I acquired my first copy of Tao Te Ching in a box of books from friends who were moving, back in the mid 70's.  It was the Witter Bynner translation, and, in the pre-internet age, it never occurred to me that there were many other translations.

I loved it because it was poetic, compact, and easily schlepped around for reading on the bus or wherever.  So eventually it lost its cover, then the first few pages....  Oh well. We have a mall with bookstores.  

But "my" Tao was not in stock!  So I bought a different translation, and began reading on the bus ride home.  Per Google, there are 170+ translations.  The one I bought was a Penguin Classic, translated by D.C. Lau, 1963.

I sensed immediately there was something different.  Don't laugh!  I took 3 years of Latin in high school, and "knew" translation was an art, not a science, but still, this was something I did not anticipate.

Here is D.C. Lau's translation of passage 1:


The way that can be spoken of
Is not the constant way;
The name that can be named
Is not the constant name.
The nameless was the beginning of heaven and earth;
The named was the mother of the myriad creatures.
Hence, always rid yourself of desires in order to observe its secrets;
But allow yourself to have desires in order to observe its manifestaions.
These two are the same
But diverge in name as they issue forth.
Being the same they are called mysteries,
Mystery upon mystery-
The gateway of the manifold secrets.
Fair enough.  But this is what I was accustomed to reading:
Existence is beyond the power of words
To define:
Terms may be used
But are none of them absolute.
In the beginning of heaven and earth there were no words,
Words came out of the womb of matter;
And whether a man dispassionately
Sees to the core of life
Or passionately
Sees the surface,
The core and the surface
Are essentially the same,
Words making them seem different
Only to express appearance.
If name be needed, wonder names them both:
From wonder into wonder
Existence opens.

In his own introduction, Bynner says this:

Though I cannot read Chinese, two years spent in China and eleven years of work with Dr. Kiang in translating The Jade Mountain have given me a fair sense of the "spirit of the Chinese people" and an assiduity in finding English equivalents for idiom which literal translation fails to convey. And now, through various and varying English versions of the Tao Teh Ching I have probed for the meaning as I recognize it and have persistently sought for it the clearest and simplest English expression I could discover. Above all I have been prompted by hope to acquaint Western readers with the heart of a Chinese poet whose head has been too much studied.
I will not presume to say other translators of Tao Te Ching were more technically correct, as I have no way of knowing that.  I do know line-for-line, word-for word translation is difficult, as one needs to understand idiom, literal, and figurative language.  I have seen other translations of Tao here and there, and sometimes struggled to relate it to the Tao I "know."  I also cannot claim to understand the "spirit of the Chinese people."  I'm about 1/4 Polish, 1/4 Slovac, 1/4 Irish, and 1/4 German, and I would never claim to understand the "spirit" of my own "people."  I just know the people I know.  

I guess Bynner's translation just slides into my heart and soul a little easier.  It seems less clunky, smoother, with less ragged edges to slow down my absorption of the words.  OK, I just plain "grok" Bynner's translation.  

If you ever have, or ever intend to, read Tao Te Ching, may I suggest you also read Witter Bynner's translation?  It's poetic, compact, and, even in paper form, easily schlepped around for on-the-go reading. I will leave you with one of my other favorite passages, and DC. Lau's version, just to illustrate my point.


'Yield and you need not break:'
Bent you can straighten,
Emptied you can hold,
Torn you can mend;
And as want can reward you
So wealth can bewilder.
Aware of this, a wise man has the simple return
Which other men seek:
Without inflaming himself
He is kindled,
Without explaining himself
Is explained,
Without taking credit
Is accredited,
Laying no claim
Is acclaimed
And, because he does not compete,
Finds peaceful competence.
How true is the old saying,
'Yield and you need not break'!
How completely it comes home!


Bowed down then preserved;
Bent then straight;
Hollow then full;
Worn then new;
A little then benefitted;
A lot then perplexed.
Therefore the sage embraces the One and is a model for the empire.
He does not show himself, and so is conspicuous;
He does not consider himself right, and so is illustrious;
He does not brag, and so has merit;
He does not boast, and so edures.
It is because he does not contend that no one in the empire is in a position to contend with him.
The way the ancients had it, "Bowed down then preserved", is no empty saying.  Truly it enables one to be preserved to the end.

Originally posted to Way of Dragon on Sat Mar 02, 2013 at 06:17 PM PST.

Also republished by Progressive Friends of the Library Newsletter and Readers and Book Lovers.

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