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:
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.
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.