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Translations of the Tao

Translations of the Tao

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July 29, 2022

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s blog.

As I understand it, more than two hundred and fifty translations of the Tao te Ching exist. Looking for a chance to study language, poetry, and translation, I decided to compare a handful of versions of the Tao. Though there are a number of pre-existing published comparisons, I simply found some online versions. I selected some scholarly ones, but also some that simply played with language. They all attempt to bridge great distances such as language barriers, cultural barriers, and, of course, words suited to spiritual journeys.

As a result of this exercise, I learned quite a bit about poetic language, word choice, synonyms, and the difficulty of describing the indescribable. The rest of this post will explore similarities and differences between the translations specific to chapter 16 of the Tao te Ching by Laozi. This exercise can be replicated in classrooms of all types and is a great way to have students discover language on their own! Young students might need the texts provided to them, but more mature students might enjoy finding their own poems to compare, as I did. (As a side note: I have no experience with Chinese, so my comments strictly address the English approximations. I do not know how they might compare to the original.)

First, I copied eighteen different versions of chapter 16 and spent some time reading, highlighting word choices, and writing questions in the margins. Some of the most noticeable differences occurred in the form of line length, stanza length, and poetic voice. For example, most of the translations that I encountered displayed the entire chapter in a single stanza, however three of them broke the stanzas apart. Of the three that do break the stanzas, they are similar in length, but not equal.

Of the three with separate stanzas, all of them open with a two-line stanza. This stanza often begins with a direct command. For example, Stefan Stenudd writes: “Attain utmost emptiness./ Abide in steadfast stillness.” I like this beginning. It is direct, uncluttered, clear, and speaks to the reader. Lin Yutang offers a similar verse. He translates, “Attain the utmost in Passivity,/ Hold firm to the basis of Quietude.” While Yutang’s version attempts to be direct, the word choice confuses me. I am not sure that I understand Passivity and Quietude, and therefore, emptiness rings as the better word choice. I also prefer steadfast over basis.

I wish I could better understand the original, or Chinese texts in general. More knowledge would certainly provide better insights about how Chinese texts create space. Do they use punctuation, literal space (like a line break), or some other device? Regardless of the original, I prefer the versions that have 3-4 stanzas in English. They allow me to spend time with each thought and to measure language slowly and carefully. In other words, the pace enables me to identify with each separate thought. This helps because it feels as if the poem builds to a conclusion. Run too fast through the introduction and you will miss the weight of the finale. Part of the importance of the Tao, however, is the way that nature flows, the way that things naturally flow together. So, the stanzas do work together as a unit, as well. And for this reason, I like the line-breaks even more. They visually demonstrate that space is part of clarity. Space is a necessary part of the thought process, a natural process.

Secondly, I enjoyed comparing synonyms and phrases that each translator chose. Knowing how difficult it is to find an exact approximation from one language to another, I paid particular attention to word choice. The following points give an idea of how wide the original meaning may be:

1] The first line of Chapter 16 introduces the idea of stillness. Translators also use: vacuity, emptiness, quietness, calm, peace, serenity, tranquility, nothingness, rest, non-being, going back, passivity and quietude.

For me, some of these words fit better than others and after considering each one, I realized more about myself and my own perspective than Laozi’s or the translator’s. For example, for me, vacuity carries a negative connotation, as in absence. It feels like something is missing, rather than wholeness and the presence of absence. Also, non-being and nothingness sound quasi-political, as if I am reading a passage by Heidegger. (Surely I am not alone in this reading?)

2] The poem indicates that willful ignorance will result in disaster. It seems to be a turning away from the light, perhaps earthly greed and desires pull too strongly. Perhaps misunderstanding our root or source is the human’s main problem. Whatever the nature of disaster, other synonyms are: grief, recklessness, evil, dysfunction, chaos, disorder, zero, and miseries.

Clearly this part of the passage is extremely difficult to translate. Some translators add bulky phrases in an effort to clarify. However, I prefer a shorter approach. George Cronk’s version seems the simplest, most direct, and poetic to me. He writes, “Knowing what is permanent: enlightenment./ Not knowing what is permanent: disaster.” For me, the colon performs as a doorway. It is a path in the form of analogy. I also like that the lines mirror each other, which provides a yin yang sensibility.

3] The final line of the poem appears to be nearly impossible for translators. The previous lines are vital in setting the reader up for the poem’s conclusion. Some translations read as if a mathematical proof and I tend to like these the best. Here are a few examples.

~ “A true queen or king lives in accord with Nature.
To live in accord with Nature is to find the Tao.
Following the Tao makes death harmless.” – George Cronk

~ “Immersed in the wonder of the Tao,
you can deal with whatever life brings you,
and when death comes, you are ready.” – Stephen Mitchell

~ “He who knows the Eternal Law is tolerant;
Being tolerant, he is impartial;
Being impartial, he is kingly;
Being kingly, he is in accord with Nature;
Being in accord with Nature, he is in accord with Tao;
Being in accord with Tao, he is eternal,
And his whole life is preserved from harm.” – Lin Yutang

This passage is so difficult because, using the combined data of all eighteen versions, the final line seems to say death is a physical end, or an end to the body, but it does not hurt the spirit, or the life force, or the nature of being. It claims that once we accept the path, there is no reason for fear. Even I struggle to find non-Western ways of explaining my meaning. However, part of a translator’s job is take a foreign text (non-Western in this case) and put it in terms that the target audience will understand. How does one achieve this? For example, in the Tao, how does one speak of spiritual journeys without invoking Judeo-Christian notions? If the translation does access a particular religious vernacular, does it skew the text away from its original meaning? If so, is this a different text?

This exercise clearly demonstrates the close ties between language and culture, and for that, it was worth the work!

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