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Friday, September 5, 2008

Translation Differences

Question: Derek, I noticed your translation of the Tao Te Ching has significant differences from other versions. As I study further, I begin to see the underlying truth in your approach, which leads me to suspect that others may be somewhat flawed. Is this a common occurrence? If so, why? Is it because other translators believe differently and let bias get into the work?

Answer: That's certainly possible. We're all human beings, and probably one of the toughest things for any of us is to just be aware that we have blind spots - never mind actually looking into them, and overcoming the "blindness" in one's thinking.

If we survey existing translations, we can see some examples where personal beliefs may have been mixed in with the work:

  1. The translator has studied the concept that everything in the world is ultimately meaningless. This gets weaved into the translation as well as the commentary whenever Lao Tzu talks about emptiness. However, the lack of meaning in everything has never been part of Taoism. It actually comes from the philosophy of nihilism.

  1. The translator believes everyone is already enlightened and everything is already perfect, so there is nothing to do. Therefore, the concept of unattached action, wu wei, becomes distorted as non-action. This misconception may have come from depictions of Asian spirituality in movies; certainly it has embedded itself into the popular consciousness.

  1. The translator may be a staunch supporter of women's rights, and intentionally uses female pronouns "she" and "her" in the translation. This may appeal to some readers, but masks the fact that in the original Chinese, words like "sage" and "ruler" are completely gender-neutral. Forcing a feminist position into the translation is contrived and unnecessary. The Tao Te Ching itself is already the ultimate statement on feminism.

  1. The translator likes the notion of spiritual evolution, and uses it in the translation whenever possible. Thus, the characters for sage, shen ren (literally a divinely wise person), are rendered as "evolved individual" even though the term says nothing about any kind of evolution. It is an addition that is solely based on personal preconception.

Of course, words can never completely describe the Tao, and no translation is perfect. As a native speaker of both Chinese and English, I may be more aware of this than most, since I know not only the overall meaning that can be translated, but also the subtle nuances that cannot. This, however, does not mean we should give up the attempt to translate accurately, and one way to increase accuracy is to eliminate as much personal bias as possible.

Until we are able to get closer to the ideal of accuracy, I still recommend reading multiple translations and let your instincts guide you toward the meaning that resonates with you. Although words are imprecise and imperfect, I believe anyone who spends the time to experience the Tao will be able to sense truth from untruth. Anyone who invests the effort to apply the Tao will be able to reach through the distortions to touch the real essence. In the final analysis, none of the flaws and biases really matter - and that's the beauty of it!


Gustave said...

to me it sounds like the story "only a bowl of rice," posted on your website. When sage simply answers the two young men's inquiry with "only a bowl of rice" both men translated it differently. though, they heard the exact same thing, they both choose different paths but still were able to understand the message. is it right to think that having so many translations is a better way to understand the tao rather than just one?

Derek said...

Yes, I would actually encourage people who are interested in exploring the Tao Te Ching more deeply to sample multiple translations, and let the mind create a synthesis. It's a great way to learn.