Big Planet

The Translators of “Tao Te Ching” and Arthur Waley

In book review, critique on July 21, 2009 at 6:01 am

Arthur Waley’s translations of Chinese classics are considered the most readable for modern readers. His abridgement of Wu Cheng-en’s The Journey to the West, certainly one of the Four Great Classical Novels of China and which he retitled as Monkey, is praised by Jorge L. Borges (the greatest writer not to have won the Nobel Prize for Literature) as the product of a translator who is simultaneously a sinologist and a man of letters.

I recently finished a version of Lao-Tzu’s Tao Te Ching by Waley in the book The Way and its Power: A Study of the Tao Te Ching and Its Place in Chinese Thought (1934). The Tao Te Ching is composed of 81 short poems talking about the basic principles of Taoism. I have since loved the book after picking up a copy translated by the scholar Stephen Mitchell, who also translated the last version of Bhagavad Gita that I’ve read. Taken on face value, the book of Tao is full of paradoxes, ironies and contradictions, but once the reader has familiarized himself with the iconoclasm of, say, Buddhism and the Zen sect, he will understand the rationale behind these linguistic features.

Waley’s translation of the book, however, is different from his other projects. He admits that the modern reader wanting to read the ancient text for practical ends must look at the version of Richard Wilhelm.  His Tao Te Ching will not try to achieve what Wilhelm’s version has done for the modern reader. Waley reconstructs the ancient book based on historical context in order to capture how it was received by the people during the time of its initial publication. The position of the text is then interpreted side-by-side with the positions of other schools of thought at that time.

There are two kinds of translation. One is historical, the other (as Waley calls it) scriptural. Waley’s version serves the interest of specialists in Chinese literature and sinology. Wilhelm’s version, perhaps like Mitchell’s, is for readers who want to read the book for modern purposes. I have not seen Wilhelm’s translation but Mitchell’s version is surely more readable than Waley’s, but not necessarily better. A reader-friendly translation is not always equal to an accurate one, and the notion of a “best version” depends on the purpose of the translation.

Related posts:
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In the mood for Zen
Bhagavad Gita

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