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Would someone who is vary familiar with Lao Tzu's philosophy please refer me to a translation of Tao Te Ching that preserves the spirit and eternal messages of Tao Te Ching. I don't like the translations I've read that try to modernize the text, and relate it back to modern life (such as Ron Hogan, Stephen Mitchell, etc.). I know that each person's translation says more about the translator than the work itself, and so I would like a translation that doesn't take liberties with ideas or turn general concepts into overly specific ones. I am also aware that I should read multiple translations, which I will do on my computer, but I'd like to pick up one hard copy that is reasonably true to the original work. An embedded analysis might be beneficial but it's not necessary.

Thanks in advance.

  • I can see why you don' like the Hogans translation, but I thought the Mitchell one was good. At least the first verse was close to the original when I tried translating the first verse myself. – Mozibur Ullah Oct 9 '14 at 2:01
  • Yes I agree they're definitely not comparable. Stephen Mitchell's translation is not too bad but it's not really what I'm looking for based on the criteria I mentioned above. – mikeed_5 Oct 9 '14 at 3:19
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    Another dimension is that this text has had the equivalent of its 'Qumran moment' within our lifetime. So, as when looking at a Gospel, it might be important to consider whether you want what is traditionally accepted, or what might come from the earliest source. Victor Mair in the 80's did a translation that varies substantially from what has been handed down for centuries, based on the recovery of older manuscripts. So is that more honest, or less relevant to tradition? – jobermark Oct 9 '14 at 17:15
  • There's a good one by John C. H Wu. Trans. Another is by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English for Wildwood House (1973). There are some terrible ones out there. . – PeterJ Dec 2 '18 at 11:59
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    The translation that's the "best" is surely not the Tao. Right? Right. – user4894 Dec 2 '18 at 23:16
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It would be helpful to know why you want to read the Daodejing in order to suggest a helpful translation. Are you reading it for (a) raw investigative purposes, (b) meditative / religious / ethical purposes, (c) academic purposes?

I would recommend looking at the translation by Roger Ames and David T. Hall. The text is translated by two scholars who are quite good with the languages, and it includes an extensive preface that explains why they translate several controversial terms the way that they do. I wouldn't say I agree on every front with that. I say this in large part, because their translation represents one of the best efforts in contemporary philosophy to render the text both philosophical and comprehensible -- and this is philosophy.se.

But the big problem here is that it's nearly impossible to translate the sort of fragmentary elements found in the Daodejing into English without commentary and interpretation. A large source of this is that Ancient Chinese does mark words by declension or conjugation and does not clearly specify word type -- the same word could be a noun or verb depending on sentence position. Moreover, it's not always clear whether a word is meant to have conceptual weight or just to be taken as having the common meaning. (one speculation is that the written form of ancient Chinese was never a spoken language).

For instance, Bao points this out with reference to the passage Analects 12.11 and the possibilities it presents:

孔子對曰:「君君,臣臣,父父,子子。」公曰:「善哉!信如君不君,臣不臣,父不父,子不子,雖有粟,吾得而食諸?」 (from ctext).

The question is whether the repeated characters are: 1. all to be seen as nouns 2. to be seen as verb-noun 3. to be seen as noun-verb (Bao 180).

Finally, it's worth remarking that the vast majority of contemporary scholars do not think Lao Tzu is a person. He's more a fictionalized advocate for Daoism set up to stand against Confucius et. al and give Daoism a more fixed historical standing.

On a certain level, all translation is interpretation but the interpretive distance can vary quite a bit: Snow is white -> Schnee ist weiß doesn't leave much room for wiggle, other things are not so easy.

References

  • Ames, Roger and Hall, David "Introduction" in Daodejing: A Philosophical Translation (2003).
  • Bao Zhiming "Subject, Predicate, and Eventful Language" in Polishing the Chinese Mirror: Essays in Honor of Henry Rosemont, Jr. (2007)
  • I want to read it for personal development purposes. I believe the priorities of taoist philosophy are in the proper order, as it values individual peace of mind and tranquility over absolute truth. I will check out that translation. Thank you. – mikeed_5 Oct 9 '14 at 5:24
  • "A large source of this is that Ancient Chinese does not have much of a grammar -- the same word could be a noun or verb depending on sentence position (and they are not marked by declension or conjugation elements either)." Zero derivation is still grammar... syntax is still grammar... I don't even know what it would mean for a language to not have much grammar. – curiousdannii Aug 12 at 15:32
  • I've added a few sentences and sources and tried to remove the sentence you found off. I don't think it was wrong but anything can be improved. – virmaior Aug 13 at 0:06
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My favourite translation is by Jonathan Star. Although it is not altogether true to the original Chinese I believe, after reading many different translations, that Star retains the essence of what is being said, but delivers it in a readable and poetic format.

  • +1 didn't know Jonathan Star, and in amazon.com preview it looks a very good translation. Maybe when he absorb a little more of the teachings of the book, he will be giving the pdf in his site for free... "The Sage... He gives but not to receive, He works but not for reward..." DDJ 2 ;) – Rodrigo Nov 6 '15 at 19:25
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Based on the provided criteria, I think you'd better get this one:

"Tao Te Ching: The New English Version That Makes Good Sense" https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1727252241/

I've read about thirty translations, and found that this is the most comprehensible one. This book stands out of the crowd because it is based on the author's research breakthroughs and is a new translation from the original Chinese text, so it can try to be true to the intent of Lao Tzu and has introduced Lao Tzu's teaching in form of a system of philosophy. It tells exactly what the Tao is, how to experience the Tao, what your true nature is and how to know it, and how to work with the Tao, unlike others which keep convincing you that the Tao can not be told or explained, and leave you in dark and helpless.

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I would recommend the James Legge translation which can be found with notes here:-

http://www.sacred-texts.com/tao/sbe39/index.htm

and all on one page without notes here:-

http://www.sacred-texts.com/tao/taote.htm

Also on Sacred Books of The East, vol 39 (sbe39) is The Writings of Chuang Tzu, which in many places elucidates the Tâo Te Ching.

There are various editions:-

ISBN 8120801407
ISBN 140218591X
ISBN 1498073743
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    The main problem for Legge is that it's woefully outdated. If memory serves there's also a few places where butchers the translation. Main advantage is that it's roughly complete and free. – virmaior Oct 9 '14 at 8:28
  • I came to it via the Chuang Tzu which elaborates on themes which are then found cryptically epitomised in the Tâo Te Ching. Read this way round the translation worked well, and the Chuang Tzu is a nice read. (The notes and references are all interlinked.) – Chris Degnen Oct 9 '14 at 10:11
  • I would not recommend Legge's translation. I gained the impression he did not understand the text. – PeterJ Dec 3 '18 at 13:23
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    @PeterJ Can you give an example? – Chris Degnen Dec 3 '18 at 13:36
  • @ChrisDegnen - Sorry but I cannot. I disposed of this translation immediately on reading it. I remember I found it unpoetic and somewhat incomprehending. On this I would agree with virmajor. There are much better translations. – PeterJ Dec 4 '18 at 11:10
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I've done a translation of the Dao De Jing myself, from the chinese version available here, and the aid of several different translations, in english and portuguese, and some slight different versions of the original (noted in some of the english/portuguese translations).

Most translations seem too "mystic" to me. Many (like James Legge's) were made by christian scholars, so they may have altered some passages to promote their own religion, or just by ignorance (writing "eternal life" when the original says "longevity", for instance, or translating Dao as "God").

I'm not such a profound student of chinese culture yet, but I studied some of the things Dao De Jing is about: nature and ancient peoples. As a biologist, I see more sense in translating 常 (cháng) as "usual", "most of the times" than most philosophers do, translating it as "eternal", "fixed", "immutable".

Also living 3 years in a indigenous small city in Amazon forest (São Gabriel da Cachoeira) taught me a lot about the way they think. They say, for instance, "we study nature not to rule over it, but to follow its way". That's a daoist idea that indigenous peoples usually follow. Considering their asiatic ancestry, and the points in common between chinese and Yanomami language (at least 3 points not present in european languages), I think they have more in common than most scholars have ever thought. That's why I think my translation is in some aspects better than many scholars'.

Two main differences: I translate Dao as Nature, since they are the same to me. And I translate De as Harmony (previously I used Spontaneity, now I think Harmony has a wider meaning, though Spontaneity also makes sense), since this makes perfect sense in the overall text (and also in the Zhuang Zi), and is not so vague or full of other meanings as "Virtue".

I haven't translated it to english yet, but I think Google Translate can do a decent job at that. And you can ask me if you have any doubts. The pdf is here.

EDIT: Explaining better my point about 常 cháng:

“Always without desire we must be found, if its deep mystery we would sound” (James Legge, 1891)

“Hence always rid yourself of desires in order to observe its secrets” (D.C. Lau, 1963)

“Ever desireless, one can see the mystery” (Gia-Fu Feng, 1972)

“always be dispassionate in order to see the mysteries” (Bradford Hatcher, 2007)

People insist in translate 常 cháng as “always” (when it also means “usual”, “regular”, “common”, “normally”, “frequently”, etc). To live “always without desires” is not the same thing as “usually without desires”, and the latter fits not only into the original text (in chapter 1 itself, and in “the flexible wins over the rigid” (chapter 36, 43, 78...), “the movement of Dao is the return” (chapter 40), etc), but fits also into a very basic knowledge of biology and psychology. To expect a rigid, complete, eternal absence of desires is something that only a Christian and members of a few other religions could think of as a “virtue”. The referred passage makes much more sense as “the longest you crave for nothing, the deep you get into the essence of things”. That is, why be hyperbolic, when we can be natural?

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    I don't believe a translation should be attempted by anyone who does not understand the philosophy. To translate Dao as Nature is to destroy the meaning of the text. To complain the text is too 'mystical' is like complaining a cookery book is too much about food. This text comes from a shamanic background and is a prime example of 'mysticism'.or 'non-dualism'. If we do not know what 'non-dualism' means we do not know what Lao Tsu's text means. . . . – PeterJ Dec 3 '18 at 13:20
  • @PeterJ I'm a biologist. To me, mind is a consequence of matter, so there is no dualism, and this is from a scientific perspective, not a "mystical" one, and that's the perspective I applied to my translation. Probably your definition of Nature is different from mine, and that's probably why you think I "destroyed the meaning of the text". Maybe you could read my translation (Google Translate?) and tell us the parts you disagree. – Rodrigo Dec 3 '18 at 14:54
  • I feel strongly about this. Can you imagine what we'd think of the Tao Teh Ching if yours was the only translation? The translators scepticism and incomprehension is not supposed to find it's way into the translation. The original text does not suggest that mind is a consequence of matter and the translators view is irrelevant. Your view is not scientific but is a metaphysical conjecture. You're welcome to hold it but it is a philosophical position not a scientific theory. A translator must understand the original text or end up bowdlerising it. – PeterJ Dec 4 '18 at 11:07
  • @PeterJ What we’d think if ANY translation was the only one? Anyone’s worldview gets into a translation, mostly with Ancient Chinese, which lacks our grammatical clarity. The original text also doesn’t suggest that mind is apart from matter (THIS is a dualistic idea). Yes, it’s a metaphysical conjecture, but coherent with what we know about Nature today, and what Amerindian peoples know about Nature. And these peoples live much closer to Laozi's world than scholars inside libraries. I don’t think shamanism is different than medicine+psychology. If you do, you are the dualist here, not me. – Rodrigo Dec 4 '18 at 12:59
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    You do not understand the text and so are not able to translate it and retain its meaning. We do not need to argue. If you tell me that you understand what Lao Tsu means by the statement 'True words seem paradoxical' then I'll back off. If you do not know then I rest my case. Your comment that the text seems too 'mystical' to you is a dead giveaway. How are you going to retain this 'mystical' flavour in your translation if you don't understand it? As for Google translate, I'm surprised you mention it. – PeterJ Dec 5 '18 at 11:28
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@Rodrigo

I would suggest that anyone who is sincere about fathoming Tao, studies Taoism (or even something like Zen) with a master/school.

I have also spent time in the Amazon with Shipibo, Yanomami amongst others. It's true, that their manifestations in many ways echo Taoist principles. But not because they have read it - or have the definitive translation - but because they embody it.

As with any path, it is futile to attempt any understanding or learning by academic study alone.

You don't learn to drive by reading the manual. It may be of some supplementary help, but you need to get into the drivers seat to really understand experientially.

The Tao Te Ching is not The Tao.

The Tao exists before the Tao Te Ching.

The "book" is an attempt to convey something of Tao.

The first line says it all. It is exquisitely self-defeated in advance. It could be argued that the best people to translate The Tao Te Ching are those who try to embody Tao.

"Knowing the exact meaning" of any word can be misleading. For example, it may seem strange to translate from Tao to God (a very loaded word) - But that opens a huge question about what God means. The origin of all things? - Nature? - Goodness? - The essence behind all manifestations? - An old guy with a white beard sitting on a cloud?

If I believe that God means Nature, perhaps it's a useful attempt for me. Being a Biologist, or a Bank Clerk, or a Bus Driver, will neither help nor hinder anyone on their journey.

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