A Conversation for 'Tao Te Ching' by Lao Tze


Post 1


How can translations of the same text be so wildly different? Here is poem 1 of the Tao Te Ching as translated into english by the GPL at http://www.chinapage.org/gnl.html

1. The Way
The Way that can be experienced is not true;
The world that can be constructed is not true.
The Way manifests all that happens and may happen;
The world represents all that exists and may exist.

To experience without intention is to sense the world;
To experience with intention is to anticipate the world.
These two experiences are indistinguishable;
Their construction differs but their effect is the same.

Beyond the gate of experience flows the Way,
Which is ever greater and more subtle than the world.

And here is a version from Project Gutenberg (James Legge translation)

Ch. 1. 1. The Tao that can be trodden is not the enduring and
unchanging Tao. The name that can be named is not the enduring and
unchanging name.

2. (Conceived of as) having no name, it is the Originator of heaven
and earth; (conceived of as) having a name, it is the Mother of all

3. Always without desire we must be found,
If its deep mystery we would sound;
But if desire always within us be,
Its outer fringe is all that we shall see.

4. Under these two aspects, it is really the same; but as development
takes place, it receives the different names. Together we call them
the Mystery. Where the Mystery is the deepest is the gate of all that
is subtle and wonderful.

They seem almost to be speaking of completely different things!


Post 2

Lear (the Unready)

I think the problem here is that there are basically two ways of translating. Firstly, one can aim for a 'literal' translation, in other words trying to reproduce as accurately as possible the individual meanings of words and phrases. On the face of it this would seem to be the best way of preserving the 'integrity' of the original text, but it can often have the weakness of being too pedantic and in fact losing much of the 'spirit' of the original work due to an over-emphasis on individual words / phrases at the expense of a bigger picture.

The other way is to be less concerned about capturing each individual 'meaning' and instead trying to stay true to what the translator considers to be the 'spirit' of the original work. Obviously, this means that there is going to be a lot of room for interpretation, because there are as many different notions of what the 'spirit' of a piece of work is as there are people interpreting it - so the translation is likely to become, in effect, a new piece of work based on the original! This is made particularly awkward when translating into English from a language like Chinese because one is translating images for which there are no real correspondence in the English language. I think Stephen Mitchell makes this point in the introduction to his excellent translation of the Tao te Ching (recommended, I notice, by the author of this article). Ultimately, each translation of the Tao te Ching is basically a rewriting of it, and no two versions are ever going to be the same...

Looking at the two translations you refer to above, I would suspect that the first one has gone for a more impressionistic reading, while the second looks like the translator has tried to deal with the individual meanings of the separate icons. Personally I prefer the first one. The second seems too pedantic and caught up within itself - and this, I feel, goes against the very free-flowing open-ended way of life that Taoist philosophy (in *my* view of it smiley - smiley ) seems to aspire to. Also, I think the attempt to make the third verse rhyme really stinks...

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