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Translations of the Dao De Jing (daoisopen.com)
141 points by tosh on Apr 29, 2018 | hide | past | favorite | 59 comments

It's worthwhile to read many translations of this book. I find this really helps to "triangulate" the nuance and depth of the original. Inevitably, you come across translations that you like more, and others that you like less.

I was attracted to the Dao De Jing at a fairly young age. It took over a decade, though (as I was reading a related text—I can't remember which one, maybe the Zhuangzi), for it to suddenly dawn on me how alien this was from the way of reasoning that's been ingrained in me through the culture I was brought up in.

I had been able to extract tons of enjoyment (and, hopefully, insight) from them already at that point. But from then on, the daoist classics suddenly looked very different to me. They took on a depth that I hadn't seen in them before.

A related book I would recommend is Edward Slingerland's Trying Not to Try[1]. A very interesting dive into the concept of Wu Wei. His interpretations of the old texts get a little one/two dimensional at times, but he also brings along a lot of insight.

1: https://eslingerland.arts.ubc.ca/tryingnottotry/

I'll second that recommendation! One of the better books I've read last year.

A page about hair-splitting on translations of a philosophy whose chapter one paragraph one states the notion isn't possible to convey in words!

The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao; The name that can be named is not the eternal name. The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth. The named is the mother of ten thousand things. Ever desireless, one can see the mystery. Ever desiring, one can see the manifestations. These two spring from the same source but differ in name; this appears as darkness. Darkness within darkness. The gate to all mystery.

That has always been my favorite translation, by Gia-fu Feng and Jane English, and the book is beautifully illustrated. https://www.amazon.com/Ching-25th-Anniversary-English-Mandar...

I love this translation. I first read it in the 1970s as a young person and it had a big influence on my life. I can think of only a handful of books that really soak into your being and way seeing. I’ve probably forgotten almost all the text, but still find trying to recreate the feeling/attitude inspired by the book rewarding and useful, especially to cope with adversity and frustration. I recommend reading it in small pieces and using the sparse layout and misty landscape photographs to help absorb the Dao by osmosis rather than by attempting to overthink the text.

Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.

In the original text, it's all puns. Characters with multiple meanings are used in short statements that (intentionally) don't disambiguate the meaning.

We do not translate or study ancient philosophy necessarily for the validity of the ideas it proposes. It's more of a historical endeavour, more useful in learning how people of the past have though, and in learning how to think ourselves. Like when a Python programmer studies assembly, C and old Unix sources.

Hard to convey and even more concise in Chinese, e.g. 道可道, 非常道. (Characters respectively mean: {'道[1]': 'Tao', '可': 'can; able', '道[2]': 'say; tell', '非': 'not', '常': 'usual; normal', '道[3]': 'Tao'}).

'道[2]' did not have the meaning of 'say; tell' until the Song dynasty, which was ~1000 years ago.

Therefore, it is questionable, whether the second '道' really means 'say; tell' in the text before 2000 years.

If so, '道' initially means 'path; road', and its further meaning 'law; principle' can indicate its alternative function in the sentence (n. -> v.). It might be 'describe; illustrate' rather than 'say' here.

It does try to convey something in words in the next chapters, no?

Yes, but the intention of the text isn't to explain what Dao is and how to live according to Dao. It clearly says that's impossible, and even calling the concept 'Dao' is counterproductive to a full understanding.

So the text is meant to do something else, like help others start thinking and learning for themselves.

Well it tries yes.

'course, that might just be a translation artifact.

I think it's quite useful anyway, to see all these translation efforts - you can compare them to fingers pointing at the moon.

You can not talk it but you can talk around it and get some interest on the subject even thousands of years later :)

There was another site that hosted 80+ versions that I scraped a long time ago and made this: http://tao.scrame.com

It shows a random passage from a random translation, with an attribution link to the long dead parent site. I should probably dump the db back to the constituent pieces, enduring issues and all.

Initially it was a test for rails, but I rewrote it in php ages echo.

That’s not a bad idea for an app. Maybe get an alert with a random passage every day or something.

Nice! Thank you.

Shameless plug, the free Standard Ebooks edition of the Legge translation: https://standardebooks.org/ebooks/laozi/tao-te-ching/james-l...

Your site has been one of my favorite finds of this decade. Thank you for the fantastic work.

Although the ebooks are generally good quality, the spelling and grammar are in many cases (deliberately) changed from the original. When I read a book I want to read the words of the original author, not a modernized version. It would be nice if you could download versions without the "[Editorial]" changes.

That's probably the most common complaint we get. However I think most readers are unaware of how heavily the older works they read today have been edited over the years, not just in spelling but in grammar too, often by many different people.

For example, the original spelling of Shakespeare in 1609 looks something like this:

    From off a hill whoſe concaue wombe reworded,
    A plaintfull ſtory from a ſiſtring vale
    My ſpirrits t'attend this doble voyce accorded...
    Vpon her head a plattid hiue of ſtraw...[1]
How dare anyone change the spelling of the patron saint of English literature! ;) But of course most modern readers would find that pretty impenetrable, and would prefer a more modern spelling to be able to appreciate the text.

As early as 1700 people have been modernizing (for example) Shakespeare, going so far as to add apostrophes that weren't there (I remember one guy in a discussion with me on this topic lamented that modern editions removed apostrophes, when in fact they were added by editors in times past...).

Our small, entirely one-for-one spelling edits are in the same spirit. For your example, I don't think removing the apostrophe from "phone" changes the meaning of the text at all. It does remove the explicit announcement to the reader of "phone" as a contraction (though a clever reader will notice that the word "phone" occurs in the word "telephone" in this same story); but does it change the story's meaning? Or, is it more like replacing the long "ſ" in the quote above with a modern "s"? After all, removing "ſ" removes the history of our written language as a descendant of Roman cursive script, which, like the history of "phone" being a contraction, is something that someone somewhere probably would prefer to preserve!

The only difference between SE and the editors of old is that we're being upfront about it, and we give readers a chance to undo those changes using Git, if they prefer. And, ultimately, our editions don't prevent anyone from reading older editions with their preferred spelling variant preserved. Old books with old spelling and 100% faithful digital transcriptions are out there for everyone to still enjoy. We're just another option for readers who want to enjoy a timeless book without having to fight through dated spelling. :)

[1] http://internetshakespeare.uvic.ca/Library/facsimile/book/UC...

Changing "ſ" to "s" is just changing the font, so I don't have any problem with that. Changing "v" to "u" is arguably also changing the font, if you assume that the original text had two visually identical but semantically different "v"s.

I do think removing the apostrophe from "'phone" changes the meaning, because it implies a different relationship to the technology. It's like writing "internet" without the capital I. This is still considered incorrect, but it's becoming more common, and I think eventually it will replace "Internet". The loss of the capital letter, just like the loss of the apostrophe, shows the technology fading into the background and losing its novelty.

And the works of Shakespeare are an extreme example, being older than most works on the site. I'd prefer the original spelling, but for works of that age I can understand changing it. I'd set the publication of Johnson's "A Dictionary of the English Language" (1755) (or a few years later) as the cut-off point for spelling changes.

I think your "the text's relationship with the spelling" argument can certainly be applied to the Shakespeare example above, just as I stated. When viewed in that light, replacing long-S and u for v change Shakespeare's relationship with the Roman script and Roman history of his day, too. (Though those are not the only spelling changes in the example I provided.) The question becomes, does that really matter, in light of the text? Most editors throughout history seem to think "no," as evidenced by the huge amount of quiet spelling and even grammar changes editors have been slipping under our noses for centuries, without so much as a whiff of outrage.

I think, rather, in text a character's relationship with technology is part of the text, not of the spelling. A character does not know how he spelled "phone" when they're speaking dialog. The sounds out of his mouth do not include an apostrophe whether it's there in the spelling or not.

And, I think there are plenty of people who would be just as upset at using Johnson's dictionary as a cutoff for spelling. If we demand original spelling in everything we read, why is any cutoff acceptable? (Or so they would argue.) Of course, I disagree that a we need a cutoff at all, or that spelling matters in the general sense :)

(Of course, spelling can matter when the text makes a point to be old-timey; so if you note in the H.P. Lovecraft short fiction example, the "A Reminiscence of Samuel Johnson" short story retains its archaic spelling and style, because Lovecraft wrote it archaically on purpose. In fact we retain several archaic spelling styles in Lovecraft that we might otherwise modernize, because he was famous for thinking of himself as an "aged antiquarian" and wanted his prose to reflect that. This is where a careful and well-read editor matters, and those are the kinds of people we have volunteering at SE.)

Ultimately it comes down to taste, and the trust you have in the editor of the volume you're reading. This project is unintentionally making it a mission of mine to reveal to readers how much of what they've read in the past and think is "genuine," has in fact been heavily edited by many people on its journey from first printing a hundred years ago to your hands today, no different than what we're doing. SE just says so up front and gives you the option to undo.

>If we demand original spelling in everything we read, why is any cutoff acceptable?

I proposed Johnson's Dictionary because it's the first English dictionary that was widely accepted as authoritative. Before then you could argue that there was no real standard spelling, and all that mattered was whether writers could be understood. After it was published, idiosyncratic spelling gained meaning.

>In fact we retain several archaic spelling styles in Lovecraft that we might otherwise modernize, because he was famous for thinking of himself as an "aged antiquarian" and wanted his prose to reflect that.

I checked Lovecraft first for that reason, and I was relieved to find the changes were much less than I feared.

So you'd like to read it in ancient chinese? Or a word-by-word literal translation of it?

There are always going to be some changes in grammar...

I can't read ancient Chinese, so in the case of the Dao De Jing, I'd prefer a translation, but almost all the books at Standard Ebooks were originally written in Modern English. I consider the original spelling an important part of the work.

Consider this edit:


This is a character who would know that "'phone" is short for "telephone", but it's changed so that he says "phone". It ruins the effect of telephones being new and modern technology, and makes them so commonplace that people are no longer consciously aware that the word "phone" is an abbreviation. (Although it actually does need an edit, because the automatic conversion of the ' failed and turned it into a ‘ instead of the correct ’.)

Indeed I second I have seen your site before. Wonderful stuff.

Oh, let me plug Peter Boodberg's startlingly bizzare version, which begins "Lodehead lodehead-brooking : no forwonted lodehead"... It's such an alien approach to translation, you can see his logic, but the end product looks like something from a Markov chain.

https://youzicha.tumblr.com/post/142657117089/philological-n... http://www.jstor.org/stable/2718364?s

While the analysis is interesting, the resulting "translation" is useless nonsense.

Odd. I looked at it and thought it was a brilliant use of English, on par with anything James Joyce did.

That is not necessarily disagreement.

It is useful in showing us how alien the original is.

If the text is just too mystifying to “get into”, I highly recommend Red Pine’s (non-free) translation. It is not the most authoritative but he includes translations of commentary from centuries of Chinese scholars that shed a lot more light on each passage than you are likely to get without a more serious course of study.

I second this. The commentaries are what made me really enjoy and appreciate the book in a way I hadn't before even with my illustrated coffee-table version of the barebones verses.

There's a special place in my heart for Ron Hogan's translation.


A representative sample translation from the beginning of stanza 20:

    Don't spend too much time 
    thinking about stupid shit.

It wasn't on the list, but this is my favorite translation:


Thanks for this link! Great translation indeed.

Red Pine's translation (https://www.amazon.com/dp/1556592906/ref=cm_sw_r_cp_api_i_R0...) isn't great— he's a bit too into "the mystic Orient!" sort of thing— but one major plus is that it includes English translations of later Chinese commentators on the text, which is very important.

As for the best translation, the Penguin edition translated by D. C. Lau might be it.

If you're really interested in it, I would recommend getting both of these – the synthesis helps.

Ursula LeGuin has also published a nonliteral interpretation of the Tao Te Ching (derived from the work of several Chinese-to-English translations) that is absolutely wonderful.


Seconding LeGuin's translation. It has a poetic quality to it.

Yeah that's the one I own. I trust her more than I trust Laozi honestly.

The problem with translating any Chinese classics lays in their multi-layered meaning. Old Chinese literature is complicated because every author expected that the reader was accustomed to volumes of other classics and could comprehend all the references to them hidden in the text. No matter how many good translations we have, they will not help us resolve this issue. Furthermore, understanding Dao De Jing is problematic even for native speakers of Chinese, because they do not have proper educational background to comprehend what ideas the author wanted to convey even being able (as they think) to read the original text!

> The problem with translating any Chinese classics lays in their multi-layered meaning. Old Chinese literature is complicated

I concede that can be troublesome. But, from a different perspective, it’s also kind of liberating.

> understanding Dao De Jing is problematic even for native speakers of Chinese

That being true, it allows you enough room of not being ashamed of your own interpretations, if you find them useful. In that sense, the text is much more alive, talking to you directly, instead of being an unsolvable puzzle that takes you away from it.

Yep, same as with Western Renaissance Literature (v.gr. Dante).

The first chapter by Google translate:

    Road to Road, very Avenue;
    Name, name.
    The beginning of the unknown world;
    There is the mother of all things.
    Therefore, often do not want to observe its wonderful.
    Often, they want to see what they are.
    Both of these have different names.
    With the same meaning,
    The door of the public.
Baidu translate:

    The Taoism, the very way;
    The name is famous and very famous.
    The beginning of the nameless world;
    Yes, the mother of all things.
    It is often not, to view it.
    Often there is a desire to view it.
    The two are the same names.
    The same predicate of metaphysics,
    Mystery of mysteries,
    Many wonderful doors.
Hapless algorithms can only struggle with this!

A lot of words in ancient Chinese are loaded with subtleties of meaning. Its hard to choose a single English word to translate it. In modern Chinese Dao mean path.

Modern Chinese has a lot more multisyllable words than classical Chinese. That tends to narrow meanings.

I keep a copy handy at all times. I don’t think it contains the indisputable truth of all life/everything/stuff like that - but invaluable wisdom and perspective. Reading it can help me achieve mindfulness similar to meditation.

Surprised not to see David Hinton's[1] fine translation[2] mentioned, it has a playful quality that I think suits Taoism better than many of the more traditional translations.

1: https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poet/david-hinton

2: https://www.davidhinton.net/tao-te-ching-sample-poems

https://taotedev.com An "interpretation" of some writings applied to software development. Not very serious, but sometimes rather interesting.

If I have to pick a favorite it's probably https://taotedev.com/2016/01/29/3-state-v-action/

My favorite is the Stephen Addiss translation, all the other ones try to shoehorn certain ideas/westernizations into it.

I really like the 1980s translation by Gia Fu Feng with black and white photos by Jane English: https://www.amazon.com/Ching-25th-Anniversary-English-Mandar...

My preferred translation is by Charles Muller. It also includes the original text.


If anyone is learning German & Chinese at the same time, this is a very helpful site: http://www.tao-te-king.org/

The website is broken both on layout and some links. How can one reach the author to offer some help?

Too bad this website is a little broken on a large screen. https://screenshots.firefox.com/mBWI8eKC7tz6BSmL/www.daoisop...

Most of the links 404 as well.

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