Apr/May 2010 Reviews & Interviews

Upright words sound upside down

Lao-tzu's Taoteching: with selected commentaries of the past 2,ooo years
Lao-Tzu, Translated by Red Pine.
Copper Canyon Press. 2009. 184 pp.
ISBN 978-1-55659-290-4.

Review by Gilbert Wesley Purdy

Buy now from Amazon! Like so many young seekers, when I first came upon the Tao Te Ching I sensed that I had stumbled onto a profound alternative to a world that seemed so sure of so many "unquestionable facts" that it amounted to a pattern of emotional violence. Of course, I found these "facts" highly questionable, myself, the persistent discomfort that they caused me unnecessary.

The translator that introduced the Tao to me was D. C. Lau, I believe, though I am not absolutely certain. Whoever it was, she or he gave me Lao Tzu as an abiding influence on my life. I reread the Tao Te Ching regularly for a couple of years, mulled over its implications. The slim volume set on my shelf, occasionally consulted, for more years still.

In 1988, Stephen Mitchell, published his own translation of the Tao Te Ching. I held Mitchell in high regard for his translation of another book which had profoundly affected me: The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. Upon reading his Tao Te Ching I felt once again joyfully shot through with the Tao.

But there were certain concessions one had to make in order to be satisfied with Mitchell's translation. It clearly had as its goal the modernization of the Tao Te Ching—it was a translation across time as well as language. "When a country goes counter to the Tao," he writes, in verse 46, "warheads are stockpiled outside of cities." It is not likely that many warheads were stockpiled in 6th century B.C.E. China. The translation also contained references to Friedrich Neitzche's "will to power."

Not all of the analogies which underlay the modernization seemed precise. More worrisome was the fact that the 6th century B.C.E. was so utterly gone. Even without a grasp of the original Chinese, it was clear that Mitchell's version glossed over the less palatable aspects of the text when it did not leave them out altogether.

Now, some 20 years later, Red Pine presents lovers of The Tao his own translation of the 81 verses of Lao-tzu's Taoteching. (It is actually a revision of the translation he published in 1996.) It does not seem impertinent to suspect that it is the finest of the myriad English language translations to date. Being authored by Red Pine, the reader may depend upon it being as literal as the textual variations will allow and as true to the original tone as the enormous differences between the two languages will allow.

A comparison, at various points, with the Stephen Mitchell Tao Te Ching helps to clarify two very different approaches to translation. Mitchell's version of verse #58, for example, reads:

If a country is governed with tolerance,
the people are comfortable and honest.
If a country is governed with repression,
the people are depressed and crafty.

When the will to power is in charge,
the higher the ideals, the lower the results.
Try to make people happy,
and you lay the groundwork for misery.
Try to make people moral,
and you lay the groundwork for vice.

In Red Pine's translation (and, by all indications, in the original), Lao Tzu is much more fatalistic, and, while that fact might mitigate against the popularity of a translation, it is arguably important for the modern reader to know. It is a fact of the text too essential to be glossed over.

Where the government stands aloof
the people open up
where the government steps in
the people slip away
happiness rests in misery
misery hides in happiness
who knows where these end
for nothing is direct
directness becomes deception
and good becomes evil

While the two versions are recognizably of more or less the same original text, Mitchell's amounts to a slightly eccentric but generally commonplace late 20th century aphorism upon progressive government.

While the first four lines of Red Pine's translation might warm the cockles of a Rush Limbaugh's reputed heart, on the other hand, the rest of the verse makes them utterly unusable as contemporary political or ideological fodder. Lao Tzu's words were written two and a half millennia ago, and any wisdom we might draw from them must be extracted in spite of the profound differences between our two worlds.

The subsequent two lines of the Red Pine translation make the point in spades:

the people have been lost
for a long long time

This part of the original text does not appear in Mitchell's version at all. Both contemporary Progressive-ism and Conservatism being—or pretending to be—resoundingly populist, this is decidedly not considered the stuff of wisdom in our world. Variations upon these words, uttered in the public sphere, have crippled more than one commentator's career, retractions notwithstanding. All the more important, then, that a translation of a great historical wisdom text include the original sentiment and the reader be left to sort the matter out for him- or herself.

It is not unreasonable to suggest that Mitchell fails to heed the warning of verse 81, the final verse of the Tao Te Ching (here in Red Pine's translation):

True words aren't beautiful
beautiful words aren't true
the good aren't eloquent
the eloquent aren't good

For the sake of eloquence, he has removed or glossed over the uncomfortable portions of the text, ironed out the difficult, repackaged the uncomfortable. His Lao-Tzu is inspiring—the misbegotten aim of so many translators. "Upright words sound upside down," says the old sage, in verse 78 of Red Pine's translation. In Mitchell they have been put right side up.

In Red Pine's translation, Lao-Tzu is ineloquent, blunt, impossibly ironic, backwards, frustrating, disappointing and inexplicably poetic. That is to say that the old sage is everything that he is in the original text.

The literal quality of Red Pine's text is not the only attraction his Lao-tzu's Taoteching has to offer. Each verse is followed by a half-dozen to a dozen snippets from historical commentary on the text, by commentators from Confucius (551-479 BCE) to Tu Er-Wei (1913-1987). This, in turn, is followed by a single paragraph, by Red Pine himself, describing how he approached knotty textual problems.

These commentaries are not intrusive. (The reader who does not agree can pass them by.) Rather, they are often every bit as engaging as the text they address. When Wu Ch'eng, for instance, says "the Tao is like the sea, and Virtue [te] is like a stream, flowing back into the Tao." the clarification of an image so central to the Tao Te Ching becomes as memorable as the text it explains. More often, the commentaries give historical context for images in the original text, argue with it, amplify it.

As for Red Pine's textual discussions, welcome as they often are, they are the source of the single notable flaw in Lao-tzu's Taoteching. Neither translator nor editor, it would seem, could see the confusion inherent in sentences such as:

I have chosen the Mawangtui miao (peer) in place of the standard miao (mystery), and I have read the standard yao (essential) as shorthand for yao (distant).

While it seems clear that the translator is referring to different Chinese pictograms which are pronounced the same, surely it had been better to include the pictograms themselves as part of the explanation. This mistake is repeated again and again, the reader's frustration growing with each occasion.

The persistent state of discomfort in a teenager, to which I referred at the beginning of this review, is so common that hopefully it seemed a bit trite when I mentioned it as the reason I turned toward the Tao Te Ching. It was, in fact, all the wrong reason, and, in time, I found myself somewhat disenchanted with the book. After more mature thought, I realized that mine was a hopelessly and happily western mind.

I liked technology. Lao-Tzu felt, even during the 6th century BCE, that it was a sign of corruption:

let there be labor saving-tools
that aren't used
let people consider death
and not move far
let there be boats and carts
but no reason to ride them
let there be armor and weapons
but no reason to employ them

The old sage was a Luddite of the first order. I was an intellectual by inclination and the Tao Te Ching was resoundingly anti-intellectual. I turned out to be as dedicated as any westerner to harness ambition to the good of myself and my world. The Tao changes the world by not doing, improves things by not trying to improve them.

While I am one of that minority of people who never do get over their persistent discomfort, I did come to realize, eventually, that my discomfort was a poor guide as to what were the failings of the world around me. With that began a new relationship to Lao-Tzu's wonderful work that began with putting it aside until I might have better reason to open it.

It may seem strange, then, that, looking back, I find that far more of my life has been lived in accordance with the Tao Te Ching than with the western mores I preferred to it. This while I only occasionally returned to read it and never in search of advice on any specific question. Life just turned out that way one decision at a time.

the Way of Heaven
is to win without a fight
to answer without a word
to come without a summons
and to plan without a thought
the Net of Heaven is all-embracing
its mesh is wide but nothing escapes

Perhaps no one opens themselves up to the first verse of the Tao Te Ching without living it through to the 81st. This is a book that accompanies a reader through their life, changing (though unchanging), as they change, to be the advisor they need.

The hours spent reflecting on Red Pine's Lao-tzu's Taoteching, for this review, have been my next step on a path that leads I know not where.

The way that becomes a way
is not the Immortal Way

Now it will go on my shelf where I will return to it when my journey requires. Beside it will be Stephen Mitchell's version, for I like to be inspired as well as the next person even though Lao-Tzu surely would have scowled to hear as much.


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