Brief assessments of some of the English translations of the Tao Te Ching

Dao De Ching: A Philosophical Translation, Roger Ames and David Hall (Ballantine, 2003)

Ames and the late Hall have been prolific and incomparable in the world of serious classical Chinese philosophy. Thinking Through Confucius, for example, is an important book in philosophy and not only in Confucian studies. This volume does something similar for the Tao Te ching, and I would prefer to see it as a book about THE book, rather than deal with it as a translation. As Hall and Ames point out, most of the translations of the Tao Te Ching have been by missionaries or sinologists (and, I would add, by prodfessional writers such as Bynner, Leguin, Mitchell). Few have been by philosophers. The philosophical introduction and commentaries on each chapter here are exemplary. They really teach you a lot, and I think they would be accessible to undergraduates with a bit of help. But these guys, if you'll pardon my saying so, worked way too hard on the translation, which is almost crazily overelaborate and complex. Try the first few lines on for size:

Way-making (dao) that can be put into words is not really way-making,
And naming that can assign fixed reference to things is not really naming.
The nameless (wuming) is the fetal beginnings of everything that is happening (wanmu).

It is so philosophical that it may be gobbledygook. Indeed, few translations are ultimately less satisfying.

Tao Te Ching, Stephen Addis and Stanley Lombardo (Hackett, 1993)

Addis has wriiten widely on Japanese art and poetry (including the wonderful Art of Zen, while Lombardo is known among other things for excellent translations of the Iliad and the Odyssey. This is certainly one of the best versions. It's a lovely little book with reproductions of calligraphy and tranliterations of key lines that give you some sense of the prosody. Introduction (by Burton Watson) and glossary are helpful. The English is extremely clean and clear and also original.

The Tao Te Ching, Ellen M. Chen (Paragon, 1989)

This is one of the strongest scholarly editions. Chen's introduction and detailed commentaries on each chapter (which focus on etymologies and translation problems), are extremely elaborate and exemplary: very useful in interpreting and translating. The translation itself is scholarly, and tries for the literal meaning of the text at great expense to clarity and beauty in English. In fact, it may be the least readable and poetic of the bunch.

The Way to Life, At the Heart of the Tao Te Ching, Benjamin Hoff (1981)

An extremely loose and also partial and also re-arranged translation: perhaps what you'd expect of the author of the Tao of Pooh. Sometimes, as in the translation of the first line, Hoff is merely whimsical. But like the Pooh book, a surprisingly excellent introduction to Taosim, this thing comes with great clarity and lucidity. Try this on for size:

As the rivers run,
Those of the Tao concern themselves
With what is useful and efficient.
Their thoughts are strong and deep,
Their relations flexible,
Their words reflect the truth.
Their power is balanced and beneficial,
Their skills acquired through experience,
Their actions well timed.
Wherever they are,
They are at home.

Rocks are hard and unyielding;
The rivers flow around them and forget.

Hoff's translation emphasizes Lao Tzu's pacifism, and it is accompanied by his own excellent nature photography.

The Daodejing of Laozi, Philip Ivanhoe (Seven Bridges Press, 2002)

This translation might not really have a niche. It is not that different in its way than the most traditional translations, such as Legge or Wing-Tsit Chan. But it should find an audience or even become standard because it is not flashy or original, just extremely clear and responsible, with small but ingenious solutions throughout. Even the introduction and notes seem basically to be recapitulations, but ones of extraordinary intelligence and clarity. Also there's something about the paperback that makes it a pleasure to handle: the size, the quality of the paper, and Ivanhoe or someone has actually found the perfect painting for the front cover. This would be an extremely reasonable choice as something to teach or as a first crack at the book in English.

Spirit of Tao Te Ching, Jeff Rasmussen (Nisi Sunyatta, 2000):

I love this translation. It's a tiny little book, with a great tiny introduction on Chinese poetics. But the text is absolutely plain, extremely terse, perfectly clear English. Consider chapter 19:

Abandon the outward forms of
holiness and knowledge
pity and righteousness
industry and profit

This will lead to
great benefit
true affection
unlocked doors

the raw silk
the uncarved block

Need little and want little
This is your true nature.

I'm pretty sure you're not going to do any better than that. I hope to teach this in the future, and to live with it for decades.

Tao Te Ching, Stephen Mitchell (Harper, 1988):

Probably still the best in terms of sheer English flow: really sweet, sensible, crystalline. My objections would be that it has a lot of hangover dualism (oppositions between the named and nameless, wu wei and wei etc) and that it certainly represents a Buddhist, albeit a Zen, interpretation. This is seen in the emphasis on getting rid of desire etc. Still this is the one I teach, the basic text for me.

Tao Te Ching: The Definitive Edition, Jonathan Star (Putnam 2001)

The translation is pretty standard and a bit stilted. But the scholarly apparatus is maginficent. A character-by-character analysis with literal translations that makes possible various wide-ranging construals of the text. Also acute chapter-by-chapter commentary and copious notes. This is the scholarly edition par excellence.

Tao Te Ching: A Book About the Way and the Nature of the Way, Ursula K. Le Guin (1998)

Similar in some ways to Mitchell's version, this has beautiful English, as one would expect of such an accomplished writer. It also has a sort of terseness and a sprightly rhythm that distinguish it from Mitchell, and emphasizes the feminist aspects of the text: the privileging of the female and the residual goddess thing it's got going. Very low on intro and commentaries, but what there is is sharp, and of course a clean presentation of the text is a valuable project as well.

Tao Te Ching, Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English (Vintage, 1972)

This is one of the three or four standard English translations, which in my opinion is a severe mistake. The English is stilted and neither original nor striking. The interpretation, it seems to me, is riddled with dualism and really loses some of what is most important in Chinese Taoism. I'm just not there.

Lao-Tzu's Taoteching, Red Pine (Bill Porter) (Mercury House, 1996)

The text has much in common with the Rasmussen: terse, smart, but maybe with a hint more mystery and poetry. But also maybe a little too much thinking at times that has some obscurity at its roots (which is not to accuse it of inaccuracy). The introduction and the text itself, I would say, show a deep spititual understanding of the text as well as a unique interpretation. But what makes this unique and indispensable is that every selection comes with selections from Chinese commentators of two millennia, most of which have never been readily available before. This material will make you think hard about every chapter from a variety of angles. The interpretations make this a kind of Talmudic text, and show the edges of an incredibly elaborate and beautiful history of interpretation. Very teachable, for one thing.

Dao de Jing: A New-Millennium Translation, David Li (Premier)

This is a straight-up bizarre translation, but a contribution. It tries above all to get some correspondence to the sound of the original, keeping rhymes rhyming etc. This can actually create nonsense in English, but a careful reading (aided by the huge and very learned scholarly apparatus) makes you sensitive to many nuances of the text that you never before experienced in English. Extremely elaborate notes trace connections across chapters and constitute the best account of the Lao Tzu's use of sound, and there are interesting comparisons to the Analects and the Art of War. "Tao" is translated as "direction," "wu wei" as "laissez faire," and the whole thing is interpreted as a political treatise aimed at rulers. Interesting. But if this was your introduction to the Tao Te Ching, you'd just be puzzled.

Te-Tao Ching, Robert Henricks (Ballantine, 1989)

This is a volume in the excellent series Classics of Ancient China, which has provided definitive translations of the Analects and the Art of War, among others. It makes full use (as dies the Star trans) of early manuscripts unearthed in the 1970s, and uses a different chapter ordering accordingly. The scholarly apparatus here is admirable, but not so elaborate that it can't be used by fairly casual undergraduates, e.g. It includes a character by character literal translation. But the translation itself is undistinguished, not particulalry sweet, poetic, or plain.

The Tao of the Tao Te Ching: A Translation and Commentary, Michael Lafargue (SUNY, 1992)

Let's get the crits out of the way: the trans itself is useful at times, but not particularly poetic or unusual. The essay on hermeneutics and translation is primitive: it basically tries to seem sophisticated but finally merely asserts that the only decent way to interpret the text is to experience it the way ancient Chinese people would have experienced it. The limits of this approach are only too obvious, and the "hermeneutics" hackneyed (at least read Gadamer or something!). *But* the commentary itself is sharp and original. And the basic approach is unique and extremely plausible. It holds that a small group of scholar acolytes ("Laoists") preserved a set of brief sayings, which were eventually strung together with some transitions into the TTC. Lafargue actually tries to identify the bottom strata of orally transmitted material. Obviously, such a procedure is highly speculative. But I just vibe that it's on the right track, and it opens new ways into the text.

The Way of Life According to Lao Tzu, Witter Bynner (Putnam, 1944)

Some people I really respect absolutely swear that this is the best translation. But to be frank I don't like it at all. It seems very loose indeed without thereby gaining in clarity or even beauty: really it is very obscure and I don't really think he's got the right sense of what Taoism is. But like I say, maybe I'm not seeing something that a lot of other people do.