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RCavallaro: English Tao Te Ching

To: alt.magick.tyagi,talk.religion.misc,talk.religion.newage,alt.consciousness.mysticism
From: (nagasiva)
Subject: RCavallaro: English Tao Te Ching (was something similar)
Date: 27 Jul 1996 13:03:35 -0700

[from alt.philosophy.taoism: (Raffael Cavallaro)]

Although one would like a modern english translation of the Tao Te Ching to be 

1. easy to read and
2. coherent in style and philosophy

the latter assumes that the original was itself coherent in style and
philosophy. Such is (for better or worse) not the case. All translations
which take as their starting point a particular view of Taoism must
distort the original text in order to make it conform to their
interpretation. Seen in this light, the best recent translation if
probably that of the renowned sinologist, Victor Mair, which is based on
the most ancient version of the text known. 

Mair points out that the individual verses vary widely in style, and their
autorship by a single individual is doubtful. Most likely the verses
represent an oral tradition of long standing that was committed to writing
at various times, by various people. Furthermore, later editors would have
had no compunction about making additions and inserting them into the
corpus as if they had been written (or said) by some more ancient (and
hence venerable) master.

The result is a collection of verses, many of which express a common
theme, but many of which do not, and a minority of which express something
altogether different. Thus, any translation that takes the Tao Te Ching to
be the work of a single author, expressing a single theme or philosophy,
is bound to do violence to the original.

Here are the translations I own (I've read others but they were so bad I
didn't want to subsidize the translator and publisher by buying a copy).

Feng and Englilsh:
Nice photos, but the translation seems to rely too much on modern chinese
readings, so the meaning is unecessarily obscure. It should be remembered
that many of the characters used to write the Tao Te Ching (and the I
Ching) are still in use in modern chinese. Unfortunately, the readings of
these characters was often different in ancient times. The result is that
when a person with a knowledge of modern chinese (or even of historical
chinese usage) reads ancient texts, he or she is likely to get key
characters wrong. The most glaring example of this is the many
interpretations of the I Ching which are based on medieval readings of a
late Bronze Age/early Iron Age text, that is to say, almost all of them.
The only translation of the I Ching that gives the *original* meanings of
the hexagrams is that by Kerson and Rosemary Huang. Their introduction
treats all of these issues rather well. One example will suffice. Hexagram
26 is translated by Wilhelm (the most widely available scholarly
translation) as "The Taming Power of the Great." In fact, these characters
would have been read as "Big Cattle" in ancient China, meaning that it was
auspicious to sacrifice a large steer. Of course by the time medieval
Chinese commentators came to gloss the ancient text, animal sacrifice was
no longer a central part of court life and religious practice, but it was
vital in late Bronze Age/early Iron Age when the I Ching was written. The
Huang's translation of the I Ching (highly recommended) is ISBN

Robert G. Henricks:
This translation is very good with regard to attention to original
meaning, but it suffers from an attempt to impose the translator's
interpretation of Taoism on the text. Also based on a very early
manuscript. ISBN 0-345-37099-6.

Arthur Waley - The Way and its Power: Excellent translation which puts
each of the verses in it's politico-historical context. Waley makes it
clear that many of the verses in the Tao Te Ching incorporate quotes or
aphorisms commonly used by competing philosophical schools (like the
Legalists - or Realists, as Waley calls them, the Individualists or Yang
Chu school) and then turns these homilies against themselves to make a
Taoist point. 0-394-17207-8.

Stephen Mitchell: Easily one of the most readable, but suffers the most
from a spurious attempt to shoehorn every verse into the translator's
philosophical worldview. This translation is really no good for anything
other than understanding Stephen Mitchell's philosophy, (which is itself
interesting, but it just isn't the original meaning of the Tao Te Ching).
For a similar sort of philosophical discourse, I highly recommend "Tao:
the Watercourse Way" by Alan Watts and Al Chungliang Huang, ISBN
0-394-73311-8. Watts was also a far more interesting philosopher than
Mitchell is.

I hope this helps some. BTW, Mair has also done an excellent translation
of Chuang Tzu. Both are available in paperback.

Tao Te Ching: ISBN 0-553-34935-X

Wandering On the Way: Early Taoist Tales and Parables of Chang Tzu: ISBN

warmest regards,


In article , Eric
Chen  wrote:

> I'd like recommendations for the best english interpretation of the Tao Te
> Ching. 
> I went to Barnes and Noble yesterday and found 3 different interpretations
> and they were all different. It's all very confusing. 
> I've heard a good thing or two about the Paul Carus interpretation. 
> Any help would be appreciated.
> Eric
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