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Posts Tagged ‘Zen’

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:
Notes on the film “Hero”
In the mood for Zen
Bhagavad Gita

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In the mood for Zen

In philosophy on July 16, 2009 at 4:23 pm

How to transform your pessimism into a resource: see the glass as already broken.

“You see this goblet?” asks Achaan Chaa, the Thai meditation master. “For me this glass is already broken. I enjoy it; I drink out of it. It holds my water admirably, sometimes even reflecting the sun in beautiful patterns. If I should tap it, it has a lovely ring to it. But when I put this glass on the shelf and the wind knocks it over or my elbow brushes it off the table and it falls to the ground and shatters, I say, ‘Of course.’ When I understand that the glass is already broken, every moment with it is precious.”

The quote is from this source. Another blogger explains the Zen habit:

So when the nice glass you bought inevitably falls and breaks, someday, you might get upset. But not if you see the glass as already broken, from the day you get it. You know it’ll break someday, so from the beginning, see it as already broken. Be a time-traveler, or someone with time-traveling vision, and see the future of this glass, from this moment until it inevitably breaks.

This sounds like the ending of Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, where the hero wakes up from the illusion of time and sees all past, present and future in one object or moment. It’s not simple pessimism, but a glimpse of eternity.

Jorge Luis Borges, in his essay entitled A History of Eternity, reports about an ancient conception of eternity not as time without end, but the conjunction of all moments. Ludwig Wittgenstein is more parsimonious: eternity is simply the here and now, because it is timeless, and the present moment is always a state of timelessness.