Lao-tzu > Tao-te ching

Foreword to Tao-te ching
(or hints on how to interpret the texts)

One should know that there are a lot of different translations of Tao-te ching nowadays. All they have in common are the main themes - still these themes are rendered in different ways according to the translator experience with Tao(-ism) or his understanding of the Tao-te ching concepts, such as Tao or wu-wei.

But apart from the difficulties related to the Taoist concepts are those, more confusing, related to the old Chinese language. Here is what James Legge tells us in this respect:

    ...The written characters of the Chinese language are not representation of words but symbols of the ideas, and their combination within a composition is not a representation of what the writer meant, but of what he thought.

This is why a literal (word by word) translation of the writing is practically impossible. And so

    ...Whereas symbolic characters have related [translator's] mind to the author's, he [the translator] is free to render the respective idea in the most suitable manner he chooses (1).

But the "suitable" feature is likely to insert more speculation and confusion in the rendered text. The freedom of the translator to choose a convening word or phrase is not a guarantee of the accuracy of his translation. It is almost obvious that our mind and ideas are strongly influenced by our cultural environment and its specific complexes basically drawn from the Christian religion.

All one can hope is to be enough familiarized with the Taoism thinking as to succeed in translating the Tao-te ching text closer to its background philosophy. This is what we'll try to show below.

Let's take chapter #81 translation - it reads:

    The Sage does not accumulate (for himself).
    He lives for other people,
    And grows richer himself;
    He gives to other people,
    And has greater abundance.

    The Tao of Heaven
    Blesses, but does not harm.
    The Way of the Sage
    Accomplishes, but does not contend

We must admit that, at a first glance, the translation seems to be correct, since it doesn't deviate from what we should expect from the text involved. In fact, we should have something completely different if we take into account the Taoist thinking.

According to its view the wise man doesn't do anything for others no matter the circumstances. He will try to adapt to the temporary conditions of the universe and act in concordance with them. He wouldn't adopt any personal conduct starting from a mere subjective intent or emotion. The harmony with Tao is the main goal of a Taoist adept. He wouldn't miss his chance to find the way to accomplish this harmony in his practical life too. Therefore the above paragraph should be rendered as follows:

    When everything around is harmony
    The wise man doesn't live for himself alone.
    [He gets out of his house ready to offer a helping hand]
    He's content to do a lot of good for other people
    And the more he gives, the richer he gets.
    Thus he adapts himself to the course of events (Tao or Way of Heaven).

We have to admit that this translation is more conform with the Taoist patterns of thought. Also it takes into account the author's state of mind, the way it appears from the philosophical fragments kept by the tradition and unaltered by the passing of time, mean interests or, simply, by ignorance.

1. I-ching - Book of Changes, translated by James Legge, p. XIX.
2. Lin Yutang's version.
3. Jhian Yang version.

Paper by Jhian


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