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Tackling the Tao Te Ching

May 4th, 2010 · Posted by Hugo · 10 Comments

Approximately September last year I stumbled upon a particular app in the Android market: a Tao Te Ching app by Barclay Osborn. It contains the original Chinese and three public domain translations (specifically: a translation from 1891 by James Legges, D. T. Suzuki and Paul Carus’ 1913 translation and Dwight Goddard and Henri Borels’ 1919 translation). There is another Tao Te Ching app on the Android market, but I don’t like the one translation it has.

I had heard of the Tao Te Ching before and read some extracts here and there. However, it was only after reading the first three chapters in these parallel translations that my curiosity really got piqued, and I decided I want to blog my way through it. It consists of only 81 “chapters”, with each chapter typically having only two to five paragraphs, with just a couple going up to about eight. The challenging part will be grappling with multiple translations in order to try to get a better understanding of the layers in the original poetic Chinese.

I will probably work with those three public domain translations, in addition to one contemporary one. Stephen Mitchell’s is a very popular translation, while one of my friends recommended Ursula K. Le Guin’s translation. There are a whole host of recent translations available. More recommendations welcome, which one should I get?

How will I approach the Tao Te Ching? Who knows. Likely I will compare its wisdom with the various forms of Christianity I’ve come across in my upbringing and recent past. I might try to avoid too much scholarly input on my first pass. Possibly my approach to the Tao Te Ching will thus be similar to Hugh Elliot’s approach to the Bible during the first years of his blog Bible Versus?

Or not. I’m pretty sure I will supplement it with interesting bits from Wikipedia. There’s just too many interesting things to simply ignore all of it. ;) For example, the question of the historicity of Laozi (the claimed author, according to tradition), or something about how hard it is to translate classical Chinese.

Would anyone be interested in explicitly joining me on this endeavour? I could share the public domain translations, but only extracts from whichever recent translation I choose.

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10 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Linda // May 17, 2010 at 10:46 pm

    I don’t know if I’d be able to contribute anything valuable, but I’d be interested, as long as it doesn’t get too heady. ;) After all, isn’t simplicity one of the main concepts of Tao?

    BTW, I have the translation and commentary by Jonathan Star, which also includes a verbatim translation:

    http://www.amazon.com/Tao-Ching-Definitive-Lao-Tzu/dp/158542269X/ref=sr_1_9?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1274128651&sr=8-9

  • 2 Linda // May 17, 2010 at 10:47 pm

    oops. forgot to check off the email notification box.

  • 3 Hugo // May 17, 2010 at 11:29 pm

    Well, given the review of Star’s version from the link I included in the post:

    The translation is pretty standard and a bit stilted. But the scholarly apparatus is maginficent. A character-by-character analysis with literal translations that makes possible various wide-ranging construals of the text. Also acute chapter-by-chapter commentary and copious notes. This is the scholarly edition par excellence.

    …it sounds like you’re the one bringing the scholarship to the table here! ;-) Checked the first review on that Amazon link, which mentions:

    Regardless of the translation, the Tao Te Ching relaxes you. Then, you start comparing the different translations, and you get to panicking real fast. Pretty ironic. It’s something the Tao itself would warn you against. Sharpen the blade too much, you lose the edge.

    - the reviewer continues by giving it a glowing 5-star review. Certainly looks like a great edition. I’ll be trying to keep to that advice in the first paragraph: to not stress up about it too much, just run with it, or something. But I’ve not yet decided which version to get. Maybe I should flip a coin, between Mitchell and Le Guin. What do you think? Take Le Guin’s version with the feminist emphasis? ;-)

  • 4 Linda // May 19, 2010 at 3:58 am

    Haha. I guess you’re right. But I like the idea of having the original text for reference just in case. Both of the translations that you are considering sounds great.

    It would be fun to compare notes as you go through each verse. :)

  • 5 Hugo // May 27, 2010 at 1:45 am

    I’ll order Le Guin’s. That would provide me with someone to blame if I don’t like it. ;-)

  • 6 Hugo // Jun 15, 2010 at 2:34 am

    The book has arrived. So next up is just: gotta make some time for it! Hrmph.

  • 7 Linda // Jun 16, 2010 at 3:12 am

    Aha! Yes, I can relate. :)

  • 8 Hillel // Jul 21, 2010 at 2:38 pm

    I myself have read 6 translations of the Tao Te Ching, but only one of them was in english (Legge’s). However, I can help you find a way to approach it- first of all, read this: http://www.amazon.com/Tao-Speaks-Lao-Tzus-Whispers-Wisdom/dp/0385472595
    It’s a great comic book depicting Tao Te Ching in a very comprehensive way.
    Then, read this book: http://www.amazon.com/Tao-Watercourse-Way-Alan-Watts/dp/0394733118
    This is THE for a guy who wants to understand the Tao. I read a couple of translations of the Tao before I read this, and I didn’t get anything. When I read this, some parts made me feel like Buddha! It’s so enlightening! You should definitely read this before you read the complete book of the Tao.

    Enjoy!

  • 9 Hugo // Aug 7, 2010 at 4:15 pm

    Hillel, thanks! I intend to read your recommendations, but only after stumbling through the Tao te Ching “on my own” once. (With blog friends if they join on the journey though!) I can revisit it, with better understanding once I’ve read those, but the experience of grappling with the text from a perspective of ignorance is currently rather tempting to me. ;) Don’t know if that makes sense to anyone else…

  • 10 Hillel // Aug 12, 2010 at 6:36 pm

    I’ve now read some more translations, but I really want to understand it, so I’m learning chinese. btw, I’m glad that I could be of assistance in any way, and also, I meant to say “…THE book for a guy…”. Also, the best thing about the tao is that you can belive in it while believing another religion, in my case Judaism.

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