Tao-te ching Comments

Foreword to Tao-te ching

(hints on how to understand the texts)

Tao-te ching pages

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 the old Chinese language and their understanding of the Tao-te ching concepts, such as Tao or wu-wei.

Regarding the difficulties of the 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" aspect 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 Taoist thinking in order to succeed in translating the Tao-te ching closer to its background philosophy. This is what we'll try to show below.

Let's take chapter 81 - 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
    .(2)

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 it, the wise man doesn't do anything for others no matter the circumstances. 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 realize this harmony in his practical life too. Therefore the above paragraph should be rendered as follows:

    When the Tao blesses and doesn't harm (meaning the universe itself supports the noble one),
    The wise man doesn't live for himself alone (meaning he gets out of his house ready to offer his services).
    He's content to do a lot of good for other people, without having to contend.
    And the more he gives, the richer he gets.
    (3)

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.

Notes:
1. Introduction to the I-ching - Book of Changes, by James Legge, p. XIX.

2. Lin Yutang's version.

3. Jhian Yang's version.

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Comments by Jhian.

 

 


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