included on the site.
posted by ten pounds of inedita at 7:25 PM on January 11, 2009


(scroll down for 112 English versions)
posted by fleetmouse at 7:33 PM on January 11, 2009

There's lots of translations of the Dao De Jing largely because any fool and his dog thinks he can have a go, often based on the barest minimum of knowledge of the language and going by some hippy-dippy gut feeling, which they get away with due to the nature of the text and its unfamiliarity for the intended audience. If they did this with one of the classic texts of the Western canon they'd rightly be laughed out the room.
Stephen Mitchell apparently doesn't read any Chinese at all. I won't comment on his poetics, largely because that being the case I can't be arsed to read his effort, but you shouldn't fool yourself that what it represents is anything more than tangentially related to the ancient text. Might as well compile a book of well-phrased Hallmark greetings.
posted by Abiezer at 7:40 PM on January 11, 2009 [5 favorites]

My favorite line is finally easily comparable. I am hoping we are moving up the scale by a couple of notches.
posted by brewsterkahle at 7:53 PM on January 11, 2009 [2 favorites]

There's lots of translations of the Dao De Jing largely because any fool and his dog thinks he can have a go

posted by pyramid termite at 8:07 PM on January 11, 2009

Mitchell doesn't speak or read Chinese. This is obvious when you compare his "translation" to the text of the original. It's rubbish. It sounds nice, and maybe there are good things about it as something which was just cobbled together from spare parts from other peoples' actual translations, but asking about Mitchell is a good way of getting thrown out of a professor of Chinese philosophy's office.
posted by 1adam12 at 8:13 PM on January 11, 2009

So, which ones do you recommend? I was going to start with the Red Pine one, based on some of his other writings.
posted by sneebler at 8:53 PM on January 11, 2009

I don't speak Chinese, but comparing translations of this text used to be something that I spent a lot of time on. I think that part of the problem with translating this text is that I think that a lot of the words are supposed to mean more then one thing at the same time. A lot of the words that are used seem to have multiple meanings, or have words that are similar that could have a different meaning.

As an example from English, there is the word way. I think that this word gets used a lot in translations of the text because it also has more then one meaning. It can mean a path, or it can mean a method. This is a perfect example of what I think is going on, and I think that it was intentional on the part of the author.

And now that I have said that, it probably means that I don't really know anything about it.
posted by jefeweiss at 9:02 PM on January 11, 2009

They're also missing David Hinton's fine translation (a poet who does happen to be a top-notch Mandarin scholar). His Chuang-Tzu is even better (hilariously funny in places).
posted by blacksmithtb at 9:15 PM on January 11, 2009 [2 favorites]

No, you've identified the key problem jefeweiss. It's a cracking piece of gnomic poetry that like all good poetry makes full use of the ambiguities of the language to make subtle points. And "Way" is indeed one of those words and the issues start from the famous opening line:


道 here is used both as noun and verb (as is 名); as well as meaning prosaically a road or more conceptually "the Way," it was the common verb "to say" in the Chinese of the time. 名 is the noun for "name" and the verb for "naming" which as it happens works fine in English, but many an excellent translator has struggled to capture the magic of those opening six characters.
posted by Abiezer at 9:16 PM on January 11, 2009

I grew up on Feng/English, and I still like it most, but I appreciate this.

Am I missing something, or is there no way to get actual SIDE BY SIDE views on the site? (I would actually prefer a checklist of however many, then intralinear text in different colors. That's the way to read simultaneously.)
posted by rokusan at 9:20 PM on January 11, 2009

I am surprised no one has linked to a modern transcription of (one copy of) the original Chinese yet.

There's lots of translations of the Dao De Jing largely because any fool and his dog thinks he can have a go, often based on the barest minimum of knowledge of the language and going by some hippy-dippy gut feeling, which they get away with due to the nature of the text and its unfamiliarity for the intended audience.

I don't know - that sounds like a challenge...


The Tao is Taoable and EXTREMELY Tao.


Its name is not only nameable but extremely famous.


The nameless day's early branches^ began when there is a name and ten thousand animals'... breasts.


Old people often don't bathe (I mean, seriously, grandma!) and they look at you (其?) and tell you you're clever (thanks, gramms.) And often when you take a bath they are very proud of you. These two times, when I was just coming out (of the bath) and she called me this weird name (she thought I was grandpa?) but I thought at the time that it was profound. Profound stuff can be really profound, but most clever people would just have shut the door on her.

- How's that for starters?
posted by Sangermaine at 9:51 PM on January 11, 2009 [7 favorites]

They're also missing David Hinton's fine translation...

See fleetmouse's link.

The Whincup translation is the best

From what I see, he works with the I Ching? Different Ching.

Thanks very much for the links.
posted by mrgrimm at 10:01 PM on January 11, 2009

Googles turn!

Road may be Road, very Road.
Who can name a very name.
The beginning of heaven and earth unknown; famous mother of all things.
Therefor constantly desire nothing.
posted by Merik at 10:06 PM on January 11, 2009 [3 favorites]

Abiezer, which translations do you prefer? Which do you think come the closest?
posted by infinitywaltz at 10:08 PM on January 11, 2009

Cool post, nosila, although I don't actually see an easy way to view these side by side, unless multiple browser tabs counts.
posted by wastelands at 10:11 PM on January 11, 2009

Ah ha ha, the Crowley translation is on there! Pretty terrible example of Chinese scholarship, but he sure gets his religious views across, doesn't he?
posted by infinitywaltz at 10:13 PM on January 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

I think it reads best in the original German.
posted by moonbiter at 10:21 PM on January 11, 2009 [5 favorites]

I think it reads best in the original German.

Just like Rammstein lyrics!
posted by infinitywaltz at 10:31 PM on January 11, 2009

The Hinton translation gets on my tits because of his endless repetition of the word "perennial". It might have been good if he hadn't done that.

I like the Feng / English version, though comparing it to Jonathan Star's verbatim character by character translation reveals they took some liberties. I think if anything they improved verse 16, which comes across as a little dryer in more "correct" translations but really resonates in the Feng.

I like the Henricks translation, and I've read very good things about Ellen M. Chen's version.

I also beseech thee, Abiezer, for your counsel in these matters.
posted by fleetmouse at 10:32 PM on January 11, 2009

Abiezer, which translations do you prefer? Which do you think come the closest?
Not really my field of expertise tbh, I'm just being a smart-arse and curmudgeon, though what I wrote is what I think. I'd personally be interested in getting one of the newer one that include comparative studies of the variant versions recently found in the tombs at Mawangdui and Guodian.
Of course, having read Sangermaine's insightful efforts I have come to a great realisation of cosmic profundity and now intend to cast aside my possessions, nay the very clothes from my back, and set out on pilgrimage until I can find Master Sangermaine and study at their feet, or am arrested for public indecency, whichever comes first.
posted by Abiezer at 11:03 PM on January 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

If users bokane or zhwj see this, they may chime in; they're far better informed about this than me. I spend my time reading the memoirs of crusty old heroes of the revolution or jeremiads on the prospects for reform.
posted by Abiezer at 11:05 PM on January 11, 2009

The Hinton translation gets on my tits because of his endless repetition of the word "perennial". It might have been good if he hadn't done that.
That is the other side of the coin of course. Mitchell and his ilk find a market in part I suppose because the sinologists who know the source language and particular demands of the text aren't necessarily good stylists in the target language. You would have though some collaborative effort might resolve that (until Sangermaine finds a publisher of course).
Realised the other reason I find it hard to recommend a translation is that although my own Classical Chinese is fairly rusty and amateur, I can at least read it in Chinese editions with modern commentary/exegesis.
*looks smug*
posted by Abiezer at 11:19 PM on January 11, 2009

his endless repetition of the word "perennial"
Maybe it's just a subtle joke.
posted by atrazine at 11:21 PM on January 11, 2009

Sangermaine, that was hilarious. But I find the meaning of the text really comes to life only if you're reading it in the original Klingon.
posted by Poagao at 11:25 PM on January 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

Looking at those excerpts from the David Hinton version, without spending much time on it his opening looks a bit hokey or tendentious to me:

A Way become Way isn't the perennial Way.
A name become name isn't the perennial name

How he's turning 可 into "become" I don't see, though doubtless he has his arguments. But it just looks like he's got off on a spectacularly wrong footing from the start.
posted by Abiezer at 11:36 PM on January 11, 2009

道 here is used both as noun and verb (as is 名); as well as meaning prosaically a road or more conceptually "the Way," it was the common verb "to say" in the Chinese of the time

I didn't begin to grasp the density of the opening and the multiple meanings of the words until someone read it to me in Chinese. Please cut me slack because I'm spelling this phonetically, and working from a 20 year-old memory, but it sounds something like:

Dao ke dao, bu ming dao.
Ming ke ming, bu ming ming.

I'm sure that's butchering it, but you get the idea.
posted by msalt at 11:49 PM on January 11, 2009

I can't recall who, but it's been done as "The Way that can be'Wayed'" in an attempt to capture the meanings of 道. Course then you end up being obscure in English. Somewhere down by the Yellow Springs a moustachioed ancient poet is chuckling at us.
posted by Abiezer at 12:00 AM on January 12, 2009

道可道, 非常道
名可名, 非常名

Dao Ke Dao, Fei Chang Dao
Ming Ke Ming, Fei Chang Ming

Actually, my name in Chinese is Dao-ming, though the Ming is 明 and not 名。
posted by Poagao at 12:07 AM on January 12, 2009

msalt, Paogao:

It's interesting to me how often we praise the euphony of Classical Chinese texts, despite their authors lips never having touched a syllable of modern Mandarin.

Interestingly, the site I linked to above suggests the following as a reconstructed T'ang pronunciation.

「道可道, 非常道
名可名, 非常名」

"dhɑ̀u kɑ̌ dhɑ̀u, biəi zhiɑng dhɑ̀u
miæng kɑ̌ miæng, biəi zhiɑng miæng"

Of course, let's not forget that even reconstructed Tang is already some 1200 years (!!) removed from our best guess of when the source text was written (and about another 1200 years separated from modern Mandarin.)

Here are some lectures on Middle Chinese pronunciation.

To get an idea of how much Chinese phonology can change in twelve hundred years...

Here is an example of a contemporary poem recited in Middle Chinese (中古漢語): Song of Tranquil Peace (清平調) by Li Po (李白) of the High T'ang.

Here's what it sounds like in modern Taiwanese/Minnan language (臺灣閩南語). (Sung. Again sung.)

Finally, here's what it sounds like sung in modern Mandarin (普通北京漢華國語.)
posted by Sangermaine at 1:03 AM on January 12, 2009 [1 favorite]

道可 Say, "Yes, we can!"
道非 [They] say disparaging things
常道名 You keep saying that name
可名非常名 But the name is an unusual one.

It is quite obvious the poet was making a Nostradamus-like gnomic prediction concerning the thinly-veiled racist "debates" about Barack Hussein (!!?!) Obama! Uncanny, I tells ya.
posted by Abiezer at 1:18 AM on January 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


I am not familiar with Hinton, nor am I particularly familiar with this text or this era, but I have studied some Classical Chinese, and I would agree that Hinton is definitely exercising judgment in his interpretation.

However, this example got me thinking - I would have assumed that the language here would easily have the flexibility to combine 「可」with a stative verb to generate a meaning of "to become." To see if there might be any documented usages of something like this, I did a (cursory) search of Daniel Sturgeon's archive and was surprised to find nothing even close!

The best I saw was 「可賢」, but even here I think it would be best to take 「賢」as an active verb here ("to be deemed ~") rather than as a stative verb.

This is pretty interesting to me - do you have an idea why my initial assumption seems to be wrong? What am I missing?
posted by Sangermaine at 1:46 AM on January 12, 2009

Yeah, I thought on afterwards Sangermaine and realising he could be using it in some "reifying" sense which would just about work, but then I reckon he'd be playing a bit fast-and-loose with the grammar (the "dao" that may be reified as The Way...).
Also no my specialism but any stretch of the imagination, but iirc 可 as a term of logical debate gets a fairly good outing in Graham's "Disputers of the Tao" as at base meaning "is permissible," in those cases an argument that was logically allowable (could 立 on its own two feet) and I think ultimately related to what was permissible in ritual terms. So no inherent or even distant link to "becoming" afaik, and you'd need another verb to that work.
posted by Abiezer at 1:58 AM on January 12, 2009

I can't get past Chapter 1, Sentence 1.

Apparently there's some sort of name that can't be named or spoken of but maybe it's a Way and the Way leads to things that may or may not be Spoken of.

It's very complicated.
posted by twoleftfeet at 3:42 AM on January 12, 2009

It's very complicated.

How very like life.
posted by Wolof at 4:12 AM on January 12, 2009

How's Victor H. Mair. Based on the recently discovered Ma-Wang-Tui manuscripts. Always found it nice and readable, but no Chinese language on my side but "gimme a beer" and "you're hot". Guess I know what I'm reading again this week.
posted by zengargoyle at 4:52 AM on January 12, 2009

From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

The current Daodejing is divided into two parts (pian) and 81 chapters or sections (zhang). Part one, comprising chapters 1-37, has come to be known as the Daojing (Classic of Dao), while chapters 38-81 make up the Dejing (Classic of Virtue). This is understood to be a thematic division — chapter 1 begins with the word Dao, while chapter 38 begins with the phrase “superior virtue” — although the concepts of Dao and virtue (de) feature in both parts. As a rough heuristic guide, some commentators have suggested that the Daojing is more “metaphysical,” whereas the Dejing focuses more on sociopolitical issues.

In this context, it is easy to appreciate the tremendous interest occasioned by the discovery of the Mawangdui Laozi manuscripts. The two manuscripts contain all the chapters that are found in the current Laozi, although the chapters follow a different order in a few places. For example, in both manuscripts, the sections that appear as chapters 80 and 81 in the current Laozi come immediately after a section that corresponds with chapter 66 of the present text.

posted by anotherpanacea at 4:53 AM on January 12, 2009

Victor H. Mair is of the "brilliant but unorthodox" school is my impression - a very learned and clever fellow but some others in the field with violently disagree with him over some of his positions. His version would certainly be worth the read.
posted by Abiezer at 4:58 AM on January 12, 2009

The ways that can be walked are not the eternal Way;
The names that can be named are not the eternal name.
The nameless is the origin of the myriad creatures;
The named is the mother of the myriad creatures.

Always be without desire
in order to observe its wondrous subtleties;
Always have desire
so that you may observe its manifestations.

Both of these derive from the same source;
They have different names but the same designation.

Mystery of mysteries,
The gate of all wonders!
posted by zengargoyle at 5:00 AM on January 12, 2009

Yeah, I've read a few but his sorta hit the soft spot for me...
posted by zengargoyle at 5:02 AM on January 12, 2009

He's recently done the Sunzi (Art of War) and I read his intro to that where he sets out his approach (PDF). Learned man indeed.
posted by Abiezer at 5:03 AM on January 12, 2009

Funnily enough (and to continue to spam the thread, sorry Tufa), I really don't want a narrow linguistic pedant's version; I like people to interpret and be bold so as to convey meaning rather than transliterate. But with a text from so long ago and far away culturally and the rest, that does require you to do the language work first before you go nuts (and preferably show your working even when you do). To continue to rag on Mitchell, there seems something particularly egotistic and "un-Zen" to presume to own something in the way he has without putting in the leg work. Enlightenment comes suddenly - after polishing your tile for decades.
posted by Abiezer at 5:08 AM on January 12, 2009 [1 favorite]

Victor H. Mair's version is my favorite, I even have my favorite bit quoted in my profile. Of course, everything I know about China I learned from General Tso.
posted by sciurus at 5:11 AM on January 12, 2009

Enlightenment comes suddenly - after polishing your tile for decades.

Polishing your knob doesn't count.

I like all attempts, including translations of translations, where someone reads ten translations and tries to come up with a synthesis that is better than the ten source translations.

But the best translation would be online and ongoing, with comments from other translators and updates based on those comments.
posted by pracowity at 5:18 AM on January 12, 2009 [2 favorites]

Thanks, have book-marked the link off that scirius. Further evidence that the Dao De Jing makes a better proto-Fascist screed than hippy bible, Chapter Three:

For these reasons,
The sage, in ruling,
hollows their hearts,
stuffs their stomachs,
weakens their wills,
builds up their bones,
Always causing the people to be without knowledge and desire.
He ensures that the knowledgeable dare not be hostile,
and that is all.
His rule is universal.

California Uber Alles!

On preview - he'd have spent his time more productively at that.
posted by Abiezer at 5:21 AM on January 12, 2009

Heaven and earth are inhumane;
they view the myriad creatures as straw dogs.
The sage is inhumane;
he views the common people as straw dogs.
The space between heaven and earth, how like a bellows it is!
Empty but never exhausted,
The more it pumps, the more comes out.
Hearing too much leads to utter exhaustion;
Better to remain in the center.
posted by zengargoyle at 5:25 AM on January 12, 2009

and to continue to spam the thread, sorry Tufa

Abiezer, hardly! I am amazed at the scholarship to come out of this thread.
posted by Tufa at 5:40 AM on January 12, 2009

Enlightenment comes suddenly - after polishing your tile for decades.

Worth a line in some future annotated version. Or, in the "lost verses"....
posted by Tufa at 5:49 AM on January 12, 2009

I've always liked chapter 11, which, if it had a title, might be called "the value of emptiness." The first sentence describes that the empty space at the center of a wheel makes it useful, and the second that the empty space in a clay pot is useful.

But I'm particularly interested in the various translations of sentence 3. It's about the empty spaces in a house—but does that mean the empty spaces in the walls (doors and windows) or the empty interior space? Some translations suggest one, some the other, some are ambiguous (perhaps intentionally so), and at least one explicitly mentions both. Any comments on the original from the experts here?
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 5:54 AM on January 12, 2009

Plagiarised that off Huineng's Platform Sutra, though the mangling of the quote was all my own.
posted by Abiezer at 5:54 AM on January 12, 2009

Thirty spokes converge on a single hub,
but it is in the space where there is nothing that the usefulness of the cart lies.
Clay is molded to make a pot,
but it is in the space where there is nothing that the usefulness of the clay pot lies.
Cut out doors and windows to make a room,
but it is in the spaces where there is nothing that the usefulness of the room lies.
Benefit may be derived from something, but it is in nothing that we find usefulness.
posted by zengargoyle at 5:59 AM on January 12, 2009

You need an empty to take in something. Something can't share space. It's the void we fill, not the occupied spaces.
posted by zengargoyle at 6:06 AM on January 12, 2009

DA - here's that line in Chinese:


Grammatically, it's fairly straightforward and many of those "translations" are just rubbish and show some basic misunderstandings; the older version by the missionary Legge is reliable enough and that Lin Yutan has the merit of being a native speaker so not so prone to daft error.
I'd say there's some room for ambiguity and debate amongst linguists because of a couple of characters that are uniquely Chinese in the way they express things - 當 for instance - and others such as 無 ("absence, non-being" and much, much more) or 用 ("use, utility") invite epistemological debate.
Without getting into that, I'd say the specific absence referred to is that created by the act of cutting the doors and windows, but it quickly moves on the larger point inferred from that, and much of the mystical hand-waving is in added by the translators - these things often read as far more straightforward in the original, even when waxing very esoteric.
posted by Abiezer at 6:19 AM on January 12, 2009 [1 favorite]

The Tao that can be deciphered and analyzed is not the true Tao.
posted by Area Control at 7:04 AM on January 12, 2009 [2 favorites]

the sinologists who know the source language and particular demands of the text aren't necessarily good stylists in the target language.

Might as well delete "necessarily"; I only know of one sinologist who had real English style, and she was basically frozen out of the field (which was then extremely sexist—I have no idea what it's like now). I love the fat poetry anthology Sunflower Spendor because of its wide coverage and useful notes, but as poetry the translations are awful.
posted by languagehat at 7:12 AM on January 12, 2009

Also, I've been so put off by the reams of ignorant bullshit that have been spouted about the Tao and the obvious inadequacy of most of the translations that I've never tried to get into it at all (I used to think maybe I'd learn Classical Chinese one day, but I'm afraid that day isn't going to come). If someone like Abiezer enthusiastically recommends a particular translation (hopefully with good annotations), I'll give it a go, though.
posted by languagehat at 7:15 AM on January 12, 2009

lh - I share your reasons for not being that grabbed by the Dao De Jing (not a patch on the Zhuangzi for sheer fun and shared humanity across centuries and culture; far better mystical poetry later from mountain hermits like Han Shan), but as a core text it stands attention in the context of its time, just prior to the Axial Age philosophers of the sino-sphere debating what the Way was (that Angus Graham "Disputers of the Tao" is the classic Western study on that but I bet it's been superseded). Read alongside the other really interesting characters that argued the toss in the centuries following you start to get a sense of what for me is quite a profound difference between the "Oriental" and "Western" traditions, broadly that immanent versus transcendental division.
posted by Abiezer at 7:26 AM on January 12, 2009

The Tao te Ching is definitely one of the most "misread" texts out there, but that's actually what's cool about it. If you're a scholar I imagine this can be irritating, but if a particular translation makes you happy, don't stress it too much. As long as you recognize that part of what you understand from reading it is coming from you, you're not doing it wrong. There isn't any doing it wrong.
posted by selfnoise at 7:50 AM on January 12, 2009

as a core text it stands attention in the context of its time

Sure, that's why I'd be interested in reading it if I thought I was reading a version that actually represented what the original text said.

that's actually what's cool about it.... There isn't any doing it wrong.

I realize that's a popular point of view, but it is completely alien to me.
posted by languagehat at 7:54 AM on January 12, 2009

I'm always amused by the fussy histrionics that go on about which translation is the true one, or the accurate one, or the "hippy dippy" one, or whatever other epithet comes into play. All the bickering seems pretty counter to taoist principles, particularly in light of how the Tao is a book of uncertain authorship, with no extant copies dating to the time of its supposed creation.

Like a lot of people, I started out with the Feng-English, carried around the Mitchell and Wu (the Shambhala teeny edition), and have collected and read a number of the other translations, and I'm convinced that none is truly "accurate," for whatever that's worth, and that it really doesn't matter. It isn't the poetics, precision, or historicity of Chapter 11 that means something—it's the notion that empty spaces within something make it useful. Once you've read a few renditions of the idea, you manage to get the idea by the law of averages and the actual taoist way of just getting something.

Every version contains something that's not quite right. The most rigidly asian versions all use ridigly asian metaphors, based in feudal political systems and littered with an obsession with specific numbers of things that's not very western. I internally translate "the ten thousand things" into something that's relevant to me because ten thousand things don't represent my idea of everything any more than a bearded white man in a robe perched in a cloud represents my idea of a universal origin story.

For taoism to work in a western frame, at least beyond the sort of new age fetish for anti-western exoticism, we have to make our own internal translations, and to take in the variety of ways other people have seen it with gentleness, clarity, and precision, and then find our truth in it by introspection and practice. It means nothing to me to meditate on instructions on how to be a proper feudal leader of an agricultural province, even in metaphor, but with some introspection, I can translate the idea that's being communicated. Otherwise, it's all about cutesy foreign tchotchkes and fussy exotic rituals that don't mean much to westerners except as a picturesque escape from our own institutionalized quasi-spiritual self-hatred.

If you assume there's something a little bit wrong with all of the translations, and can trust the strength of the concepts involved and the notion of the wisdom of crowds, you can find the tao somewhere in the median of all of these different takes. For myself, I read, I ponder, I doubt, and I play and practice, and what many of these chapters actually say become clear. If something is bullshit, I will come to find it in the practice.

Orthodoxy is for people who believe in heaven and fear hell and believe that a rulebook will get you either here or there. The beauty of the tao, or the way, or whatever you see it being, is that it runs through everything, and every culture and belief system, in some way. Where it comes from doesn't mean nearly as much as what you do with it once you've found it.
posted by sonascope at 8:02 AM on January 12, 2009 [3 favorites]

I realize that's a popular point of view, but it is completely alien to me.
Yep. I can appreciate there's varieties of self-generated mysticism that people find something in, but the burblings of various seekers are ten-a-penny whereas the extant record of a foundational cultural tradition from a couple of thousand years back does much more to tickle the fancy. I onyl wish I were better placed to advise about a decent translation. The Ru School got a fair shake when a Hall and Ames, a philosopher and a Sinologist, collaborated to produce Thinking Through Confucius (and other works too; also can't recall which was which). Chad Hansen at HKU seems like a candidate for scholar/enthusiast of Daoism but I know he has his critics too.
posted by Abiezer at 8:03 AM on January 12, 2009

All the bickering seems pretty counter to taoist principles
Which you have derived solipistically from your own subjective second-hand interpretations and good luck to you if it gets you through the night. It's just far less interesting to anyone else than the actual text itself.
posted by Abiezer at 8:07 AM on January 12, 2009 [1 favorite]

Which you have derived solipistically from your own subjective second-hand interpretations

As have you, unless you're able to produce a complete verifiable copy of the original text in the original hand, with a provenance that can be validated through scientific means.
posted by sonascope at 8:27 AM on January 12, 2009

Like the Mawangdui and Guodian texts you mean?
Look, I'm not knocking your right to whatever spiritual delight you find in your interpretations, but your post read as making a virtue out of ignorance, which might work as a parable from a Chan master of the high Tang and Song, but just seems spectacularly dismissive of what can be gained from actual scholarly inquiry. If that hadn't happened in previous generations you'd have to be deriving your delights from European mystic like Boehme instead (and would be little the worse for that in my view).
posted by Abiezer at 8:32 AM on January 12, 2009 [1 favorite]

Oops - too quick. Those texts aren't this putative Laozi author obviously, but basically you're arguing for your inner religious/philosophical responses versus some solid scholarship. It's apples and oranges.
posted by Abiezer at 8:35 AM on January 12, 2009

And so it came to pass that the straw men were smote; and much wrath was vented upon the mutual mischaracterizations. And Abiezer and sonascope did breathe heavily and saw that it was good.
posted by fleetmouse at 8:39 AM on January 12, 2009

It seems to me that the notion that the Tao Te Ching (or its various translations) ought to be read only as a source of wisdom, and that to read it because one is interested in translation issues is somehow wrong, is itself a form of orthodoxy.

sonascope, I am well aware that the central message of chapter 11 is not changed by whether sentence 3 refers to the empty spaces in the walls, or the empty spaces within the room itself, but that does not make the question of which the original refers to any less interesting to me.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 8:41 AM on January 12, 2009

I guess it partly depends on whether you are interpreting the text as philosophy or poetry.

Let's take a crack at the first few lines in the spirit of Douglas Hofstadter. I have annotated it myself to confusicate the subject.

A way is not all ways.
A word is not the Word.
Is "is" what "it" is?
Or is "is" what "is" is?

1. You see what I did there?
2. I think we don't have a word that's flexible enough in English.
3. I think this is what Bill Clinton was hinting at.
4. Put in mostly to round out the first set of lines.

I think that from my experience with this little exercise that the verb "to be" might be part of the problem with doing an english translation. We take it for granted, but I'm not sure that is is used as much in Chinese.
posted by jefeweiss at 8:47 AM on January 12, 2009

And it's more than that - there's massive layers of accretion inherent in any translation process and you have to bear in mind that many of the translator appearing at the main link had their particular philosophical or religious bent - Legge the Christian missionary and the Clearys Jesuit Buddhists or something (?!). It's a testament to the strength of the text and the concepts it describes that I do think they survive the various manglings quite remarkably unscathed, but I find it bizarre that anyone would want to dismiss an interest in that text - which is all we have of this "Laozi."
There's larger issues too of taking it away from the context of the debates in China at the time and looking at it alone or alongside just one or two other texts, but again that would depend on your purpose.
posted by Abiezer at 8:48 AM on January 12, 2009

I guess I would have to point out that when I use the word in quotes, I am using it in more of a symbolic fashion. Kind of like a transliteration of the meaning of air quotes, or to refer to a difference between a word and the thing that a word refers to.
posted by jefeweiss at 8:52 AM on January 12, 2009

The Mawangdui dates from 150-200 BCE, and the Guodian dates to 300 BCE. Considering that the origin of the Tao Te Ching is considered to be in the 6th century BCE, there's a bit of a gap there. Where's the single, indisputable text?

I'm not dismissing scholarly inquiry at all—in fact, I'm more just knocking the tendency of people to sit and argue about translations of the text without scholarly rigor, and I'm making an argument for the value of a composite translation derived from all the existing scholarship instead of one single orthodox translation. I'm very interested in the academic study of the text, but I'm also not going to sit and wait for the one true translation™ to emerge when such a thing is not possible.

I argue against claims that there are poetic absolutes, and that's what so much of the criticism and debate surround the text always comes back to. Translation would only be absolute and universal if you could translate between one fixed, immutable language to another, and language is not fixed. That's the virtue and curse of poetics, and it's a part of why the translations of the TTC vary so much. If there was a single definitive source text, we'd have something to go back to, but there isn't one. We all make our own "solipsistic" derivations of the text, based on our own scholarly biases and cultural preconceptions, whether we're laymen or academics, because we're translating poetry. I'm making the suggestion that we look to the mass of the scholarship on the subject instead of just seeking out the one true and mystically-perfect version.

I have to chuckle at the suggestion that I'm getting "spiritual delight" in my interpretations, snarkily dismissive though they might be, given the fact that my take on taoism is entirely aspiritual and mechanistic. Frankly, I don't need to look to god or my "soul" or some mystical nonsense to see the tao in action—it's all just there for me, plain and simple, in the wood when I'm in my workshop, or in the interplay of nested sine waves when I'm making music, or in the way certain words just work in a sentence when I'm writing. If meticulous scholarship gets you through the night, and if you actually believe that you can only understand something by obsessive academic study, so be it. I'm not going to change your mind anytime soon.
posted by sonascope at 9:14 AM on January 12, 2009

That should be "suggestions," with an S, in the first line of the last paragraph. Typo.
posted by sonascope at 9:18 AM on January 12, 2009

Well, you cheeky sod, it's precisely that "actually believe that you can only understand something by obsessive academic study, so be it" that's what sparked me off and is so laughable. I think nothing of the sort. But I do know that the fact I can read the Laozi in Chinese and you can't means I understand it better. Sucks for you, especially since we also get the hidden "Hot Coffee" passages :D
My interest in translation is professional and in the context of this thread, since the matter came up.
posted by Abiezer at 9:22 AM on January 12, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm not dismissing scholarly inquiry at all

Well, your first comments sure sounded that way. I'm glad you're backing off from them and sounding more like a normal human with a brain, and hopefully your takeaway from this is that being "snarkily dismissive" isn't a good path to enlightenment.
posted by languagehat at 9:26 AM on January 12, 2009

Sucks for you, especially since we also get the hidden "Hot Coffee" passages :D

I know you were joking, but damn: there are some really hot passages in the Tao te Ching. Like Chapter Six from the link above.

LH, I think there was some dismissiveness on both sides, and then (can it be?) mutual understanding. My comments came out of a concern about scaring casual readers away completely. I read some seriously bad translations in college: I was broke and had to make do with whatever the library had. It's still better than not being exposed to the text, I think, and the sufficiently interested will take the necessary steps onward.
posted by selfnoise at 9:54 AM on January 12, 2009

Abiezer: I really don't want a narrow linguistic pedant's version; I like people to interpret and be bold so as to convey meaning rather than transliterate. But with a text from so long ago and far away culturally and the rest, that does require you to do the language work first before you go nuts (and preferably show your working even when you do).

Given that, I'm curious what you (& others) think of two "versions" of Daoist classics, both written over decades by writers not claiming to speak Chinese: Ursula LeGuin's Tao Teh Ching, and Thomas Merton's annotation The Way of Chuang Tzu.

I am polishing a book of my own that attempts to get at these concepts in modern American context, 99 short (one page) chapters of spare prose, hopefully blunt and elegant. Insanely presumptuous, of course. If anyone is interesting is seeing the text and ripping it apart, please memail me.
posted by msalt at 10:22 AM on January 12, 2009

This is a good post and a great discussion. Sorry to have missed so much classic Abiezer as it happened! The overall shittiness of most translations of the DDJ is something that has bothered me for years (I can read Chinese, though probably not as well as Abiezer and certainly not as well as Poagao, who I didn't even know was on Metafilter) and it seems that I've largely lost interest in the original at this point, so it may never be resolved. HOWEVER, it is my considered opinion that Red Pine is the best living translator of Buddhist scripture and certainly not the kind of guy who would just make stuff up if he can't understand the original, so I vote for his version. He footnotes copiously, and is one of the few translators who almost always includes the original Chinese text, so get the book. While you're at it, get The Zen Teachings of Bodhidharma. He understands the spirit of the stuff, and he would never fudge on the language. It is my hope that someday he will learn Japanese and translate Dogen.
posted by alexwoods at 10:47 AM on January 12, 2009 [1 favorite]

selfnoise - I'm sure I did lay on the sneering a bit thick in my earlier comments (Hallmrk sentiments etc) but I assure you this comes from a genuine passion for these (including other Chinese classics) profound monuments of the human spirit and hows it grates to them cheapened by some quite astounding chutzpah-induced Western appropriations down the years. By contrast, I'm charmed and in awe of some early, now superseded, translations made by people who didn't have the chance to stand on the shoulders of giants like myself but got in there and had a go anyway. But since I must have posted two thirds of the comments in this thread, I'll shut up about it now.
posted by Abiezer at 11:13 AM on January 12, 2009

This is a pretty interesting discussion, indeed. It brings up a lot of issues that I thought about while I was reading all of the versions of the Dao De Jing that I could get my hands on in the early internet era.

At the time that I was doing all my reading I tended to take a dim view of scholarly translations, and to a certain extent I still do. I think that there are parts of the book itself that could be taken to be warnings against a scholarly approach to knowledge. Also I tend to think that some translations miss the playful quality of the work, which I tend to think of as one of it's strongest points. Viewed in a certain way it's almost a prank on scholars.

And to make a more direct recommendation, I think that anyone who spends much time at all thinking about issues involved in translation might enjoy reading Le Ton Beau de Marot by Douglas Hofstadter.
posted by jefeweiss at 11:15 AM on January 12, 2009

The Tao need not be known.
posted by Smedleyman at 11:19 AM on January 12, 2009

The Mitchell (non-)translation is my favourite. And I've read a few.

Abiezer, your sense that you can post something useful and informed, about a text you proudly state you "can't be arsed to read", is an interesting mirror on your views about Mitchell's legitimacy.

The thing is, what you mock as a "hippy-dippy gut feeling" is exactly the interior experience the Tao te Ching was written from, and was intended to lead you to. It has a more serious name: it's called mysticism by those who find themselves inside it.

If you're an expert on the text, that experience must have, at some point, had some allure to you. But now the literal text seems to have become more important to you -- an irony, since its first words, similar in most translations, are: "The Tao that can be told / is not the eternal Tao."

Mitchell cites, as sources, a literal version that provides many English equivalents, including very quaint ones, for each ideogram, and "dozens of translations into English, German and French." But he adds that his preparation also included fourteen years of zen training.

It's there in every word, which is why I would rather have tea with Mitchell than with a professor of Chinese philosophy who would throw me out of his or her office for asking about him. One sees classic texts as dead artifacts. The other knows they have always been personal and alive.

In his introduction, Mitchell writes:

"With great poetry, the freest translation is often the most faithful. 'We must try its effect as an English poem,' Dr. Johnson said; 'that is the way to judge the merit of a translation'."

Mitchell's version can certainly be enhanced and appreciated by being read in combination with others. But given the choice of just one, to convey the essence, Mitchell would my choice.

At the risk of broadening the discussion, the same can be said of Coleman Barks' versions (not translations, he does not read Persian) of Rumi. Barks' versions are favourites of senior Sufis I've connected with, who know many versions and sometimes can read the original. There's a level of understanding that rises above academic purity. Academic purity is a good step better than "Hallmark greetings" or ignorance, but it's equally far beneath actual understanding.

To quote Rumi (this version is by Chittick):

"Do not remain a man of intellect among the lovers,
especially if you love that sweet-faced Beloved.
May the men of intellect stay far from the lovers,
may the smell of dung stay far from the east wind!
If a man of intellect should enter, tell him the way
is blocked; but if a lover should come, extend him a
hundred welcomes!

By the time intellect has deliberated and reflected,
love has flown to the seventh heaven.
By the time intellect has found a camel for the
hajj, love has circled the Kaaba.

Love has come and covered my mouth: 'Throw
away your poetry and come to the stars!'"

- Rumi, Ghazal (Ode) 182, Translation by William C. Chittick
posted by namasaya at 11:52 AM on January 12, 2009 [2 favorites]

Oh dear, drawn back in. If Mitchell says that he's an even bigger fraud than I imagined. Chinese is not written in ideograms and the notion you can sit there with a vocab crib sheet but no knowledge of the grammar and syntax of Chinese is hilarious.
"what you mock as a "hippy-dippy gut feeling" is exactly the interior experience the Tao te Ching was written from"
No it's not and if you'd actually read it instead of these milksop pastiches you'd know that too. It's about an honesty that would blow the puffed-up egotism of this sort of bullshit to the four winds. Seriously, behave.
posted by Abiezer at 12:49 PM on January 12, 2009 [1 favorite]

I have to say that I'm with Abiezer here. To quote Le Guin (obviously not a scholarly authority, but a smart lady):

"Lao Tzu is tough-minded. He is tender-minded. He is never, under any circumstances, squashy-minded. By confusing mysticism with imprecision, such versions betray the spirit of the book and its marvelously pungent, laconic, beautiful language."

My wife always says that she dislikes the Mitchell because she thinks he snuck Jesus in there. I'm not sure I agree but I see where she's coming from. Once you start putting your own stuff in there you have to recognize that, or all sorts of other things start to
creep in.

Full disclosure: I like DC Lau's translation quite a bit. Although I've only read the older version that you can find here.
posted by selfnoise at 1:10 PM on January 12, 2009

The thing is, what you mock as a "hippy-dippy gut feeling" is exactly the interior experience the Tao te Ching was written from, and was intended to lead you to.

You have no idea what "interior experience" the Tao te Ching was written from, and the only clue you could possibly have about what it meant to its author in its time is from the patient researches of those scholars you despise. If you prefer your own interior experience and to hell with what the text says, that's fine, but be honest about it.

Same goes for those crappy Coleman Barks translations of Rumi. Enjoy them if you will, but they're not Rumi.
posted by languagehat at 1:24 PM on January 12, 2009 [1 favorite]

Glad to see this topic is helping to satisfy everyone's Tao jones.

My old favorite version is Feng and English. It was 1974, I was on the early-twenties, cross-country-with-your-buddies trip. We had gotten as far as Humboldt county...? Around there, north and east of Eureka, CA. We split into pairs and hitched a long and winding road filled with logging trucks just roaring along in dust. Finally got a pickup truck-back ride to our destination, an unmarked path leading into the woods.

Some woods! You can imagine trees wider than houses and impossibly tall along the comfy pine duff paths, but this filled in details like ferns as tall as the shortest member of our party and clover as wide and green as a dinner plate.

Magnificent, but we were road weary and far from home. We trudged under our backpacks in slanting evening sun.

From the dusk down the path came, it turned out, the very friend of our friend we were looking for. He was shoeless and shirtless, Levis and long blond hair, strolling along sipping a mug of black coffee and reading a copy of Feng and English's Tao Te Ching. They had a regular little hermit's squat back there among the huge trees, quite plush for camping, we thought. Further was a wide, bright, sunny, rocky space leading to a trickle that was the local river at this season. We stayed some while, had a great time. I bought the book as soon as I got home. I think the spot is now part of a California State Park.

I like Red Pine's work a lot, including his TTC. My current most-read version is by Stephen Addis and Stanley Lombardo, published by Shambala, but not available at the Twenty-Nine Version site.

I've skimmed and browsed the long thread above and haven't seen it cited yet, so here's a link to yet another, what you might call a brisk version, Tao Te Ching by Ron Hogan.
posted by Forrest Greene at 2:18 PM on January 12, 2009

Abiezer, that's an academic answer, full of wounded pettiness.

(Maybe the word logograms would be demonstrably better, and maybe we could have a whole discussion about it. Though I'd rather not.)

And, again with the language: now the book you (still) haven't read is a "milksop pastiche." And now its author is a "fraud."

Mitchell, incidentally, was educated at Amherst, the Sorbonne and Yale, and has spent 25 years publishing widely respected true 'translations,' beginning with Rilke, from eight languages, ancient and modern. But his education had a further step, one that seems to me to be the essence of the texts he's drawn to (and has also anthologized). He describes himself as having been "de-educated through intensive Zen practice."

This is a step you seem to have no respect for, interest in, or grasp of at this stage in your life.

Which is odd, because without some sense of why someone would choose that path, or what they might find there, I can't imagine you making head or tail of any version of the Tao te Ching.

langaugehat, there's an introduction in the front and an essay in the back of Mitchell's version in which he's entirely honest about what he's doing. He also cites a solid list of sources, versions and authorities that fed into his fairly intensive months of work on this project. I don't despise the patient researches of scholars any more than Mitchell does. Rather, I'm suggesting that there's an integrative level, above pure intellect and research that is rare.

What Mitchell has produced resonates with some people. Huston Smith, the world's leading scholar on comparative religion, called it "as close to being definitive for our time as any I can imagine."

As for Rumi — Barks' "crappy translations" are fine poetry. My suggestion would be: start with Barks; then if you find, as many have, that you cannot escape the magic of it, read widely among other translators for more literal and authentic wordings. The comparison is fascinating, illuminating and delightful. Read biographies, read history, dive more deeply into the culture and context. Read other Sufi poets. And then return to Barks, ready to read it in a new way, both more appreciative and more skeptical, enriched by that exploration.

The same goes for Mitchell.

To return, shocking as that might be at this point, to the original post: the real marvel is that we live in a time when anyone who gets the impulse, and has an Internet connection, can read dozens of different versions of a text like the Tao te Ching without leaving their house.
posted by namasaya at 2:29 PM on January 12, 2009 [1 favorite]

Forrest, I also like the Addiss-Lombardo translation, which is surprisingly beautiful for all of its obsessive emphasis on being terse. I always thought the Feng-English was a little too middle-of-the-road, though, but there's no denying that it's a popular one.

Namasaya et al I think you will find that there is not a large disagreement here; certainly not a large enough one to be slinging attacks around (in a discussion of Lao Tzu, seriously?)
posted by selfnoise at 2:46 PM on January 12, 2009

Dang it, just when I thought it was safe to stay away from Metafilter... *sigh* Still need to finish reading the Zhuangzi in the original one of these days...
posted by jiawen at 5:01 PM on January 12, 2009

Yeah, I don't understand why Zhuangzi never caught on the way the Dao De Jing did. Actually much more accessible, I would think.

I'm with sonascope, jefeweiss etc. (focusing on spirit as much as scholarship) but only if you distinguish between the Dao and the Dao De Jing. The book is describing a thing, which isn't ancient or Chinese anymore than DNA is British and 20th Century because Watson and Crick wrote the first paper describing it. In theory you could understand the Tao perfectly without ever reading the DDJ.

But the book itself is totally rooted in its time,language and culture, and to think you can blow by the scholarship and master it based on your inner insights is pretty cocky. Besides, how can you tell if your insight is on target or not? That's why I'm curious how folks compare Le Guin and Mitchell. I prefer hers, myself.
posted by msalt at 6:10 PM on January 12, 2009

Heaven forfend that I am ... misinterpreted, but I am gratified by the great quantity of thoughtfulness (and orneriness) that has come out of such a small post.
posted by Tufa at 7:24 PM on January 12, 2009

I speak no Chinese, so I prefer the translations that simply sound like the best writing and in which the meaning (while perhaps not the original meaning) rings true. Hence my preference for the Feng/English version, which reads like (good) poetry.

Trying to ferret out the author's original intent seems sort of slippery when said author was being deliberately clever and coy.

See also my preference for the KJV Bible. If I stop casting aspersions about what these people (who may or may not have existed) originally meant, and stop pretending I know how many times it was hacked up in retellings and rewritings later anyway.... it's simply the best resulting book.

Truth is not accuracy. Accuracy is not truth.
posted by rokusan at 7:34 PM on January 12, 2009

Abiezer, that's an academic answer, full of wounded pettiness.
This too would be comical if not so presumptuous. I'm not an academic; I'm not wounded - I'm someone who works with words, loves their power and potential to weave magic and is disheartened to see cheap charlatanism substituted for honesty. It's astounding that it would be evenly mildly controversial to suggest that a purported translator of a text might want to actually know the language!
posted by Abiezer at 8:14 PM on January 12, 2009 [2 favorites]

I think that anyone who spends much time at all thinking about issues involved in translation might enjoy reading Le Ton Beau de Marot by Douglas Hofstadter.

i'd like to second that recommendation - it's a classic upon the subject
posted by pyramid termite at 9:11 PM on January 12, 2009 [1 favorite]

Just reading yours rokusan - I'm not here arguing for a quest for "the author's original intent" or slavish accuracy - I said as much above. But Chinese isn't just a random assemblage of wing-dings - it's a language with all that entails and if you don't even know the grammar and haven't read other texts (particularly the few that survive from nearer contemporaries), you're essentially engaging in some spirit-writing seance rather than translating anything at all.
This claim that Mitchell is a Zen practitioner on a bold spiritual quest (that apparently lead him to knock out what is tantamount to a self-help book to sell under commodity capitalism) is of a piece with that. I'm familiar with the history of Buddhist translation into Chinese from Kumarajiva onward and also aware of the traditional Tibetan practise of having a master who has practised with a text work on any translation. Comparing the discipline of that tradition to the apparent self-appointed chutzpah of this effort by Mitchell tells you a lot about the different levels of seriousness and humility involved in the enterprises.
posted by Abiezer at 9:30 PM on January 12, 2009

Tell you what though, in the spirit of compromise, if he reads the 道德经, I'll read his poetry :p
posted by Abiezer at 9:40 PM on January 12, 2009

Wow, joining in way too late in the thread, but:

The Mitchell interpretation of the Daode Jing is extremely nice - in fact, it's one of the things that first got me interested in learning Chinese - but it is not, by a long shot, accurate. What gets lost in his version, and in most versions, is that the Daode Jing is not a text by a single author. It's riven with different voices -- the sage, the immortality fetishist, the advisor to the sage-king -- and most translations miss this because the authors are too fixated on the idea of Laozi the smiley old Chinese guy.

As for recommendations: Henricks, Mair, and Lau, probably in that order. Henricks has the advantage of having translated both the Mawangdui and Guodian manuscripts; Mair works off of the Mawangdui texts but has more style and considerably more philological oomph than Henricks, and Lau has better notes than all of them for the non-specialist.
posted by bokane at 1:22 PM on January 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

Also: I haven't read the 'Red Pine' translation, but Bill Porter certainly knows his stuff, and I can't see him falling victim to the same airy-fairy "well, we're basically all the same" fallacy that Mitchell and company do. He also speaks and reads Chinese, which is, you know, a plus when one is translating a Chinese text.
posted by bokane at 1:23 PM on January 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

Also also, to join Abeizer in pointing out the problems in Mitchell's version: I like Mitchell's translations from languages he knows. His version of the Book of Job is beautiful, and his translations of Rilke, while not my favorites, are very good. The problem with this, and with his 'translation' of the epic of Gilgamesh, is that he is simply not up to the task. It's not just that he's bringing a knife to a gun-fight: he's bringing a twinkie to a thermonuclear war.

I understand that he cites his experience as a student of Zen as a factor in his translation of the Daode Jing -- but this would be like me, if I were a Mormon, citing that in my interpretation of the Talmud. The two are related, to be sure, but it's like a plumber claiming that because he knows sinks, he can fix a car.
posted by bokane at 1:31 PM on January 13, 2009 [2 favorites]

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