Thursday, July 21, 2011

Some English Translations of the Daodejing


The Daodejing may be the single most-translated Chinese text. Nevertheless, finding an English edition of the Daodejing which is suitable for use in the classroom or individual study is something of a challenge. When I first started teaching the Daodejing, I used the Penguin Classics edition with D. C. Lau's translation. This translation dates from 1963, but is still very useful. The translation is clear, with few idiosyncratic choices. Lau's only bias is that he reads the work more as a political treatise than a mystical work (whereas in fact it may be both). The Penguin Classics edition provides an extensive introduction, glossary, and chronological table, and supplementary essays on "The Problem of Authorship" and "The Nature of the Work."

Lau's translation holds up exceptionally well, and is still referenced by other scholars. A lot has changed in the field of scholarship on the Daodejing since 1963, however. Lau's translation predates the discovery of the Mawangdui and Guodian texts of the Daodejing, for example. The Mawangdui texts were found in 1973 in a tomb dating from 168 BC. Two copies of the Daodejing were found at Mawangdui--the "A" and "B" texts, both written on silk. The A and B texts are mostly complete, though they contain differences both from each other and from the received (Wang Bi) edition of the Daodejing. For example, the order of the Dao and De books of the Daodejing is reversed in the Mawangdui texts, with the De book coming first. The Mawangdui texts also lack the chapter divisions of the received edition, and contain many (mostly minor) textual variations.

The Guodian text, written on bamboo, was discovered in 1993 in a tomb dated from before 300 BC. The Guodian text is the oldest copy of the Daodejing to be discovered, but is incomplete, though it contains 14 bamboo strips with material not included in the received edition of the Daodejing.

Some recent translations of the Daodejing have been based on the Mawangdui or the Guodian texts instead of that of the received edition. Robert Henricks, for example, has put out both a translation based on the Mawangdui texts and a translation based on the Guodian text. I have only read the former, which is published under the name Te-Tao Ching (Ballantine Books, 1989)--to reflect the reversed order of the Dao and De books in the Mawangdui texts. Henricks' translation of the Mawangdui texts is clear and a delight to read:
When the highest type of men hear the Way, with diligence they're able to practice it; When average men hear the Way, some things they retain and others they lose; When the lowest type of men hear of the Way, they laugh out loud at it. If they didn't laugh at it, it couldn't be regarded as the Way (ch. 41).


The Hackett edition of Henrick's translation contains a very helpful philosophical introduction, and some useful textual notes throughout. I used Henricks' translation when I taught an undergraduate seminar on Indian and Chinese philosophy in the spring of 2010. The translation and ancillary materials worked well, but I decided it is better to use the received, Wang Bi edition of the Daodejing when students are reading the text for the first time. This is largely because the Wang Bi edition is the one referenced by all of the classical commentaries and by most contemporary scholarship. It was also a distraction to have to explain to my students the various ways in which the edition we were studying differed from the received edition, and how this might affect their subsequent reading about the Daodejing.

The last time I taught the Daodejing, in the spring of this year, I used the translation by Stephen Addiss and Stanley Lombardo (Hackett Publishing, 1993). This translation contains a brief (but nonetheless helpful) introduction by Burton Watson, a glossary of Chinese words, and, most surprisingly, works of original calligraphy by translator Stephen Addiss. This translation of the Daodejing is currently my favorite, because it is the clearest and most literal that I have yet to find. The Daodejing is a very terse text, even by the standards of classical Chinese, and partially on account of this it gives rise to many difficulties in interpretation. Most translations of the Daodejing contain as many interpretations as straight translations, but Addiss and Lombardo endeavor to adhere as closely as possible to the original text of the received edition, even where this makes for hard going in English. For example, here are the first two lines of the first chapter of the Daodejing, as translated by Addiss and Lombardo: "Tao called Tao is not Tao. / Names can name no lasting name." Addiss and Lombardo capture the concision of the original text, and this makes it all the more useful for teaching purposes, because it lets students grapple themselves with the issues of interpretation. It is not for nothing that the esteemed scholar of Daoism, Livia Kohn, has said of Addiss's and Lombardo's work that "This is by far the best translation on the market today, and I have been praising it to whoever would listen." (Incidentally, Addiss's calligraphy is also of high quality, and contains both traditional and contemporary pieces, which seem to resonate with the spirit of the Daodejing.)

Despite all these strengths, I will not be using the Addiss and Lombardo translation the next time I teach the Daodejing. The translation is excellent, but the Hackett edition is lacking in terms of a sufficiently robust historical and philosophical introduction, and in terms of providing sufficient interpretive notes and commentary to help students who may be struggling with the text. The glossary of terms also suffers greatly from the fact that it seems to only make reference to those Chinese characters which happen to appear in the one line of Chinese text which has been printed alongside each of the chapters of the English translation. Given the brevity of the text, it would have made much more sense to provide a complete facing-page copy of the Chinese characters, instead of choosing somewhat arbitrarily to restrict the Chinese to one line per chapter.

Hackett has another good translation of the Daodejing in print, this one by noted sinologist Philip J. Ivanhoe (first published in 2002, and reprinted in 2003). Ivanhoe's translation is clear, adheres closely to the text of the received edition, and contains few idiosyncratic readings: "A Way that can be followed is not a constant Way. / A name that can be named is not a constant name." The Hackett edition contains a brief but helpful introduction, fairly extensive textual notes, and an appendix which discusses the language of the Daodejing. I would have liked to have seen a more extensive introduction, and more extensive notes discussing the interpretation of both individual lines and whole chapters of the text. Nevertheless, I am currently planning on using Ivanhoe's translation the next time I teach the Daodejing.

Two other recent translations are worthy of note. The first is Roger T. Ames' and David L. Hall's Daodejing: "Making This Life Significant": A Philosophical Translation (Ballantine, 2003). This edition contains the original Chinese text from the Wang Bi edition and a medium-length commentary by the translators alongside each translated chapter. This seems like a promising format for an edition of the Daodejing intended for use by students and scholars. This edition contains both a historical introduction and a separate (and lengthy) philosophical introduction, a glossary of key terms, a thematic index, and an appendix with a translation of a text called The Great One Gives Birth to the Waters (which comprises the 14 bamboo strips found in the Guodian text of the Daodejing that have no parallel in either the Mawangdui texts or the Wang Bi edition).

While I like the format of Ames' and Hall's translation, and I like their stated goal of creating an edition of the Daodejing with specialized commentary by and for philosophers (not just sinologists), in practice I find fault with several characteristics of this edition. For one thing, I would have liked to see more traditional commentaries and contemporary scholarship cited in their chapter by chapter commentaries. More importantly, I found the style of their translation wanting, in part because it seems (for lack of a better expression) "too clever by half": "Way-making (dao that can be put into words is not really way-making; / And naming (ming) that can assign fixed reference to things is not really name-making." Their translation contains too much interpretive interpolation for my taste, and does not convey the graceful (albeit frequently ambiguous) simplicity of the original. Ames' and Hall's interpretive commentaries and introductions also seem biased and idiosyncratic, containing their own philosophical musings when it would be more helpful to provide a context for interpretation grounded in the traditional commentaries on the one hand and recent work by scholars on the other. Indeed, this tendency toward the idiosyncratic is seen in the tile of their work itself: the phrase "Making This Life Significant" is inserted after Dao De Jing, and this choice reflects the heavy-handed approach Ames and Hall fall into in attempting to reveal the work's philosophical significance.

The last translation I will mention is by Edmund Ryden, and published by Oxford World's Classics (2008). The translation is based on the received edition of the text, but Ryden occasionally also makes use of the Mawangdui and Guodian texts for some of his readings and interpretations. Each chapter of the translation is cross-referenced with the corresponding section of the Mawangdui texts (and the Guodian text, where appropriate). This edition has a very informative introduction by Benjamin Penny, a very brief commentary on each chapter prior to the translation, textual notes, and an index of key terms and images which appear in the text. This apparatus is useful, though I would have liked to see more extensive introductory comments on each chapter with at least a few references to classical commentaries and contemporary scholarship. The main problem with this edition, at least for me, lies in the idiosyncracies in Ryden's translation. For example, Ryden translates de as "life force," and he uses feminine pronouns whenever referring to the Dao: "Look at her and you do not see her: name her invisible; / Listen to her and you do not hear her, name her inaudible" (ch. 14). Neither of these choices is woefully misleading or inaccurate, and both are thought-provoking, but I find these and other unusual choices in Ryden's translation to be quite distracting, especially when taken as a whole.
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