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I acquired my first copy of Tao Te Ching in a box of books from friends who were moving, back in the mid 70's.  It was the Witter Bynner translation, and, in the pre-internet age, it never occurred to me that there were many other translations.

I loved it because it was poetic, compact, and easily schlepped around for reading on the bus or wherever.  So eventually it lost its cover, then the first few pages....  Oh well. We have a mall with bookstores.  

But "my" Tao was not in stock!  So I bought a different translation, and began reading on the bus ride home.  Per Google, there are 170+ translations.  The one I bought was a Penguin Classic, translated by D.C. Lau, 1963.

I sensed immediately there was something different.  Don't laugh!  I took 3 years of Latin in high school, and "knew" translation was an art, not a science, but still, this was something I did not anticipate.

Here is D.C. Lau's translation of passage 1:


The way that can be spoken of
Is not the constant way;
The name that can be named
Is not the constant name.
The nameless was the beginning of heaven and earth;
The named was the mother of the myriad creatures.
Hence, always rid yourself of desires in order to observe its secrets;
But allow yourself to have desires in order to observe its manifestaions.
These two are the same
But diverge in name as they issue forth.
Being the same they are called mysteries,
Mystery upon mystery-
The gateway of the manifold secrets.
Fair enough.  But this is what I was accustomed to reading:
Existence is beyond the power of words
To define:
Terms may be used
But are none of them absolute.
In the beginning of heaven and earth there were no words,
Words came out of the womb of matter;
And whether a man dispassionately
Sees to the core of life
Or passionately
Sees the surface,
The core and the surface
Are essentially the same,
Words making them seem different
Only to express appearance.
If name be needed, wonder names them both:
From wonder into wonder
Existence opens.

In his own introduction, Bynner says this:

Though I cannot read Chinese, two years spent in China and eleven years of work with Dr. Kiang in translating The Jade Mountain have given me a fair sense of the "spirit of the Chinese people" and an assiduity in finding English equivalents for idiom which literal translation fails to convey. And now, through various and varying English versions of the Tao Teh Ching I have probed for the meaning as I recognize it and have persistently sought for it the clearest and simplest English expression I could discover. Above all I have been prompted by hope to acquaint Western readers with the heart of a Chinese poet whose head has been too much studied.
I will not presume to say other translators of Tao Te Ching were more technically correct, as I have no way of knowing that.  I do know line-for-line, word-for word translation is difficult, as one needs to understand idiom, literal, and figurative language.  I have seen other translations of Tao here and there, and sometimes struggled to relate it to the Tao I "know."  I also cannot claim to understand the "spirit of the Chinese people."  I'm about 1/4 Polish, 1/4 Slovac, 1/4 Irish, and 1/4 German, and I would never claim to understand the "spirit" of my own "people."  I just know the people I know.  

I guess Bynner's translation just slides into my heart and soul a little easier.  It seems less clunky, smoother, with less ragged edges to slow down my absorption of the words.  OK, I just plain "grok" Bynner's translation.  

If you ever have, or ever intend to, read Tao Te Ching, may I suggest you also read Witter Bynner's translation?  It's poetic, compact, and, even in paper form, easily schlepped around for on-the-go reading. I will leave you with one of my other favorite passages, and DC. Lau's version, just to illustrate my point.


'Yield and you need not break:'
Bent you can straighten,
Emptied you can hold,
Torn you can mend;
And as want can reward you
So wealth can bewilder.
Aware of this, a wise man has the simple return
Which other men seek:
Without inflaming himself
He is kindled,
Without explaining himself
Is explained,
Without taking credit
Is accredited,
Laying no claim
Is acclaimed
And, because he does not compete,
Finds peaceful competence.
How true is the old saying,
'Yield and you need not break'!
How completely it comes home!


Bowed down then preserved;
Bent then straight;
Hollow then full;
Worn then new;
A little then benefitted;
A lot then perplexed.
Therefore the sage embraces the One and is a model for the empire.
He does not show himself, and so is conspicuous;
He does not consider himself right, and so is illustrious;
He does not brag, and so has merit;
He does not boast, and so edures.
It is because he does not contend that no one in the empire is in a position to contend with him.
The way the ancients had it, "Bowed down then preserved", is no empty saying.  Truly it enables one to be preserved to the end.

Originally posted to Way of Dragon on Sat Mar 02, 2013 at 06:17 PM PST.

Also republished by Progressive Friends of the Library Newsletter and Readers and Book Lovers.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Lau's translation is more accurate (9+ / 0-)

    Brynner's added his own interpretation. Brynner's feels foreign to me.

    For example, the first sentence, "the way that can be spoken of is not the constant way;" has many layers of meanings. Brynner's translation, "Existence is beyond the power of words", may be one possible interpretation, but may not be the best interpretation.

    Yes, it is telling us that the way of the world is something beyond the description of words. But it says more than that. It also says that sometimes, some of the way can be described, but as soon as you put it into words, you find that it has changed its meaning. So words can evolve to adapt to our new understanding, but the truth is also a touch beyond our reach.

    •  Lau's translation may adhere more precisely (5+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      exterris, xgz, isabelle hayes, NancyWH, marina

      to the original, but Brynner's makes a zillion times more sense to me.

      I've tried to read the Tao Te Ching before, but I found it far too "mystical" and abstract to get the slightest comprehension of what the author was really trying to say. I think I would enjoy Brynner's translation, though.

      "We are stardust, we are golden, and we've got to get ourselves back to the garden." (Joni Mitchell) Join the Forward on Climate Rally on February 17!

      by Eowyn9 on Sat Mar 02, 2013 at 06:52:21 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  are you Chinese or are you fluent? (4+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      xgz, isabelle hayes, NancyWH, marina

      Sounds like it because the word "constant" in English falls pretty flat in that verse.  It's doesn't have any cultural punch for an English speaker.  My guess is that the Chinese word that is translated as "constant" in this verse has a pretty specific, culturally contextual meaning in Chinese (eg, "faithful" or "never-ending" or "stable").

      "Well, yeah, the Constitution is worth it if you succeed." - Nancy Pelosi // Question: "succeed" at what?

      by nailbender on Sat Mar 02, 2013 at 07:25:39 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  175+ translations of that first chapter (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Joy of Fishes, exterris, NancyWH, marina
    •  Thanks for posting these! (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      xgz, NancyWH

      I especially like Hilmar Klaus:

      "A dao that can be defined,
      is not the eternal Dao;
      concepts that can be conceived,
      are not eternal concepts!
      Inconceivable is Heaven’s and Earth’s origin,
      conceivable is the myriad things’ mother.

      Therefore, always without desire,
      so see its mystery;
      ever with desire,
      so see its surface.

      These two: together emerging,
      yet differing in names —
      together they are called mysterious.
      The mystery of mysteries —
      the Gate to all Mysteries."

      Very clear and easy to follow, in my view.

      "We are stardust, we are golden, and we've got to get ourselves back to the garden." (Joni Mitchell) Join the Forward on Climate Rally on February 17!

      by Eowyn9 on Sat Mar 02, 2013 at 06:53:06 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  The translation I learned from... (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Joy of Fishes, exterris, NancyWH, marina

    ...was by Lin Yutang.

  •  Your comment about Latin made me chuckle (12+ / 0-)

    I studied Chinese for several years, I got to the point I could read (and write!) as well as speak it fairly well. But to truly undestand Chinese you need to know the culture. So much of what is said in Chinese is implied from historic or even poetic context. A simple phrase like you shan you shui which means "scenic" or more literally "has mountains and water" doesn't do the phrase justice unless you understand the cultural concept behind it. Of course many languages have that aspect to them. It's why I love the "telephone" aspect of running stuff both ways thru online translators and why I'm fairly certain we won't have real "universal translators" like they do in Star Trek for a long, long time. (In computerese that's probably 20 years -- that's like forever!)

    You can't assassinate the character of any of modern conservative. You'd have to find where it was buried, dig it up, resurrect it, then kill it. And killing a zombie isn't really assassination, is it?

    by ontheleftcoast on Sat Mar 02, 2013 at 06:58:56 PM PST

    •  Your example reminds me of an old (12+ / 0-)


      Back during the Qing dynasty, there was this very talented young scholar named Ji Xiaolan. He was from northern China. During that time, southern China was very prosperous and produced many famous scholars. In contrast, northern China was poor and had few scholars.

      One day, someone was arguing with Ji about whether northern China or southern China was better. This guy wrote half of a couplet as a challenge to Ji:
      (duo shan duo shui duo cai zi: Many mountains, many waters, and many scholars)
      This was to describe that not only southern China wins in its beautiful scenery, it also wins in the number of scholars it produces. It took Ji only a few minutes to complete the couplet with this sentence:
      (yi tian yi di yi sheng ren: One heaven, one earth, and one Sage)
      The Sage, of course, was Confucius, who was born in northern China. So no matter how many scholars southern China produced, the only one that counted was Confucius. :-)

      •  I like the story about the Northern Chinese guy (7+ / 0-)

        Here’s two stories from my life.

        1) When I was in college I had a friend who was learning Chinese, with the idea he might take the State Dept’s Foreign Service exam (I lost track of him, so I don’t know if he succeeded). He told me he could learn the writing system, and the words, and the pronunciations, but the metaphors were driving him nuts.

        For example, he said there might be some phrase that literally means, “lantern in a rainy forest” – so you know the words and you know what they mean, but the phrase has some metaphorical or idiomatic meaning you don’t understand (but to Chinese speakers, they know exactly what it means). Here’s an example in English. Suppose I called you a “lazy rabbit” but I was referring to the fable about the race between the rabbit and the turtle. I pointed out to my friend that English has lots of those kinds of things, but we don’t think about them because they’re just in our heads. The squeaky wheel (gets the grease). You scratch my back (and I’ll scratch yours). Hair of the dog (that bit you).

        OK, another story about translating. While my friend was learning Chinese, one of my languages was Old English (aka Anglo Saxon). I learned the various poetic metaphors (like the “whale way,” which means the ocean, or “edge” which can refer to a sharp-edged sword). In one of the chronicles of a battle, I forget which one but probably either Maldon or Brunnanburh, the Anglo Saxons are losing and one of them runs away from the battle. And there’s a line, “Thaet waes unhold mann” (which could be translated literally as “that was not a nice man.”) My professor focused on that line and said what is “hold”? OK. It can mean nice or friendly or gracious or loyal. Then he said, to the Anglo Saxons one of the worst things you could do as a warrior would be to abandon your friends and fellow warriors (to whom you were probably related by blood or to whom you had sworn an oath to fight to the death). So why doesn’t the poet call him a fucking coward? Because the Anglo Saxon poets sometimes used understatement. The author says, “he was not such a nice guy” and the audience knows exactly what is being said. The poet underexaggerates instead of overexaggerating.

        Just a couple of stories about the difficulties and the subtleties of translating.

        "Stupid just can't keep its mouth shut." -- SweetAuntFanny's grandmother.

        by Dbug on Sat Mar 02, 2013 at 09:10:12 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

  •  Try reading various Rumi translations. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Then compare any of them to Coleman Barks.  Same thing happens.   And interestingly, he doesn't read or speak Persian.

    "Well, yeah, the Constitution is worth it if you succeed." - Nancy Pelosi // Question: "succeed" at what?

    by nailbender on Sat Mar 02, 2013 at 07:11:31 PM PST

  •  Joining the Way of Dragon (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    xgz, Joy of Fishes, NancyWH

    Not sure how to join.


    •  I sent you an invite (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Joy of Fishes, NancyWH, yjbc

      Since you are newly registered, it may take a week for you to be able to receive messages. Once you can receive messages, a Messages link will appear on the right of your page. Click it, and select the invite message, then click "Accept", you will become a contributor of the group.

      Once you have the full privilege of the user you should be able to sent other users' diaries to this group for republication here. You can also publish your own diaries here.

  •  Translation isn't easy. (5+ / 0-)

    Even between French and English which are fairly similar it isn't easy.  Cultural differences get in the way.  

    I remember someone looking through a copy of the Tao Te Ching I had and stopping to ask what meaning there could be in, "Ruling a great kingdom is like cooking a small fish."  If you never cook, like many Americans,  it might be hard to imagine what on Earth that could mean.

    There is no existence without doubt.

    by Mark Lippman on Sat Mar 02, 2013 at 08:17:39 PM PST

  •  Witter Bynner (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    xgz, NancyWH, marina, yjbc

    Thank you for introducing me to this remarkable
    Gentleman. It's always a joy to meet such folk.

  •  Bynner is my favorite too (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    NancyWH, xgz

    I think I ordered my copy of his translation of the Tao Te Ching from the Theosophical Society, years ago.

    I sometimes compare translations, but his are the most clarifying and poetic, in my view.

  •  I go to an acupuncturist (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    marina, xgz, yjbc

    for my allergies.  She & her husband are from China, and she goes back to visit her mother ~ once a year.  I asked her about the difference between Mandarin and Cantonese.  [My job puts me in contact w/ people in NYC, and I frequently have to request a translator, but you have to specify.]  It reminded her of a time she visited NYC, stopped a man on the street for directions, but one of them spoke Cantonese, the other Manadrin.  They ended up communicating in English.  

    "The light which puts out our sight is darkness to us." Thoreau

    by NancyWH on Sun Mar 03, 2013 at 06:07:49 AM PST

  •  Just so we never think we can get Lao Tsu covered (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    xgz, NancyWH

    In the nineties there were two versions discovered from "300 BC" in Roman dating about 600 years earlier than any previously known.

    The main thing is that the ones over half a millennium later were remarkably faithful to these which were written down within a couple of hundred years of the original.

    But, of course, there were differences.  The biggest one is that in one of the early versions it was the "Te Tao Ching".  The other early version was on bamboo strips which, if I understand it correctly, could not be confidently restored to their original order.

  •  Very little is lost in translation of Dao De Jing (0+ / 0-)

    but a lot is added. Dao De Jing as a piece of writing is extremely vague; translators often inject their own interpretation into the text and call it Chinese wisdom.

    One case in point is the concept of "wu wei er zhi (无为而治)" or "govern by doing nothing." The original text is 夫圣人之治也,使民实其腹,虚其心,强其体,弱其志,使民无知无为,使其知者不敢为。为无为,则无不为矣。

    Literal translation: the saint's way of governing is: to fill people's stomachs and empty their hearts; to strengthen their bodies and weaken their wills; to make people know nothing and do nothing; to make those who know not dare to do; thus [the ruler can] achieve everything by doing nothing.  

    Ancient Rome had a similar method called "bread and circuses." Chinese rulers have been using this method for thousands of years.

    For a critical view of Dao De Jing, see (if you can read Chinese):

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