The Tao Te Ching and Its Many Translations


Myself

By T.V. Antony Raj

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Sage Laozi (or Lao Tzu, Chinese: 老子) literally meaning “Father” or “Old Master” wrote the Chinese classic text, Tao Te Ching (道德經;) or Daode jing (道德经), translated as “The Classic of the Virtuous Way.”

According to tradition, Laozi wrote the Tao Te Ching around 6th century BC, although the oldest excavated text dates back to the late 4th century BC, leading to the true authorship and date of composition or compilation of the text under debate.

Although a legendary figure, Laozi is usually dated to around the 6th century BC as a record-keeper at the court of the Zhou dynasty.  He is also reckoned as a contemporary of Confucius (September 28, 551 – 479 BC), the  Chinese teacher and philosopher of the Spring and Autumn period of Chinese history. However, some historians contend that Laozi actually lived during the Warring States period of the 5th or 4th century BC.

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A painting of the Daode Tianzun ('the Heavenly Lord of Dao and its Virtue'), the deified Laozi, one of the supreme divinities of Daoism. (Source: eng.taoism.org.hk)
A painting of the Daode Tianzun (‘the Heavenly Lord of Dao and its Virtue’), the deified Laozi, one of the supreme divinities of Daoism. (Source: eng.taoism.org.hk)

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Laozi deified as the Daode Tianzun (道德天尊 – “Moral senior” or  “the Grand Pure One”) and venerated in traditional Chinese religions as “the Heavenly Lord of Dao and its Virtue” founded Taoism, an ancient tradition of Chinese philosophy and religious belief profound in Chinese customs.

Throughout Chinese history, various anti-authoritarian movements embraced Laozi’s work. As a central figure in Chinese culture, the emperors of the Tang dynasty and modern people of the Li surname claimed Laozi as the founder of their lineage.

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A part of a Taoist manuscript, ink on silk, 2th century BCE, Han Dynasty, unearthed from Mawangdui tomb 3rd, Chansha, Hunan Province, China. ( Source: Hunan Province Museum)
A part of a Taoist manuscript, ink on silk, 2th century BCE, Han Dynasty, unearthed from Mawangdui tomb 3rd, Chansha, Hunan Province, China. ( Source: Hunan Province Museum)

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In 1973, archeologists unearthed a large number of silk manuscripts from Mawangdui tomb 3rd, Changsha, Hunan Province, China. Among these were two versions of the Daode jing by Laozi, dated to around 200 BC. The two silk books are part of the Cultural Relics from the Mawangdui Tombs collection at the Hunan Provincial Museum.

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The Guodian Chu Slips (Source: terebess.hu)
Th(Source: terebess.hu)

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In 1993, archeologists discovered three bundles of 71 bamboo strips with the Daode jing text written on them in a tomb in Guodian in Hubei province (east central China). The “Guodian Laozi” that has survived intact since 300 BC, is by far the earliest version of the Daode jing ever unearthed.

The Tao Te Ching is a short text of around 5,000 Chinese characters in 81 brief chapters or sections composed of  two parts, the Tao Ching (chapters 1–37) and the Te Ching (chapters 38–81).

The ideas in the Tao Te Ching are singular and the style poetic. The rhetorical style combines short, declarative statements and intentional contradictions.

Many western scholars with a foundation in the Chinese language and Chinese philosophy have attempted to translate the Tao Te Ching into their own native languages.

The Tao Te Ching written in classical Chinese relies in essence on allusions.  For many non-Chinese scholars, it can be difficult to understand the verses completely due to their inherent semantic meanings, nuances, subtexts and many words are on purpose vague and open to more than one interpretation.

In Laozi’s period, people  memorized this work. They reinforced the allusions by using  them in their writings. Today, even among the modern Chinese translators, there are only a few who have a deep acquaintance with ancient Chinese literature and many have lost sight of the many levels of subtext.

As there are no punctuation marks in classical Chinese, it can be difficult to determine where a sentence ends and the next begins. Moving a full-stop a few words forward or back or inserting a comma would completely change the meaning of  passages. So, it is for the translator to determine where the divisions are and the meanings.

Some editors and translators say that the original texts of the Tao Te Ching written on one-line bamboo strips linked with silk threads are much corrupted, and it is difficult to understand some chapters without moving sequences of characters from one place to another.

Many popular translations are less erudite. They give an individual author’s interpretation of the Tao Te Ching that deviate from the original text and incompatible with the historical thoughts of the Chinese people.

Holmes Welch (1924-1981), an American scholar of Daoism and early 20th century Chinese Buddhism remarked: “It is a famous puzzle which everyone would like to feel he had solved.

Today, the perseverance of non-Chinese scholars to preserve and bring out the original meaning of the Chinese text  in every respect has spawned hundreds of versions of the Tao Te Ching in western languages that in certain instances even contradictory. To prove my point, I have quoted below a few attempts by some authors to translate Chapter 74 of Tao Te Ching:

Example #1

If people do not fear death why attempt to frighten them by capital punishment?

Supposing the people are made constantly afraid of death, so that when they commit unlawful acts I arrest them and have them killed, who will dare [afterwards to misbehave]? For then there will always be yiusze, or civil magistrates, to execute them. Now the execution of men on behalf of the inflictor of the death-punishment [by those not legally qualified to do so] may be compared to hewing on behalf of a master carpenter; and people who [attempt to] hew instead of a master carpenter mostly cut their hands.

– Translated by Frederic Henry Balfour, 1884

Example #2

It is futile to threaten people with death. If they are not afraid to die, they cannot be frightened by the death penalty; and if they are afraid to die, why should we kill them?

Only Nature knows the proper time for a man to die. To kill is to interrupt Nature’s design for dying, Like a blundering apprentice judging himself to be wiser than his master.

Whenever an apprentice thinks he is smarter than his master, he is very likely to hurt himself.

It is futile to threaten people with death. If they are not afraid to die, they cannot be frightened by the death penalty; and if they are afraid to die, why should we kill them?

Only Nature knows the proper time for a man to die. To kill is to interrupt Nature’s design for dying, Like a blundering apprentice judging himself to be wiser than his master.

Whenever an apprentice thinks he is smarter than his master, he is very likely to hurt himself.

– Translated by Archie J. Bahm, 1958

Example #3

It is not the leader’s role to play judge and jury, to punish people for ‘bad’ behaviour. In the first place, punishment does not effectively control behaviour.

But even if punishment did work, what leader would dare to use fear as a teaching method?

The wise leader knows that there are natural consequences for every act. The task is to shed light on these natural consequences, not to attack the behaviour itself.

If the leader tries to take the place of nature and act as judge and jury, the best you can expect is a crude imitation of a very subtle process.

At the very least, the leader will discover that the instrument of justice cuts both ways. Punishing others in punishing work.

– Translated by John Heider, 1985.

Example #4

If people don’t love life, they won’t fear death, and threatening them with it won’t work.

If people have lives worth living, then the threat of death is meaningful, and they’ll do what is right to avoid it.

But killing itself should be the province of the great executioner alone. Trying to take his place and kill is like cutting wood in the place of the master carpenter: The odds are you’ll hurt your own hand.

– Translated by Ren Jiyu, 1993.

Example #5

When the people are not afraid to die
Why then threaten them with death?

Even if they normally are fearful of death,
For worst offenders, we may seize and kill them.

But who dares to execute?

There is always an expert executioner who kills.

Substituting for an expert executioner,
Is like hacking wood in place of a master carpenter.

Whoever substitutes for the master carpenter,
He seldom escapes injury of his own hand.

– Translated by David Hong Cheng, 2000.

Example #6

The people do not fear death,
Why threaten them with death?

Suppose the people always fear death,
One who does strange things (ch’i),
I shall seize and kill,
Then who dares [to do strange things]?
Killing is carried out by the executioner.

To replace the executioner and kill,
Is like chopping wood in place of the master carpenter.

To chop wood in place of the master carpenter,
Rarely one does not hurt one’s own hand.

Tao Te Ching: A New Translation with Commentary by Elen Marie Chen

Example #7

If people don’t love life, they won’t fear death, and threatening them with it won’t work.

If people have lives worth living, then the threat of death is meaningful, and they’ll do what is right to avoid it.

But killing itself should be the province of the great executioner alone.

Trying to take his place and kill is like cutting wood in the place of the master carpenter:
The odds are you’ll hurt your own hand.

The Tao Te Ching of Lao Tzu by Brian Browne Walker

Example #8

If the people do not fear death,
For reasons of extreme poverty or suffering,
What is the point of threatening them with death?

If the people fear death,
And if the outlaws are captured and killed,
Who will dare to break the law?

Yet, the act of killing should always be
The exclusive province of the Great Executioner.

Therefore, to kill in place of the Great Executioner is
Like hewing wood in place of the master carpenter;
Few, if ever, will escape cutting their own hands.

– Translated by Yasuhiko Genku Kimura

Example #9

If people don’t fear death
How will you frighten them with death?
If people always fear death
And I seize and execute
Anyone who does anything new,
Who will dare to move?
There is a public executioner who kills.
Killing on behalf of the public executioner,
Is called cutting wood on behalf of the carpenter.
In cutting wood on behalf of the carpenter,
There are few who escape hurting their hands.

– Translated by A. S. Kline, 2003.

Example #10

If people are not afraid of death,
how can they be threatened by it?
But if they always live in fear of death,
and still continue in their lawlessness,
we can arrest and kill them.
Who then would dare?
And yet there is a Lord of Death whose charge it is to kill.
To take his place and kill would be like carving wood in place of the master carpenter.
Few would escape without injuring their hands.

– Translated by Tim Chilcott, 2005.

For more translations of the Tao Te Ching by other authors visit Terebess Asia Online (TAO) .

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