Friday, March 03, 2006

Thomas Meyer’s Daode Jing: A Test of Translation

One of the useful features of Clayton Eshleman’s great little magazine Caterpillar, published in the now long-ago nineteen sixties and seventies, was its “tests of translation”; the tests presented translations of a given text juxtaposed sequentially so that they might be compared. Thomas Meyer has done a new translation of the Daode Jing (or Tao Te Ching, to use the older transliteration), so it might be useful to provide such a test for his text, and discuss its premises.

Chinese, of course, is far removed in its orthography and syntax from any language spoken in the west, and so presents considerable difficulties for western readers. The first translation of the Dao into English to which I find reference, one by John Chalmers, appeared only in 1868; the great Scottish sinologist James Legge included another version in his Sacred Books of China series, published in 1891. Since the nineteenth century, though, notwithstanding the difficulties, many translations have been published, some as books, others, now, on the web. Over all, it’s one of the most often translated books in the world, a fact that’s a testament to the sensible recognition that it’s occupied a central place in Chinese thought for millennia, and has imbued the work of Chinese poets, writers and artists through the centuries. It’s arguably as fundamental to the Chinese imagination as the work of Plato has been to the western world – or as the King James Bible has been for English speakers since its relatively recent publication in 1611.

Unlike the I Ching, the other ancient Taoist classic that’s come down to us (it dates, by some reckonings, from as early as 2061 BCE), the Dao is said to have had a single author, Laozi (Lao-Tsu in the older transliteration). Western scholars, though, now favor the theory that the texts that compose the book were authored by several anonymous sages, or passed down through the oral tradition, and gradually collected to form the Dao as we know it. Perhaps someday we’ll know more.

The text for the traditional version of the Dao dates from the fifth century of our era, but in 1973 a much older text that contained most of the Dao, written on silk, was discovered in a tomb sealed in 168 BCE; it’s known as the Mawangdui text. In 1993 an even older partial text, brushed on bamboo strips that were gathered into bundles, was found in a tomb at Goudian (or Kou-Tien); from other material found in the tomb, it was clear that the tomb dated from the fourth century BCE or earlier. The sections it included were mostly very similar to the corresponding sections of the fifth century text (though the ideograms in which the language was written had shifted in the intervening centuries), but they were arranged, as were those of the Mawangdui text, in a different order. Most western translations, including Meyer’s, use the traditional arrangement of sections – or “chapters”, as they’re often styled – but a few, like Robert Henricks’ 1989 translation, follow one or the other of the older texts in presenting the sections which comprise the division of the text known traditionally as the de before those that comprise the dao.

For translations, I’ve used the site here, which has more than a hundred versions of the text in a score of languages, including Klingon; it provides fifty-eight versions in English. Its use of frames allows you to compare up to four texts at once in different languages, including multiple versions of the Chinese text, if you wish. The transcriptions of the translations are not always completely accurate, but do pay the site a visit if you really want to delve.

For obvious reasons of time and space, and because I’m in no present danger of becoming a competent Sinologist, I’ll look at just a couple of chapters here.

Let’s first check “chapter” 5 in the traditional text; it’s one for which there’s a surviving bamboo strip in the Goudian collection. At the left of the image, there’s a photo of the original bamboo strip text, right of that a transcription in traditional characters, and then a transliteration and definition in English.

Translator Thomas Cleary, from 1991:
Heaven and earth are not humane; they regard all beings as straw dogs.
Sages are not humane; they see all people as straw dogs.
The space between heaven and earth is like a bellows and pipes, empty yet inexhaustible, producing more with each movement.
The talkative reach their wits' end again and again; that is not as good as keeping centered.
Here’s Dartmouth professor Robert Henricks’ 1989 version from the Mawangdui text:

Heaven and Earth are not humane;
They regard the ten thousand things as straw dogs.
The Sage is not humane.
He takes the common people as straw dogs.

The space between Heaven and Earth – is it not like a bellows?

It is empty and yet not depleted;
Move it and more always comes out.

Much learning means frequent exhaustion.

That’s not so good as holding on to the mean.
And, for some real perspective, here’s James Legge’s version from 1891:

Heaven and earth do not act from (the impulse of) any wish to benevolent; they deal with all things as the dogs of grass are dealt with.
The sages do not act from (any wish to be) benevolent; they deal with the people as the dogs of grass are dealt with.
May not the space between heaven and earth be compared to a bellows?
'Tis emptied, yet it loses not its power;
'Tis moved again, and sends forth air the more.
Much speech to swift exhaustion leads we see;
Your inner being guard, and keep it free.
Now here’s Thomas Meyer:
heaven and earth play no favorites
all of us are nothing more than scarecrows

heaven and earth are joined by emptiness
like a flute wrapped in cloth

empty but never useless
a hollow music comes from

not much to say
nothing better than staying in-between
There are a couple of nice touches in Meyer’s version; first is the replacement of the “dogs of grass” or straw dogs (a conventional figure of speech, a variation on the proverbial straw-man of argument) with scarecrows (palpable, and having a more-than-rhetorical existence); and, second, the replacement of “bellows” by “flute”. The original term seems to have denoted “bagpipe”, if the literal translation of the ideogram pictured above is accurate, so both translations depart from a specific referential sense of the passage. “Flute”, though, captures the musical dimension of “bagpipe”, while “bellows”, which conveys its mechanical sense, does not – and is likewise an instrument of air.

Considering the text section by section ignores one of the most notable features of Meyers’ translation (I’ll get to that in a moment), but let’s take a look at another section, “chapters” seventeen through nineteen, traditionally read together:

Here’s the Henricks version:

With the highest kind of rulers, those below simply know they exist.
With those one step down—they love and praise them.
With those one further step down—they fear them.
And with those at the bottom—they ridicule and insult them.

When trust is insufficient, there will be no trust in return.
Hesitant, undecided! Like this is his respect for speaking.

He completes his tasks and finishes his affairs,

Yet the common people say, “These things all happened by nature.”


Therefore, when the Great Way is rejected, it is then that we have the virtues of humanity and righteousness;
When knowledge and wisdom appear, it is then that there is great hypocrisy;
When the six relations are not in harmony, it is then that we have filial piety and compassion;
And when the country is in chaos and confusion, it is then that there are virtuous officials.


Eliminate sageliness, throw away knowledge,
And the people will benefit a hundredfold.
Eliminate humanity, throw away righteousness,
And the people will return to filial piety and compassion.
Eliminate craftiness, throw away profit,
Then we will have no robbers and thieves.

These three sayings—
Regard as a text are not yet complete.

Thus, we must see to it that they have the following appended:
Manifest plainness and embrace the genuine;
Lessen self-interest and make few your desires;
Eliminate learning and have no undue concern.
I won’t quote as many versions of these sections as I did of the first passage, because I want to get to some features of Meyer’s book as a whole, but here are the same sections as translated by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English, whose translation, the first version I encountered, came out in 1972 (a second edition appeared in the 80s, but I’m quoting from the first edition):


The very highest is barely known by men.
Then comes that which they know and love.
Then that which is feared,
Then that which is despised.

Who does not trust enough will not be trusted.

When actions are performed
Without unnecessary speech,
People say, "We did it!"


When the great Tao is forgotten,
Kindness and morality arise.
When wisdom and intelligence are born,
The great pretense begins.

When there is no peace within the family,
Filial piety and devotion arise.
When the country is confused and in chaos,
Loyal ministers appear.


Give up sainthood, renounce wisdom,
And it will be a hundred times better for everyone.

Give up kindness, renounce morality,
And men will rediscover filial piety and love.

Give up ingenuity, renounce profit,
And bandits and thieves will disappear.

These three are outward forms alone; they are not sufficient in themselves.
It is more important
To see the simplicity,
To realize one's true nature,
To cast off selfishness
And temper desire.

The Feng-English text presents the paradoxes at the heart of the passage in a fairly lucid, if canonical, voice. Re-reading it, I remember my first encounter with it, my initial sense that it had said something quite profound reasonably clearly. I’m still puzzled by the first lines of seventeen; “the very highest” what, I want to ask. The abstraction obscures the focus of the passage like a diaphanous fog, without conjuring up glimmers of further reference. Certainly, though, it has the advantage over the Henricks version of being almost colloquial, or perhaps oracular-colloquial; “sainthood” in the last section, for example, is better than Henricks’ “sageliness” (when’s the last time you encountered that?), and overall it’s a better English text.

Here’s Meyer’s, though, presented as he offers it, as a continuous text:

the best direction is barely felt
the next best is like a friend

fear follows after that
dismiss the last as useless

a lack of trust makes
things untrustworthy

quiet and in few words
finish what was begun

so that people say
it simply happened on its own 17

when the great dao is disabled
you need “goodness” and “understanding”

when wit and know-how are sold off
imitation is a necessity

when trust in the family gives way
“loving relations” are called for

when disorder and confusion take over
the “devoted” official appears 18

get rid of the spiritual and let go of wisdom
this will improve things a hundred times over

get rid of good deeds and let go of one’s duty
this will bring back needing and caring

get rid of well-laid plans and let go of advantage
then there will be no crooks or robbery

these three pieces of advice in themselves are not enough
so add to the above the following

admire what is plain and hold onto what hasn’t happened yet
think less of yourself and whatever it is you want 19

This deeply considered reading has among its many virtues that of extraordinary clarity – but it’s a clarity that echoes the paradox at the heart of the passage it presents. The lack of punctuation means that the intelligible structure of the passage depends on line and phrase – much as the meaning of a poem is likely to depend, in this post post-modern era, more on such paratactic strategies than on syntactic structures.

This section reveals the crucial dimension of Meyer’s translation I alluded to a minute ago: unlike others who’ve taken on the task, Meyer presents the Dao as one continuous text, with the section numbers off to the outside edge of the page. Instead of appearing to be a series of discreet oracular reflections, in other words, it’s one flowing account of the slippery, paradoxical nature of reality.

Meyer has clearly cast his translation in a voice quite different from those chosen by the other translators we’ve glanced at. He speaks of the voice he’s discovered for the Dao, what he calls the translation’s “rhetorical pitch”, in the afterward to his version:

The daode jing is table talk. An old man, not holding forth really, but just telling someone what he knew. After dinner, the dishes pushed aside, a glass of whiskey, a cigarette. Or a pub and a pint of beer, even. All throughout the Seventies, the poet Basil Bunting would visit Jonathan Williams and myself where we were living in the Yorkshire dales. This was like that. The tone was conversational, not canonical. Honesty and simplicity foremost, rather than piety or complication. There were no themes, ideas per se. Following one upon another, things circled, darted away, appeared again, or vanished altogether, with the natural ease and bonhomie of good talk.

It’s a convincing take (though I don’t personally see the sage with a cigarette – but perhaps a pipe!). Notwithstanding, though, the apparent simplicity and the casual nature of the presentation, this is durable chatter, words and phrases that work their way into mind and stay there. No periods, no commas – Meyer has freed the language of his translation from the boundaries of syntax to make what is essentially a contemporary poem, a subtle reading of subtle writ, one that’s fluid, follows shifting riverbeds of meaning, and so gets to the heart of the Dao

best to be like water
always useful …
– a profound text, and a wonderful translation. It's one, I suspect, that I’ll visit often.

Updated to correct the transcription of two of the translations.

Original content © 2006.

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Blogger Arago Press said...

Excellent post. *Daode Jhing?* versus *I Ching*. I'll have to throw my Chinese coins on that one.

3:59 PM  

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