I am gradually doing translations of the Tao Te Ching. The first three chapters have already appeared in this page. I am very much enjoying this work when I get time for it. The Chinese language is written in characters that are essentially pictures. China has a long history and a rich and complex culture. I am far from understanding it all. Nonetheless, burrowing into new and different ways of thinking and understanding can be very stimulating. However, with a work like the Tao Te Ching that has already been translated quite a number of times. one also consults existing translations. This is also a fascinating business because each translator has their interest or slant. Then again, sometimes one comes across things or has ideas that other translators would not agree with or have, maybe, missed. This is also a challenging situation. To assert that one might be right and a more established author might be wrong feels sometimes difficult.

Let me give you an example. I am currently working on Chapter 4. In the middle of the chapter is a short verse that looks like this in Chinese:

挫其鋭,
解其纷,
和其光,
同其尘

You can see just by looking at it that it is a neat, perhaps elegant, succinct piece. Only three characters per line, the middle one always the same, it looks very tidy.

Here are some existing rendering of this passage into English
D.T.Suzuki & P.Carus have: “It will blunt its own sharpness/ Will its tangles adjust/ It will dim its own radiance/ And be one with its dust.”
Tam C.Gibbs has: “Blunting sharp edges/ Resolving confusions/ Diffusing glare/ Uniting the world”
Arthur Waley has “In it all sharpness is blunted/ All tangles untied/ All glare tempered/ All dust smoothed.”
D.C.Lau in the Penguin Classics version has: "Blunt the sharpness/ Untangle the knots/ Soften the glare/ Let your wheels move only along old ruts."

Now, I think you can see that there is quite a bit of difference, especially in the last line. This sort of thing makes one distinctly cautious when reading Eastern texts in Western translation. They all do, however, seem, more or less, to agree about the first line.

So, lets go to the Chinese. The contentious last line, translated straight, word by word, reads "with its dust". That's it and that's all. The line before it reads "And its light." The character 其 that is repeated in the middle of each line means "its" - nothing more esoteric than that. In three of the four translations above, all by highly reputed translators, the word "its" does not occur at all. Why? The reason must be, I think, that it is not at all clear what the referent of this possessive pronoun is. At first sight it would appear to be the Tao. After all, that is what the whole book is about and it is what the lines that immediately precede this passage are about. However, it somehow does not ring true to describe the Tao as "sharp" 鋭, so different translators have tried to get round it in different ways.

My method is to translate absolutely literally, word for word, however little sense it seems to make, and then sleep on it and see if anything becomes clear in the night. Researching each word, I also made a little discovery. I realised that the character 解, which has above been translated variously as "adjust", "resolve", "untied" and "untangle" is also the name of a hexagram in the I Ching. It is number 40 which is usually called Deliverance in English translations. Well, does that make the puzzle easier or harder? So this is what I came up with:

Broken up is its sharpness
Delivered is its multiplicity
And its light
With its dust

What on Earth does that mean? Time for a good sleep!

I realised that it is probably a quote from another work now lost. It may well refer to a beam of light in a room. The yang energy of the sun is broken up by the dust giving an image of multiplicity. This would certainly be a good image of the Taoist message. The yang light of the sun is pure, but we cannot look at it directly without blinding ourselves. It is too sharp. Yet if we think of a beam of light across a room, it is beautiful to see all the tiny dust particles floating in it breaking up the light. Dust is yin, being dark and of the earth. This interaction of dust and light is an established trope in China. It famously reappears in the story of Hui Neng, the Sixth Patriarch of Zen, in an exchange of poems that are all about mirrors, dust and light, illustrating the meaning of Zen in terms that would readily resonate in Chinese minds. Thus, in the Taoist scheme, from the Tao come yin and yang and the interaction of yang and yin give rise to multiplicity, so this image is a fine illustration, and more than just a metaphor since it is an instance. There, simple really! Of course, I could be on completely the wrong tack.

                     Broken up   its   sharpness                       挫其鋭,
Delivered   its   multiplicity                       解其纷,
And   its   light                       和其光
With   its   dust                       同其尘

Now the problem with this is that without the commentary it is very difficult for the reader to know what it means. It is actually a nice little piece of poetry illustrating an important point, but the point is not clear without explanation, so it is only for the initiated.

So how much should one add in that is not there in the Chinese in order to make life easier for the reader? How about...

The sharpness of sunlight
Broken up by dust!
Emerging from light and dark...
The image of mutliplicity.

However, this is not really a translation, more a reconstruction based on the theme. My preference is to stick with the tight translation and add explanatory notes, but I think you can see the problem. Transferring something from one culture to another is not as simple as it might at first seem.

Views: 26

ITZI Conference 2019

Subscribe to ITZI Conference Newsletter

* indicates required

Blog Posts

MY MEDICAL CONDITION

Posted by David Brazier on June 26, 2019 at 18:04 6 Comments

My medical condition continues to be a mystery. It is clear that I do not have any of the big nasty things - brain tumour, cracked skull, stroke, etc - as these have been ruled out by MRI investigation. Nonetheless I continue to have persistent, continuous head pain that varies in intensity and I become exhausted by the least effort so that I am functioning like an invalid incapable of doing very much. There is always a possibility that the whole syndrome is a…

Continue

Grace.

Posted by Dayamay Dunsby on June 2, 2019 at 1:02 4 Comments

“Do we know what it means to be struck by grace? It does not mean that we suddenly believe that God exists, or that Jesus is the saviour, or that the Bible contains the truth. Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness. It strikes us when we walk through the dark Valley of a meaningless and empty life. It strikes us when we feel that our separation is deeper than usual, because we have violated another life, a life which we loved, or from which we were estranged. It strikes us… Continue

Sit

Posted by Geeta Chari on April 26, 2019 at 22:13 3 Comments

This is a short video of a Buddhist monk and his family. 

It raised questions on parenting and Buddhism - does detachment (or perhaps quietism), as practiced here, lead to demotivation and disengagement with the world around one?

His children find the detachment practised by the monk disquieting. They appreciate the irony of detachment, which is supposed to…

Continue

Zero Limits

Posted by Dayamay Dunsby on April 20, 2019 at 14:13 0 Comments

 

 

 

I have recently been made aware of a practice known as Ho’ponopono. Ho’ponopono is an ancient Hawaiian healing practice, based on universal forgiveness, that was rediscovered and popularised in the 80s. A man called Joe Vitale(Hawaiian I think)  became enchanted by the practice after his daughter was healed from an…

Continue

© 2019   Created by David Brazier.   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service