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Translating the Tao Te Ching
Anyone for mythocolloquialism?
M. Heidegger famously composed a volume entitled Being & Time. It was a philosophical blockbuster. The Frenchman Alain Badiou later tried to take things a step further with Being & Event. Both are powerful books worth dipping into with an open mind. However, we might ask ourselves what is the next step?
That is a playful of saying that, to me, it seems like Being & Merit might be a viable translation of the title of the Tao Te Ching. It is the Book of the Way-of-Being & it’s Virtue. The Merit of Being. (Maybe that was the alternative title for Gurdjieff’s Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson? Too obscure? Okay…)
The TAO that can be spoken is not the true TAO.
You probably recognize that sentence. It is the classic standard English translation of the opening line of Lao-tse’s famous esoteric text. It is a beautiful statement. Mysterious, poetic & suggestive. It certainly caught my interest as a young boy. It seems to put you right on the soft edge of transrational wisdom where language reminds itself that it cannot encompass the most deeply true facts of the universe.
However, it is still a very weird translation. I mean… listen to what is written in the original Chinese:
dao ke dao, fei chang dao
What we notice first is that the SAME word appears three times. Shouldn’t that happen in the translation? Why do many English translators leave the first and second dao untranslated & mysterious while turning that middle dao into the prosaic word “spoken”?
Spoken, in fact, is not even a standard translation of Dao (e.g. path, way, approach, principle, method, going ahead, how). For the sake of consistency, then, should nit not simply say:
The TAO that can be TAO is not the true TAO?
The Way that can be Way’d is not the eternal Way?
How that we How is not best How?
Whatever Lao originally meant, surely he was aware of that he was rotating the same word into three different instances within the same sentence. We may have an emotional fondness for the philosophical suggestiveness of our conventional English versions but we may also have a duty to think about why the original rural sage manipulated his own language in this peculiar fashion. Consider this ultra-abstract but disarmingly colloquial translation of my own:
The way that we go about “going about things” is not the best way to go about things.
It is a fun sentence to say. Give it a try. At the very least you can see that I have taken seriously Lao-tse’s thrice-repetition of a single concept-word. Legge’s famous translation comes close. He writes:
The path that can be trodden is not the eternal path.
Path & trodden are indeed similar concepts. We make a path by treading it. But Legge’s version is not standard. Why not? Because, I suppose, educated English-speakers are perversely excited by the poetic paradox of saying that you cannot say some things. Words point at realities that might not be “limited” to our linear meanings, man! For many people this seems to be their main take-away from the Tao Te Ching. Yet it could easily be an artifact of 20th century thinking coupled with the over-educated fear of being trapped in conventional language. Perhaps Lao-tse would not relate to any of that?
If I were to take seriously my opening joke (?) that the philosopher Gurdjieff might be called the author of Being & Merit then we might go with the following translation:
The Beings that Exist do not necessarily have real Beingness.
It fits his teachings perfectly. And it illustrates my point that the three meanings use of Tao should perhaps be three variants of the same word-concept from English. Being, Existing & Beingness fit that requirement quite nicely.
Now, with our heads full of alternative translations, we can explore the deeper problem. It is not simply that translators favor conventional versions which poetically titillate people. No, the real problem is much more general. It is that of partial translation — especially of sacred texts.
Few of us have asked why so many English translators leave the word “tao” simply untranslated. It is a tricky thing to translate. Okay. But “love” and “is” are also tricky and we seldom have a problem with those. Every word, in fact, touches a potentially infinite reservoir of uncertainty and plural meanings when passing between languages. Yet we do not throw our hands up in surrender in most cases. We tend to save that response for “mystical” or “culturally significant” words. We exert a special privilege in these areas.
There are words that makes us instinctively (or ideologically) much more likely to reach for the argument: well, there just isn’t a word for it in our language.
Shrug. Blink. Move on.
This is a very strange pattern. It seems so normal to do it but so peculiar when we take an overview. For example, most English versions of the Quran include the term “Allah.” You are almost certainly aware that this is NOT the name of a particular deity worshiped by Arabs but, in fact, simply the Arabic word for “God.” Why leave such an ultimate word untranslated? Do we do it because it is ultimate? Is the failure to translate particular words a sign of cultural respect — or, perhaps, a way of subtly keeping them at arm’s length? Keep their most central terms out of our linguistic territory!
We should at least be asking these questions about our habits.
The English word “deity” derives from the Greek word “zeus”. Christian and post-Christian scholars have enjoyed the notion that Greek pagans vividly but naively worshiped a thunderbolt-wielding cartoon-like god named Zeus. That was in contrast to ourselves — for we moved on to sophisticated abstract monotheism. Yet if they were simply saying something like Deity or Divinity or The God in their own language then we might be a little hasty in trying to assert how different (and more sophisticated!) we actually are.
The Greek, Latin and English versions of the Hebrew Old Testament translate almost every word — but not “adam” or “eve”. Adam means “being from the earth”. Earthling. Human. Eve means, approximately, “living thing” or “organism” or perhaps “creature”. If you translate all the words in the Old Book then it says something like: Human and Creature lived together in the Garden of Nature. However if you specifically leave a couple words untranslated then you get a cartoonish child’s fable: One man named Adam and one woman named Eve lived together in Eden.
Did Abraham almost kill Isaac? Or did The-Father-of-the-Tribe almost kill Laughter?
You see what a different this makes to the level of complexity in the translation and, by extension, the degree of sophistication that we appreciate in ancient or foreign peoples. It is debatable which versions provide the most mythic potency. I would argue that full translation takes it up a notch and would, perhaps, have preserved us historically from many of the most fundamentalist and irreligious misuses of the text. Either way, though, it is surely a little strange that we so frequently fail to translate certain special words.
I cannot begin to tell you how many version I have read of Sri Patanjali’s “Yoga Sutras.” Almost every single one of them has left the words yoga and sutra and samadhi untranslated. They do this automatically and with a good conscience — as if they were helping. Maybe I am alone in finding it perverse?
It seems to me that, at the very least, it reflects a vote of No Confidence in our own language. Can we really find nothing in our own words that can adapt to the meaning that we guess might lurk in another culture? Or are we enacting an odd, subtle bias when we fall back upon the notion of incommensurate terminology between the languages?
Much of the problem may reside in our automatic tendency to assume a conventional “normal” version of language that defines the pool from which our translators draw out their guesses. I grew up in Canada with both French and English on all our commercial products. It was painfully obvious that the translators working for the corporations were not trying to do a faithful rendering of one set of concepts into another but, instead, were simply trying to quickly replace on common phrase with another common phrase.
To illustrate this, let us shift to German. People have been trained by schools and newspapers for several generations to say, “There is no English translation of the German schadenfreude.”
What they mean is that there is no single word in common English usage that already has the exact meaning. Any translation would sound a little odd in English.
Why are they biased against sounding a little odd? Don’t English words from a century ago sound a little odd to English ears? Aren’t strange new words always emerging into English?
There are people who propose the English word “epicaricacy” as a good translation — but they are told that such a word is too obscure. We could just combine two English words (cruel-joy, sadistic-pleasure, cold-happy) but people will complain that it is not already in the (always changing) dictionary. In fact the Germans got their word schadenfreude by simply combining two existing German words together to express a concept that was not previously clearly languaged.
Yet we should not do the same?
Of course not! It would sound weird. Just like it would sound weird to translate words like: Allah, Christ, Samadhi, Yoga, Aphrodite, Krishna, Upanishad, Odin, Jehovah, Tao…
I find this extra odd because it seems to me that the highest & holiest words ought to sound uncanny, a little unfamiliar, somewhat opposed to the normal feeling of ordinary words in the village. Unless the “Lord’s Name” sounds a bit weird when you say it, then you may actually be taking it in vain.
Another justification for failure-to-translate is to ignore colloquial and slang terms. These also sound strange or oddly inappropriate when contrasted against the limiting force of a standardized official grammar.
Returning to the Tao Te Ching, consider its usage of the Chinese word xuan. Is this word hard to translate? It seems to mean, all at once, to choose, to select, distinguished, brilliant, cool, showing off. Our automatic, well-schooled grammar brain does not immediately find an official English word with all these connotations. Yet as a high school student in North America, I routinely encountered people who would describe things that impressed them with the slang term: Choice! That certainly implies choosing, selecting, being brilliant, being cool (or trying to appear to be cool). Yet this common form of colloquial American English is almost never considered by the folks producing standard translations.
It just doesn’t feel right to them.
And when a lot of people use standardized notions of what “feels right” as a basis for how they organize the structures of meaning (or society, economics, etc.) then might we not have a good reason to look for some latent form of… systemic bias?