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Sunday, 09 February 2014


Mike, Is there an affordable bi-lingual text in print which uses either Pinyin or modernized characters or both alongside the English?

My favourite is a beautiful version by Ursula Le Guin - always gives me goosebumps.

I thought you might like this article, and the letters below it, about the related difficulties of interpreting speeches etc live: http://www.lrb.co.uk/v35/n21/lynn-visson/diary

I work in translations and grew up bi-lingual and learned a number of languages. I saw this article and it touches only one of several major issues.

Some languages are very cultural and societally based e.g. rice in Japanese is kome cooked rice is gohan, but the more literal translation of gohan is sustenance. An illustration of the importance of cooked rice in the Japan and the cultural/societal impact on language.

The second complication is language is "live" while we all intrinsically understand this, when faced with a translation, especially historical, knowledge of the language of the time is critical.

In summary, there is a "literal" translation where we try to stay faithful to the original text (but with variation as necessary) and there is Localization where there is more focus on appropriateness to the target audience. I won't speak to Machine Translation i.e. Google Translate or others, better but less well known out of the industry. Suffice it to say you should get the "gist" but is seriously deficient without human editing.

Linguistics is a truly interesting field.

I too have read many variations of the Tao and ordered (of course through the TOP link) several copies of the printing with pictures my copy lost years ago. I read them daily and enjoy the word salad variances in all of them.

Great blog! just sayin'

Kind of like translating camera user manuals from Japanese to English !

Thank you very much for all the work you've done for us on this. It may be, I suppose, that it was one of those things whose effort just accumulated slowly over the years through the inherent interest of the thing, and it took no more than a final heave to put these all side by side and connect them. Still: what a lot of useful work!

100% applicable to current political commentary! The writers are all creating a translation of reality heavily influenced by their own biases and the readers are more interested in finding the translation they like than understanding the reality.

Bringing it back around to photography, it seems to me that the Tao Te Ching is like an untitled photograph, and the translations are captions that the various viewers have added to it. The meaning is brought to the image by the viewer, and the image is never fully understood. I like that.

Clearly, the difficulty is in translating meaning across very different cultural structures, each of which has extensive implied (but unstated) contexts and refences, which have meaning for the originator and their readers. Lacking the context, translating meaning is difficult. Literal word for word translation is a sure loser. Translating meaning requires immersion in the two cultures, which can be nearly impossible across centuries and massively different cultures. Even when the cultural differences are relatively small, differences in language can trip up the translator. And often there is no one absolutely correct translation. This makes simultanous live translation (as done at the United Nations) a very difficult task. Good translation is as much art as science.

A lot of different pointers to the truth. The Stephen Mitchel version caught my eye, but only because of years seeking the truth. Luckily for all truth seekers, we're not limited to the Tao.

For Chinese, "translation" is a misnomer. One is looking at a series of ideographs that are meant to evoke images and notions rather than to convey words. It is bad enough with ancient texts, but here one actually needs to construct meaning as an active participant. You should have seen the esoteric Taoist commentaries: the meaning they derive is different beyond all recognition. By comparison, the English versions represent a coherent "Western tradition".

I was struck by one of your sentences, Mike: '.... to get an idea of which interpretations you tend to agree with ...'. I would suggest that is the course of action that we all take when reading, or hearing, all complex works; we agree with, or favour, a specific interpretation.
I would suggest that is the basis for the myriad of religions, and not only a particular unique religion, but also for all the subsets within a specific religion.
A number of years ago, I was friends with a man (who unfortunately, has passed) who held a doctorate in theology. That we liked each other was odd, in that we were more different than similar. I knew him originally through my mother's side of the family, which has, and had, a number of ministers. I don't believe he ever thought of me as religious, and certainly never intimated that I should be saved, or converted. But then, neither he, nor my relatives, were from the 'fire and brimstone' school of theology.
Befitting his interest, intelligence, and scholarly bent, he was fluent in a number of languages, including Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic. As part of his ongoing research, he was, very early, given access to the Dead Sea Scrolls. Like you have illustrated, they too have been subject to a multitude of interpretations. His interpretation was, that, if honestly revealed, they would shake the Christian world, as we know it. Unfortunately, at that time he didn't elaborate, and now can't. Damn.

Let me offer an explanation, even if irreverent. The particular problem exists in this context because the text is evidently trying to philosophise that which is unfathomable by ordinary languages. The sentiment expressed here is not unlike that of the idea of Schroedinger's cat, or that of Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, which if reduced to human sense-reality, will appear meaningless and yet these have demonstrable physical/mathematical reality at scales in which the sense-response of the human mind, a product of natural evolution, has not been selected for any relevance. Since human languages (but *probably* not mathematics) are products of natural evolution, such languages simply can't describe in any meaningful way the subject of these paragraphs. Please note that I do not imply the existence or non-existence of any truth to the statements in context.

I managed to hold off any comments when Mike's first post on the Feng/English presentation of the Tao Te Ching went up. I acquired the first version soon after publication in 1972, and it has been one of the truly indispensable books in my small library, informing my life and photography as well.

It was surprising to read the comments of so many others who have had a similar experience with this remarkable and mysterious book.

Now comes Mike's thoughtful follow-up on the topic of translation. It is always curious when intelligent and well-informed people attempt to translate words from one language to another, let alone words from vastly different epochs. Words into words: a difficult proposition.

How, then, do we translate pictures (or sculpture) into words? And what if the work is abstract? If the image is ambiguous, visually, what can be said besides a cold description of size, shape, colors and (perhaps) historical context?

Images that represent the recognizable are not much easier to translate. One critic may describe Warhol's portraits of Jackie Kennedy (done soon after the assassination) as being seminal cultural touchstones. Another may dismiss them as being naked attempts to connect with a narrative that would attract attention. And sell. There is much to write about, but if we drop the "aboutness" of the written descriptions and opinions, what is left for the words to do?

I enjoy my subscription to Artforum. Sometimes the words seem to expand the experience of the seeing the photos of various art works. But not always. Often words seem more like poetic responses to the art, accountable only to themselves. Usually, I end up just looking at the pictures.

A photograph or painting or drawing that connects to us seems to have a quality that could be called "soul". I think this is similar to what Andre Kertesz referred to as "atmosphere". This quality is mysterious, immediately felt when it is present, conspicuous when absent. This quality is not, I think, translatable from the world of form and color and the implied relationships therein, to words. It is indeed lost in translation.

[Sorry to go OT on a post that is itself OT.]

Okay, not to compare myself to Lao-Tzu or the writers of the Bible, I've had quite a number of books translated into foreign languages, and I suspect that these books do not necessarily closely resemble those that I wrote. I once in the mid-90s was dealing with a translator in Denmark who was very conscientious about her work, and would call me a couple of times on each book to get clarifications of what I meant with certain idiomatic English phrases.

In one novel, I referred in passing to "date-rape," which was a term with no direct translation into Danish. In fact, I'm not sure there was any (at that time) direct translation of the *concept.* We had a baffling five-minute conversation about the term, and at the end of which, after a long silence, she said, "If she didn't want to have sex with him, why did she go up to his room?" My impression was that sexual consent in Denmark came considerably earlier than in the US (at that time.) If you were a Danish woman in the street with a date, and agreed to go up to the man's apartment, that was consent and after that, it was a little late to turn back. Here in the US (at that time), you could be naked and lying on the bed together, and if the woman then said "no," and if the man continued, that was date rape. In other words, in the US, technically there was no point in which it was too late to say no, and there have even been arguments that even sometimes when a woman says, 'yes' but she meant 'no,' or was impaired by alcohol and drugs when she said yes, then it's still date rape. Not in Denmark at that time.

I keep saying "at that time" because culture changes, and there may now be "date rape" in Denmark on similar terms to that in the US. I don't know. In the case of my book, since the date rape comment was made in passing, we decided to write it out of the Danish book, because we'd have needed a footnote to explain the concept, which would have ruined the "in passing" character of the comment.

I don't know how closely aligned Scandinavian sexual legalities are, but I've wondered whether some cultural misunderstanding of this kind could be involved in the Julian Assange rape charges in Sweden. That is, his concept of consent and theirs simply differ.

Having seen some interesting quotes from RUMI I purchased a book that featured his poetry by different translators. In some instances the book presented the same piece in two versions on facing pages. I often could not recognize them as being from the same source. The Sufi mysticism must be as inscrutable as the Tao.

I've been on a reading rampage since January of last year, and I have focused my madness on heroic, epic, or chivalric literature. The majority of these texts (such as the Aeneid, the Kalevala, the Nibelungenlied, etc) is only available to me in translation since the oldest languages I can read are Middle English and Old French. But it has been a exhilarating ride to negotiate which "best" translation (or translations) to acquire for a given text.

I tend to use the following categories to discriminate between options:

  • Original text, with or without modern editorial interventions: This is where it pays off the most to have degrees in literature and languages. Having the ability to follow Spenser's Faerie Queene, or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in the original, untranslated text is always a moving experience, especially when the language is old. It is similar to the excitement one experiences when first reading texts in a foreign language. Your whole attention, your whole being is monopolized to make sense of the meaning, and you surprise yourself pondering the could-have-beens of a language when reading its obsolete forms. Modernized spelling, or marginal glosses can be very useful, but it's worth jumping into the deep end without them when you're confident enough, or if you are re-reading a text with which you're familiar.

  • Modern translations with facing-page original: I can't read Italian alone, but I am able to gloss it, and with the help of a modern translation make sense of most of it. A very nice experience for texts that stretch the limits of your linguistic abilities (for me it means Layamon's Brut, which sits between Old and Middle English). Helps you learn the language better, but provides a great reading experience when the translator is talented.

  • Verse translations: Poetry is one of the hardest thing to translate, and this is usually the kind of text that requires you to own multiple copies. I happen to feel the need for four Iliads (three English, one French), two Eddas (one by a scholar, one by W.H. Auden), and so on. With canonical texts it's easy to shop around, but it also means that you're never reading the Odyssey: you'll be perpetually re-reading it!

  • Prose translations of prose originals: An obvious choice, and luckily one that is seldom problematic beyond questions of semantics. Pick a version that sounds clear and readable.

  • "Dynamic" prose translations of verse originals: A rare scenario, but some translators of poetry will make an effort to discipline their prose and word choice. I chose such a translation of the Kalevala because I felt that the verse translations I had available all sounded wrong. The humility of the translator in choosing prose is offset by his dedication not to bore you to death like...

  • Prose translations of verse originals: A worse-case scenario, more typical of French than of English. The French tend to care a lot about semantic accuracy, especially when translations are undertaken by scholars. Nobody could sell a prose Aeneid in English nowadays, but in Paris last year, Paul Veyne's prose version was the talk of the town! Go figure. Useful only for texts written in verse (such as Chrétien de Troye's romances) but which do not carry as much poetical force as Vergil. Also worth considering when you're scraping the bottom of the classics barrel and are really interested in an obscure Hellenistic Greece text.

  • Modernizations: Many classics such as Gilgamesh have come to us in many, fragmentary versions, and no single manuscript can offer a continuous reading experience. Others, such as Statius's Achilleid were left incomplete by the time of the author's death. Others, such as Ludovico Ariosto's Orlando Furioso are just really, really long. So some bold translators take upon themselves to correct those "errors" by adding bits and pieces, deleting so-called "boring" passages, or jazzing up the language to be hip to the jive. I am of a mixed opinion towards these. On the one hand, I feel sufficiently qualified (B.A. and M.A. degrees in English, and currently making a Ph.D. in Art History) to go over the bafflement of lacunary or overlong works. On the other hand, not everybody has the time or patience to read through Andrew George's excellent Gilgamesh, even though it's a Penguin. Worth considering according to the level of your patience, or other available translations. But these modernizations can toe the line towards...

  • True adaptations: that is when a given work completely rewrites another preceding works. For example, the Nibelungenlied is a version of the story of Siegfried, which you will also find in the Edda. The Nibelungenlied is written in the style of medieval French courtly romance, whereas the Edda is rather on the heroic mode, like Beowulf. Both are worth considering as being completely different versions, a bit like Tennyson's Idylls of the Kings relationship to Malory's Le Morte Darthur. There are modern equivalents, such as Christopher Logue's War Music, which is a rewriting of the Iliad in a completely different poetic idiom.

Add to this the fact that I master two languages, French and English, so that I have to choose between either whenever choosing translations, which make me favour an English Iliad but a French Aeneid!

When you go about shopping translations, it's worth seeing the process in the larger light of cultural transmission. Sometimes bad translations or even hack jobs have had a more important role on transmitting culturally significant texts.

Consider the possibility, well, I'd say great probability, that the original ancient Chinese text was equally inscrutable at the time(s) it was written.

Expressing the ineffable in any language is, by definition, impossible. A human may experience the nature of All, but the human mind can't hold on to it and put it into words.

All efforts to express this experience, ephemeral knowledge, in words are metaphorical, fingers pointing at the reflection of the Moon in the surface of a rippled pond.

It is easy to see efforts like the Tao te Ching as circumlocutions, and keep looking for the direct version. It may be more useful to understand its chapters as cousins of Zen koans, rather than literal explications we could relatively easily understand if only they were translated correctly.

Although the Hua Hu Ching is far less well known, and at least several hundred years less ancient, Brian Walker's translation of Chapter 46 is the best succinct summary of the Taoist understanding of All that I've encountered.

It's singular weakness, to my mind, is that the first three lines express a movement through time in one direction. I believe it may more usefully be expressed as both a static duality, where "Mystery and manifestation" Are "the same source." and, at the same time, as dynamic, simultaneous movement in both directions.

Whether a failure of the original writer or of translation, I don't know. The mutability of time and direction are expressed later in the text.


Mike, Thank you so much for this rewarding OT post. Your pasting up various versions and then analysing to make your points is exactly how we approached the Laozi at UC Berkeley in the Oriental Languages Department back in the day (and likely still). Did we all notice the literary acumen and interests of TOP readers? Come for the photo-talk, stay for the enlightening insights! Please do this more often.

Again you intrigue me, Mike. I never know what I'll encounter when I come to this blog. I own several of the translations that you quote. My current favourite is the Stephen Mitchell. The first one I encountered was the James Legge version. To validate your hypothesis, I do find the Legge version feels most natural. Mitchell's version is more . . . . poetic(?) His language is more modern. I still feel Legge's is more accurate. I have no idea if that's true because I can't read Chinese. I truly wish I did.

All in all, another pleasant surprise. Once again you show me why TOP is certainly my favourite blog.

I was trying to remember my preferred translation after your earlier post; I haven't opened it in many years but immediately recognized it here as Addis & Lombardo based on the typography.

The Chinese philosophical text I revisit most often is the Chuang Tzu (Zhuangzi). Very rich and rewarding.

To me, the awful unspoken truth about Tao Te Ching is that Verse 1 is as good as it gets (and I admit it is quite good), but it's all downhill from there, slipping quickly into fortune cookie aphorisms and trite paradoxes.

A few excerpts, from the Gai-Fu Feng and Jane English's 1972 Edition:


Under heaven all can see beauty as beauty only because there is ugliness.
All can know good as good only because there is ugliness.


Better stop short than fill to the brim.
Oversharpen the blade, and the edge will soon blunt.


Give up learning, and put an end to your troubles.


Yield and overcome;
Bend and be straight;
Empty and be full;
Wear out and be new;


A man is born gentle and weak.
At his death he is hard and stiff.
Green plants are tender and filled with sap.
At their death they are withered and dry.
Therefore [...]
The hard and strong will fall.
The soft and weak will thrive.


Truthful words are not beautiful.
Beautiful words are not truthful.

Profound? Seriously? Jane English's images are far more evocative and thought provoking than the text -- Chinese or English -- could ever hope to be.

The proliferation and acceptance of of classical music on LP records happened somewhat earlier than you've implied. Note this quote from Wikipedia: "When the LP was introduced in 1948, the 78 was the conventional format for phonograph records. By 1952, 78s accounted for slightly more than half of the units sold in the United States, and just under half of the dollar sales. The 45, oriented toward the single song, accounted for 30.2% of unit sales and 26.5% of dollar sales. The LP represented 16.7% of unit sales and 26.2% of dollar sales.[11]
Ten years after their introduction, the share of unit sales for LPs in the U.S. was 24.4%, and of dollar sales 58%. Most of the remainder was taken up by the 45; 78s accounted for only 2.1% of unit sales and 1.2% of dollar sales.[6]"
Indeed, this data jibes precisely with my own personal recollection of the LP breakthrough. The transition from shellac 78s to vinyl LPs (both 33.3 and 45 rpm) was quite rapid, whereas the subsequent transition from mono to stereo was far more leisurely.

Did y'all know that Steve Addiss, the translator-poet-art collector-scholar is the same Steve Addiss of the 60s folk duo Addiss & Croffut? It's true. Steve got interested in Asian studies through musicology, followed it to a PhD at U Michigan, became enamoured of haiku and poetry, and is currently Tucker-Boatwright Professor in the Humanities: Art at the University of Richmond in Virginia. Take that, every mom who ever said to her son, "If all you do is play that guitar you'll never amount to anything."

Michel H-V writes above:

"Nobody could sell a prose Aeneid in English nowadays, but in Paris last year, Paul Veyne's prose version was the talk of the town!"

The link below takes one to an excellent modern English version. It reads more easily than the Loeb line by line version facing the Latin. It would hardly be classified as a mass market paperback if it didn't sell. Translations are (or should be) an incentive to get to grips with the originals.


I know nothing about Taoism, (and only a bit about chinese) but the Red Pine translation feels much more dynamic than the others.

As additional background, Red Pine is probably the most well respected translator of Buddhist Sutras alive today. I have yet to acquire any of his translations, but this post makes me want to rectify that immediately. I'll try and use your links for that, as thanks

Perhaps this post and accompanying comments should be compulsory reading before any discussions on religion.

What a pleasant surprise to firstly see and read about the Feng & English translation/edition of the Tao Te Ching, which I got in the early seventies and still have in my small library after countless moves (together with the accompanying Chuang Tsu, The Inner Chapters in which I just rediscoverd on page 97 a picture of what must be Alan Watts in an Esalen-like pond), and now enjoy a very interesting and thorough post and discussion about translation. Allow me to present a little anecdote on the latter.
Long time ago (and yes, in what was almost another universe) I had just finished translating into Dutch the Doris Lessing novel Briefing for a Descent into Hell, when I was invited to a cocktail party held in her honour at her publisher's in Holland. When introduced to her (I was 29 or thereabouts) I was far too nervous to start a conversation. Luckily, Ms. Lessing asked me: 'So you translated Briefing for a Descent into Hell. Was it hard?' 'Yes, it was was,' I replied, 'very'. 'O really, why?' 'Well, as the book consists for the largest part of the interior monologues of its central character, Charles Watkins [who is not only a professor of the Classical Languages, but who is also hospitalized with a florid psychosis] who thinks in alliterations almost all of the time, I had to choose over and over again: what do I translate, the alliteration or its meaning?' To which Doris Lessing very kindly replied: 'O yes, I never thought of that!'

Some changes during translations are innocent, others, not so much. One particularly interesting bit of intentional change to meaning while translating happened with the translation of the Bible. To the story of Adam and Eve, to be precise.

We all know the story how Eve was created out of Adam's rib, and it's written like that Bible translations in various languages. The problem is that the originals don't actually use the word »rib« or anything even similar to it. The original word »tsêlao« does not mean »rib«, but refers to half, side, equal part.

It appears in other places in the Bible and is translated very differently there, making it highly unlikely that this just happened to be mistranslated by accident. It appears to have been intentionally changed to put women in a place considered more suitable by the men doing the translations, holiness of the original word be damned.

It probably was put in in some of the earliest translations to Latin in the 4th century already, the Vetus Latina, that were the basis for later Latin versions that made their way into the translation of the Luther Bible (if he noticed the change from the original texts, Luther at least didn't correct it, even if he didn't cause the original mistranslation). The Luther Bible was in turn the basis for many other tranlsations, including the one to English that led to the King James Bible, and has consequently made its way through the world.

So yes, a translator can be a very powerful person in shaping whole religions or philosophies. Seeing how frequently the way of Eve's incarnation is used to make the case for women's inferiority by the kind of people who cling to the »literal« word of the Bible, and how it has helped shape the underlying attitude of the Christian church of women's place or worth being second to men's, this translation has done a lot of harm indeed.

I also think it has robbed the Bible of a very powerful story of a different kind of what man and woman can mean to each other. The image of both being and equal part of the original being made from the earth, none of them being the first, but two original halves complimenting each other and being equal companions, is so much stronger than what was put in its stead.

Here's an interesting text I found that goes into more detail of the rib-translation and where else the original word is used in the Bible, and what kinds of meanings it carries there:

The problem face by us reading old Chinese scripture is the punctuation because many ancient text has no punctuation at all other than "full stop". Depending where one put the the comma, the meaning of the sentences could be really different. For example the sentence 无名天地之始,有名万物之母 。 One writer / scholar put the punctuation as 无,名天地之始。有,名万物之母。 The meaning for the first part could mean, 无 (nothing, no being ), is the name given for the cause before existence ... & 有,(being, existence ) is the name given for being or the first cause. I do not have the knowledge to say whether he is right or wrong but his whole book on 老子 seems logical and consistent to me.

I don't actually know if the "Tao" was written in verse, but the idea of translating ANYTHING written in Chinese into rhyming modern english verse is ghastly on it's face.
I once had a translation by Archie Baum(copyright 1948, I believe) that seemed excellent at communicating the content of the piece.

I'm Chinese, and ye gods and goddesses, classical Chinese is a real pain in the butt. I tried to read the Chinese bits and now I have a headache.

Also interesting is that likely there's actually already another layer of translation applied: From Ancient Chinese to Modern Chinese.

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