Introductory Remarks on the Right Approach to be Accurate with the Translation of Laozi (aka Daodejing)
People [in vogue] are ignorant, so they do not know me;
There are only a handful people who [would make an effort to] understand me;
Those who understand me will discover that my theory is valuable;
The description, that ancient Saints were like men who carried priceless jades under coarse ragged cloaks, was not made from casual observation.
Reasons Daodejing Has Been Misinterpreted
They are mainly due to the Linguistic, hermeneutical to be precise, inadequacy of the translators of the original book: Many characters in Laozi cannot be taken at their face-value that they need to be interpreted with hermeneutical expertise. Too much improvisation, not to mention their being heavily toned subjectively.
Accordingly, the originator of the Dao religion, as well as many translator/interpreters, have hijacked, took-out-of context and distorted Laozi’s philosophy. It was the beginning of the mystification and methologization of Laozi and his philosophy–Laoism. Unfortunately that is the commonly circulated and known Daoism(Taoism), in China and the world. His thoughts have been, in deferent degrees, versified with freely associated imagination. All because of translators overuse their freedom of applying improvisation as a means of compensating their inadequacy, in both hermeneutic and philosophy.
The great 20th Century American poet Ezra Pound has once attempted translating the three thousand year old Shi Jing(Old Odes) from the original old classical Chinese text to English. Even though, having been a great poet/translator of Chinese and Japanese himself, his intuitive understanding of the Chinese ancient odes was unmatchable in the Western world, yet when he carried out such a task, he honestly and humbly admitted that, to combat the extreme hardships of translation, improvisation could be the only option a translator has. Naturally, if this expediency has been used too immodestly and too frequently, the truthfulness of the translation accordingly suffers. Modern Platonic scholar A.E. Taylor, who has had translated Plato extensively, has also said about translating difficult texts:
To understand a great thinker is, of course, impossible unless we know something of the relative order of his works, and of actual period of his life to which they belong.
The most celebrated philosopher of the 20th Century Ludwig Wittgenstein, who was German-English bilingual, has had deep thoughts on translations from a philosophical perspective, says:
“When translating one language into another, we do not proceed by translating each proposition of one into a proposition of the other, but merely by translating the constituents of propositions” Tractatus (Logical-Philosophicus) 4.025
Many supposedly “orthodox” translations of Daodejing have suffered from failing to convey even adequately ‘constituents of prepositions’ which are not obvious. It is a serious mistake to embark to understand Laozi as a piece of poem, or of the opinion he could be understood from commonly known views of Daoism. It was also a lazy approach to assume the translator’s understanding of the prima facie (superficial) common normal use (meanings) of words are sufficient to fathom Laozi’s thoughts.
In other words, many interpretations/translations did not even grasp the framework of this book. This is also the reason why Laozi’s Daodejing has had been so difficult to understand, even by people at his home land China twenty three centuries ago. The biggest sin may be taking its statements ‘out of context’ piecemeal by piecemeal. The harm thus is it had ruined the gestalt of the author. Or, there was no gestalt framework to mirror Laozi’s gestalt.
After having had struggled with hard works for about half a century, I believe I have had pushed ahead significantly through; now I am able to comprehend the framework of Laozi’s original work. It was a philosophical pursuit to check-balance degrees of error in manifesting substantially the original true meanings of Laozi’s Daodejing. On the other hand, if one could start to understand Laozi through the Socrates’ dictum “Know thyself”, Laozi’s framework could be mirrored from one’s own gestalt framework. Confucius once said, “In old days, scholars pursued learning for the sake of self, but nowadays scholars pursued learning for showing off to people.” I have had been working on understanding Laozi for my own self-examination all along. This is another reason I am iconoclastically unorthodox in this pursuit.
The deeper the thought is embodied in prepositions, the more would it suffer from superficial “surfing of the text”. Many thoughtful writings have many layers of meanings and dimensions. Therefore with the same sentence (linguistic form) readers of different capacities could reach different layers of meaning. That is the reason the book Laozi was translated/interpreted in so many different ways; the background of an interpreter/translator were often injected in the manifestation. Often they borrowed from their accustomed background of Confucian, Buddhist, Christianity or (Religious) Daoist. Yet none of the above is appropriate. However, the aforementioned quote of Wittgenstein bringing right to the point what translation is all about epistemologically. That is a decent neutral philosophical approach, free from any hue of bias.
The aim of this translator
The aim of this translator was to cling to the tenet of Laozi’s thought as closely as possible. As many established orthodox approach are philosophically and hermeneutically on the wrong footings, the aim of this translation has been to rectify (straighten out) theses mistakes and return the book Daodejing to its original thoughts and philosophical contents—intentions. Any kind of conversion of statements into poetry, the kind of practice Laozi himself had had also rejected, would inevitably shift and remove part or even all of the essence of his philosophy. For this reason, due to my reverence of Laozi’s thought, which deepens as years go by, I have been taking advantage of this freedom with great caution and discretion, even at the sacrifice of the smoothness of English expressions.
In the past decades Sinologists have gradually shifted to the pinyin system practiced in China. For example, Peking is now expressed as “Beijing”. In pinyin system, Lao Tzu should be spelled as “Laozi”, Taoism as “Daoism”, and Tao Te Ching as “Daodejing”. After much deliberation, in the 1999 primary version of this book I had decided to adopt the traditional Matthew’s Romanization system, which has being been used in the since 19th Century. By 21st Century, that system is definitely in defunct. Nevertheless, my translation is far different from a free-spirited venture into no-man’s-land, as many translations have displayed this freedom and hubris, that is inexcusable even if it was carried out inadvertently. It is strange that some self-claimed scholars on Chinese Classics, even in China, have ignored the principle of the Chinese hermeneutic and linguistics when come to the task of translating this book, let alone its philosophical framework. Worse than that there are writers or want-to-be celebrity with brave hearts, would like to show off the translation of Daodejing as their trophy of achievements.
*Cotton Book Laozi over * Laozi in bamboo slips *Guodian Laozi in bamboo slips(竹简) *Zhao Mengfu’s Calligraphy老子