A week or so ago there was an interesting article in the Times called "Translation as a Performing Art." The author, Antony Shugaar, points out that there are really no untranslatable words, but that there are untranslatable worlds.
I thought what follows might be interesting for those who read my short book review of the Feng/English/Lippe translation of the Tao Te Ching the other day. I simply went to Amazon and made clips of a few translations, which you can compare for yourself.
These are all of the relatively simple first chapter. If even these are too much to ingest, try just reading the last sentence of every version (summarized below).
First up is Arthur Waley, an immensely well-respected earlier scholar (d. 1966):
Next, Stephen Addis and Stanley Lombardo (the latter famous for his "relevant" translations of the Odyssey and Iliad, intended to be simple, plain and direct in order to appeal to college-age young people):
Now the Gia-Fu Feng, Jane English, and Toinette Lippe translation I wrote about:
Here's James Legge, the Scottish sinologist who died in 1897:
Robert G. Henricks:
Note that I made no effort here to find translations that differed from each other; I just grabbed a few that came up relatively early in Amazon searches or that I knew about—or, in the case of the Addiss and Lombardo and Red Pine, that readers mentioned in comments to the earlier post.
Looking at just the last lines we have:
The Doorway whence issued all Secret Essences
The gateway to all mystery
The gate to all mystery
Where the Mystery is the deepest is the gate of all that is subtle and wonderful
The gateway of all subtleties
The door to all beginnings
The mystery of mysteries / is the gateway of marvels
The gateway to all understanding
So you can see what English-speaking readers are up against here. To really understand which translation might be best for you, you have to read a bunch of the commentaries on each chapter, to get an idea of which interpretations you tend to agree with, and then evaluate which translations tend to provide that viewpoint.
I might (gently) point out, however, that many translations have both certain felicities and certain shortcomings; none are superior in all ways, especially in light of the many interpreted meanings. For example, the first line of Chapter 60 in Feng/English/Lippe says "Ruling a country is like cooking a small fish" with no further explanation. The generally accepted view of this sentence is that when you fry a pan full of small fish, if you try to stir or flip the fish too much, they'll just disintegrate and you'll have a mess on your hands; so you have to be patient and keep your hands off and just let them cook, slowly. My preferred translation doesn't even hint at this explanation, but a number of others do.
And that's just one line of one chapter.
And then (whoa) consider that there are literally hundreds of translations...many more than just the ones available on Amazon now.
Holy mountain-dwelling Sage, Batman.
In the 1950s and '60s, when LPs first began to appear and there were only a few classical music performances available on records, audiophiles identified that people tended to be most loyal to the performances they encountered, and got used to, first: the first performance you engaged with tended to be the one that seemed most "natural" and "right" to you and that you continued to feel sounded like the piece "ought" to sound. The same might be true of Tao Te Ching translations—however you encounter the work first, the one you engage with first, is the one that seems the most right to you going forward.
The Feng/English/Lippe book is the one I encountered first, my gateway to the mysteries of the Tao as it were. Maybe that's why I like it best. But throughout all my subsequent happy tourist wanderings through various versions, interpretations, and translations, it has held up for me compared to many alternatives.
Original contents copyright 2014 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
psu: "You will generally find that the 'you like what you learned first' rule also applies to software user interfaces."
JK: "I won't try to pass judgement on these translations, but I can tell you that the one with the Chinese next to it is, by far, the most literal. I've found the same thing myself: if you ever have to publish a translation accompanied by the original language (especially something as impossibly distant from English as classical Chinese), it tends to keep you honest.
"As the old saying goes, the beautiful ones aren't faithful, and the faithful ones aren't beautiful."
FrasSmith: "My current favourite is the Ursula K. Le Guin version (possibly because it's the only one I own).
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.
"I like it; it seems to make more sense to me."
Mike replies: As Ursula herself says, her version is a rendition, not a translation: she bases it on the 1898 transliteration version by Paul Carus. She doesn't speak or read Chinese. This doesn't make it worse, necessarily, but it's worth mentioning.
I haven't read her version but based on the 'taste' you've given above, I think I should.
Jim Bullard: "As a student of biblical history I wonder if translators of the Tao run into the same problem biblical scholars do, namely that there are no original texts, only later copies of copies of copies. Before printing presses books were duplicated by hand and changes crept in, mostly inadvertently but sometimes deliberately by copyists 'correcting' what they thought were mistakes in the version they were copying. As a result (in the case of the bible) a comparison of say the 1200+ oldest copies we have of the New Testament, no two are identical. Granted most of the differences are minor but some are not and some of the differences lead to significantly different interpretations.
"The Tao is, I believe, about six centuries older than anything in the New Testament and the oldest existing copies are at least two centuries later than the original.
"And then there is the imprecision of language. One of my favorite pieces of music from Cat Stevens/Yosuf Islam is the Foreigner Suite. Near the beginning and repeated near the end is the lament 'There are no words that I can use because the meanings are left for you to chose,' a thought that I hear echoed in the beginning of the Tao."
Burton Randol: "The inherent ambiguities which are aspects of translation between natural human languages are well-known. I don't read Russian, but have been told by many highly educated bilingual (English/Russian) Russians that it is impossible to capture Pushkin's 'Eugene Onegin' in English. Vladimir Nabokov, who was natively trilingual in English, French, and Russian, certainly thought so, and as a corrective published a literal prose translation intended to precisely preserve the sense, if not the rhyme and meter, of the poem.
"A story, quite possibly apocryphal, but which I have heard since the 'sixties, involves a supposed early machine translation from English to Russian:
'The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak' > 'The vodka is good but the meat is rotten'
"Another similar anecdote, this time from from English to Chinese, or in some versions, from English to Russian:
'Out of sight, out of mind' > 'Invisible insanity'
"For anyone wishing to evaluate the level of truth in these old stories (it's not really absolutely clear), a useful reference is a June 1995 article in MT News International."
Ken Rahaim: "'Holy mountain-dwelling Sage, Batman'— just imagine the variations in the future translations of that line some 2,000–3,000 years in the future :-) ."