On Rendering Lao-Tzu

by Michael Rossman


         I spent an intense apprenticeship in translation in my youth, translating much of Garcia Lorca, Cesar Vallejo, and a motely of other modern poets from the Spanish tongue. I knew their language somewhat at first, and came to know it better through this exercise. Their language, their times, and their cultures were all ever so much closer to my own than is the case here, with these verses from China 500-200 B.C. in a script I can't begin to read.

         In my translating then I had a scrupulous regard for the literal, for bringing over as precisely as I could the very image or metaphor used by the poet -- leaving the reader frequently to lean over into another culture, as already into another mind, rather than bringing him allusions and meanings fully reclothed in American imagery and idiom. I restrained my rephrasing of the poet's inner lines to times when the culture-gap was just too confusing, or when something super-apt enticed me. I detested those translators who winged off on interpretive fancies, freely substituting image and metaphor of their own in an effort to render the poetry into our terms, or worse, render "what the poet must have had in mind." This material was close enough for us to reach already: why fudge it with one's own stuff, save from vanity?

         Still sometimes I winged off on (re-)interpretive flights myself -- though I left them in the notebook, where they mostly belong. That's one of the pleasures of the sport of translating, of clambering over and through the structure of perception, allusion, sense, and feeling someone else has fashioned word by word, inhabiting it inhabiting you as you re-create it. Dictionaries in hand and on the table, native speaker (sensitive) in the background -- this and some empathy with the tongue, the poet, can take one far. And on the table also the other translations available, old and new, to see what others have made of the linguistic puzzles, the possibilities of sonorous recouchment.

         From all this I became familiar not only with the spirits of a few most-loved and most-studied poets at work -- how they construed the world, how they worked their construction in words -- but also with the ways a dozen other translators went at the same task, or rather the meta-task, with the world of a poet instead as their primary stuff to construe and phrase. Watching them clamber through the original poet's construction, retracing the steps they must have taken to move from his version to their own, I learned something not only of their individual quirks, styles, and competences -- and so of my own, by comparison -- but also something of a more general texture and nature. Call it the feel of a collective mind turning a particular image or idea over and around in mind to rephrase it, touching many facets and potentials, circling round an often-not-precisely-nameable core.


         Facing Lao-Tzu through his translators now, the sense is familiar and welcome: umpteen blind men feeling the elephant of metaphor, join in. In this case the original carcass of words encasing the spirit is hardly sensible to me; I can touch directly only the hands of the translators, inserting mine into theirs as they fumble over the beast, trying to interpret what they feel. As with the Spanish poets, their collective fumbling develops a collective sense -- enough so, that by reading their versions together one can deduce the approximate original, ideogram by ideogram, as they circle around its meanings and probe its resonances.

         Since Lao-Tzu's English and American translators are spread across a century and a wide range of spiritual and philosophical perspectives, one must retranslate them in turn, compensating for the distinctive view each had, subtracting their special filters -- or such of these as one can recognize. But precisely because their perspectives are so distinct, they offer different angles of insight, and together a longer baseline of interpretation, often enabling a closer fix, a fuller sense, of what they were trying to phrase, than any one phrasing could convey.

         Phrasings aside, their interpretations of the text usually converge. Where they disagree, it's often clear who's off and why, or who might have special insight into the spirit or language. Where a variety of constructions still remain plausible, this in itself gives some license for liberty in redoing the work. In relying on the convergence of other translators' views, one of course risks being misled by their common misperceptions. Yet this can hardly be helped, unless one is so arrogant as to trust one's own intutitions all the time. Lao-Tzu's translators have been many and varied enough, that the common denominators of their biases run deep in our culture itself, uncolored by their individual perspectives. Generally these deep biases are invisible, and no shame to share -- though as our culture changes, some slowly become apparent, as I suggest below.

          Such thoughts about (re-)translation might suggest the possibility of a scrupulously "literal" approach to Lao-Tzu, of the sort I undertook with the Spanish poets. That this is impossible, even for those more intimate with his language, is clear from his translators' remarks about the difficulty of rendering various key terms. They testify not only to the philosophical complexities of the text, but also to the character of ideogrammatic language, and the fundamental problems (and thus the possible latitudes) of bringing-over into a tongue so foreign as ours. The gulf to be crossed involves not only this radical distinction between ideogrammatic and lettered languages, but also the awesome gap of culture between ourselves and rustic Chinese recluses 2200 years ago. Only what is deeply common to both sides can be brought across directly, literally. The rest must be rendered in new terms, our own.

         There are two other vital differences, that support a different morality of translation here than I practiced with the Spanish poets in my youth. Lao-Tzu is not a modern poet, an individual writing in the Age of Ego, whose precisely personal perceptions and phrasings are to be valued and preserved as such. Indeed, Lao-Tzu is not an individual at all, save in pleasant myth, being instead -- by most responsible accounts -- a convenient monicker for the anonymous, collective authorship of this brief anthology of verses, this primer encoding the work of a dispersed school of thought and worldly spiritual perspective. We think the nuggets in this small hoard were accumulated over a century or more. Each one survived tumbling and reshaping in many peoples' minds, before being passed on in its form; and comes to us ready for further tumbling and reshaping, at least by those concerned with making the meaning live rather than only with recording an ancient survival.

         This is all the more true because the original work was brought together not to record an instant's glimpse of eternal reality, but to serve as a text for initiation, learning, and practice. A living text changes, recouched through its users to reflect their own changing understandings and cultures -- and this text in particular bears the self-referential injunction, to let the outer form change naturally around the eternal core. Just as with near-language modern poets, an affinity of spirit is necessary for good translation -- but for Lao-Tzu, the affinity is not with an individual's spirit and view, but with an impersonal system of thought, a transpersonal spirit. To use it, to be inhabited by it, is to share in its authorship and re-authorship.

         Such ideas may explain why I have felt free, not only to try myself to bring Lao-Tzu across, but also to try more freely than with the poets of my apprenticeship -- at times straying not only from the original image in search of something apt, but into frank interpretation of an evolving system and eternal spirit. Even so, the old habit lingers, for the faith I've tried to keep is to the word as well. Apart from such deliberate excursions, mostly discussed in footnotes, the inquiring reader may find these translations often to be more faithful to the original, ideogram by ideogram and concept by concept, than most other versions in print in our language, formerly or currently.


         One aspect of my interpretation is perhaps unusual: not the fact of a political slant, but its direction.

         Some of Lao-Tzu's verses present themselves as advices for governing a state; and others may be read this way too, applying a metaphysic to social and moral affairs. Some translators and interpreters of Taoist texts have read and rephrased these advices as advocating a simple and crude reactionary program, a politics of yokelism, based in keeping the people ignorant and backward, renouncing the use of machinery. This image of "Lao Tzu's politics" is so simple and provocative, and in both regards so appealing, that it has persisted during the millenia since the social circumstances inspiring and shaping his advices have vanished. Though the elements of those circumstances are reconfigured in our own age, no translator of Lao-Tzu during the past century has suggested that his advices might contribute to a progressive politics. At best, his more liberal interpeters admire his text for its anarchic spirit and humane sensibility. Yet even his most "reactionary" precepts open to progressive interpretation, when reviewed in the context of their time. And to bring them truly across as analogous advices for the changed circumstances of our own time, requires political sensibilities that no translator I've read has pretended to possess.

         For example, take Lao-Tzu's repeated injunction that the people be kept unlearned, unsophisticated. To read him simply as advocating ignorance is superficial. This advice was phrased in and to a society dominated by increasingly elaborate and ritualized codes prescribing manners, modes of speech and interaction, whose learning and performance became a lifelong absorbing effort, producing a surplus of useless distinctions, and a static society organized around immutable hierarchies of caste and privilege. To abjure learning and sophistication in this context was not to praise ignorance emptily, but to escape an entire system of organizing human energy, and -- in prospect at least -- to rejoin an existential democracy in which even the wisest and most effective are not distinguished in outward sign or status from the ordinary citizen, simple and natural.

         In translating this advice for our own time and culture, one does well to observe how the form of the problem has changed. In a sense elaborate codes still govern the social worlds of Harvard lawyer and Black slum teenager, and whatever interactions they have. But America is more remarkable among civilizations for the way the complexity and rigidity of such codes has been undone, and the basing of distinctions upon them weakened.

         The analogous problem for us may instead concern the division of knowledge and its application into a continually-multiplying welter of continually-narrowing perpectives and specialized practices, which conduces to hierarchies of caste and privilege, and to a society unable to make needed changes, in quite a different way. Taoist advice for this contemporary condition, phrased as succinctly as for the old, might well recommend that good governance, in and out of the educational system, leave people unable to tell one subject from the next, and not caring when one kind of work turns into another.

         Similarly, commentators have adored a picturesque phrase in the verse sketching a Taoist utopia -- "People go back to using the knotted cords" -- because it allows them to explain that these cords were formerly used to count sheep and such; to deduce that people were being advised to abandon the more recent abacus and/or the sophistication of written characters; and to conclude in part from this that Taoism was hostile to all mechanism and contrivance. Yet the knotted cords themselves were a contrivance, a physical and mathematical mechanism that may well have served more complex uses than the image left us after superior ones came into play. Nor was Lao-Tzu concerned with the abacus or writing specifically; his verses are better taken here, as elsewhere, to advise in sparest terms the restoration of balance.

         A contemporary rendering of his image might well say, "People (have calculators and) go back to counting on their fingers and figuring on paper" -- hoping that present and future readers will know that finger- and paper-arithmetics are not just jokes for dummies, but "obsolete" efficient, sophisticated systems of mathematical tricks; that thoughtless pedagogy with electronic devices threatens to erase the sensual understanding of number from young minds; and that there is a deeper point and purpose than mere utility, in preserving the arts of our past in our present, and in doing simply with what is at hand.

         As for the larger issue here, of our proper relation to mechanisms in a context in which the consequences of their use continue to grow more complex and out of control, we have more vivid reasons than in Lao-Tzu's time to fear the results. An image of deliberate independence from high technology no longer seems as retrogressive as it did to Lao-Tzu's translators in the late nineteenth century, from the perspective of a culture in the throes of infatuation with mechanistic technology. It was easy for later interpreters, reading the first translations of "the Sacred Books of the East" by the Christian missionary James Legge, to recognize how whacky he was, in trying to thrust the third member of his beloved Trinity between the receptive legs of the Tao. But perspective on the more vital religion of technological progress has been slower in developing; and most commentators have perpetuated Legge's patronizing misjudgement of what was missing.

         Thus even the most "reactionary" precepts of Lao-Tzu open naturally to progressive interpretation, in our circumstance as in his. If so, it is because profound shifts in progressive political and social sensibilities have been developing here recently. Taken together, they offer a renewed and more sympathetic perspective, from which to view and develop Lao-Tzu's work.

         The ecology movement regenerates reverence of nature and the spirit of nature. Philosophies of decentralism and self-reliance, of doing more with less, guide humane vision now. Doctrinaire authority and dependency-creating leadership styles have become less fashionable, and concern for process now complements concern for form. Such developments are related with the deeper workings of feminism, which have begun to reassert the Yin in a Yang movement and society.

         Indeed, Lao-Tzu's soft pronouncements in the Tao Te Ching are a relic of resistance against the ancient triumph of patriarchial culture. Feminist perspectives have been essential in extending modern scholarship to recognize this, and in explicating the story and meaning of the subterranean struggle since then. In this light, Lao-Tzu's text belongs to a living tradition of quite a different kind than its usual placement on the "philosophy" or "Eastern religions" shelf suggests.

         Such recent themes of progressive sensibility flow naturally into Lao-Tzu's themes; and these in turn bear translation in progressive terms. To put it so, is to present the project as an ideological task. But in fact the impulse to try came to me more naturally, and without deliberation. Turning to Lao-Tzu again seriously for the first time in a decade, during a period of intimate crisis in my own life, with the thought of Taoism's social relevance the furthest thing from my mind, I was surprised to find the long-familiar contours of some verses snap subtly into sharper focus, as if slow shifts in my own perceptions and perspectives had brought me into position to connect more directly with what their translations had tried or failed to convey. Oblique passages shook off their coats of tortured poesy to apply clearly to situations I knew, invited for the first time expression in terms I found native.

         In part, of course, these shifts were deeply private, involving the sorts of change that time itself brings, through growth or simply through aging; and so were not unexpected. What surprised me was rather the way the social and political terms I find familiar now seemed so naturally apt to Lao-Tzu's translation. Most of these terms and perspectives I share with many other people; they have been developing in us through our work since the 1960s. If it's not just my whimsy to think so, the fact that our terms have evolved to invite direct connection to Lao-Tzu's may be as striking a measure as any more-orthodox one, of how far we have come during this time, or which way we've been traveling.

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