In Defence of Stephen Mitchell (and ourselves)

Since the recent publication of our version of the Tao Te Ching, I’ve been self-consciously eyeing up many of the other versions that are available next to ours in the Kindle Store.

Comparing the actual wordings of these other versions to our own has been enjoyable, but I’ve also spent some time exploring the reviews — both positive and negative — that have been left on Amazon by readers. Our version has yet to receive any reviews of its own, and I’m very interested in seeing what type of praise and (more notably) criticism we might expect once the feedback starts trickling in.

While browsing the reviews for “Tao Te Ching: A New English Version,” by Stephen Mitchell, a series of extremely negative comments caught my eye. The reviews stuck out because of how vehemently they chastised the author, but also because the criticism they had of Mitchell’s book could just as easily be applied to ours.

The reviews state that Mitchell is completely unqualified to release a version of the Tao Te Ching because he cannot read the classical Chinese in which the text was originally written.

As we acknowledge in our own version of the text, my co-authors and I can’t read Chinese either, so these complaints, while they were levelled against someone else’s work, hit very close to home for me.

Mitchell certainly doesn’t need anyone to defend him. His version is quite popular and these negative comments are lost in a sea of mostly positive ones, but since these pointed critiques could be taken as an indictment of our version as much as his, I do feel obligated to offer a defence of our shared method of English-to-English interpretation.

It should be noted before I begin that I haven’t read Mitchell’s version, so I’m completely unqualified to speak to the liberties some critics claim he has taken with the text. I am only addressing the issue of whether or not there is any value to be found in an interpretation of the Tao Te Ching penned by writers who speak no Chinese.

I suppose the best place to start is with the criticisms themselves. The reviews can all be found here, but I submit one in particular, chosen for how well it captures the general spirit of the others:

“As Mitchell admits, he doesn’t read Chinese. Instead of calling this a ‘translation,’ he calls it an ‘English version.’ But why would you want to read a loose English paraphrase by someone who can’t read either the original or the early Chinese commentaries on it when you could read a translation by any one of a number of gifted and insightful scholars?”

One thing to understand when considering these arguments is the oft-debated history and authorship of the Tao Te Ching itself.

Most scholars acknowledge that the text (generally agreed to have been written around 6th century BCE) may not have actually been penned by the mystical figure Lao Tzu, if such a person even existed. In fact, many argue quite convincingly that much of what is now preserved as “the original text” could potentially have been compiled by several authors who merely attributed the wisdom to the mystical figure.

The name “Lao Tzu” (or “Laozi,” Lao Tse,” and others) is generally translated as “old master,” which also calls into question whether the text can be attributed to a particular person who went by that name, or merely a series of wise instructors.

Some legends even hold that Lao Tzu was born as an old man and lived for almost 1000 years, so it is fair to say that the text’s origins are vague at best.

This historical confusion doesn’t call the wisdom of the work into question, but it does bring up questions of how accurately the “original version” actually captured the teachings and how much of it could be, itself, a second or third-hand interpretation of someone else’s work.

As for the text’s translation from Chinese to English, this process has also been historically difficult. Since the text was written in an archaic form of Chinese, its translation can be troublesome even for native Chinese speakers. As a result, the process of is hardly the exact science that many of Mitchell’s critics seem to imply.

To convey this point, here is the same line translated from the original by two different scholars:

“Must I fear what others fear? What nonsense!” – Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English

“What others fear One must also fear.” – D.C. Lau

In this example, we see two versions with the exact same source disagreeing completely on the fundamental meaning of the line.

Here is another example from the same two translations:

“When the country is ruled with a light hand
The people are simple.
When the country is ruled with severity,
The people are cunning.” – Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English

“When the government is muddled
The people are simple;
When the government is alert
The people are cunning.” – D.C. Lau

While this example does not contain as overt a disagreement as the last one, these two passages are clearly placing emphasis on very different things, the first one opposing gentleness and severity, the other confusion and alertness.

Again, the only point I’m trying to make with these examples is that it is quite clear that, however hard they try to be objective, translators can’t help but affect the text they are translating, especially in the case of a purposely vague philosophical text written in an ancient language.

As for the things that are meticulously preserved by conscientious translators, some of them actually work to obscure a modern audience’s understanding. Take for example, the following line:

“Governing a large state is like boiling a small fish.” – D.C. Lau

This line is sometimes accompanied by a translational footnote explaining that small fish can spoil when handled without care. While the confusion of the line is effectively dispelled by the presence of this footnote, it could be argued that preserving this metaphor comes at the expense of clarity.

While I can understand some of the critics objecting to unnecessarily replacing the term “sword” with “gun” when the original phrasing conveys the idea of a weapon perfectly well, I don’t see how such a superficial update can have any substantial effect on the underlying lesson of the text.

Nevertheless, certain passages and sentiments in the Tao Te Ching are so clear that they can be seen in any translation, regardless of the idiosyncrasies of the translator’s choices, only becoming more clear as additional versions are considered. Take, for example, these three versions of the same few lines from chapter 25:

“I do not know its name, and I give it the designation of the Tao
(the Way or Course). Making an effort (further) to give it a name I
call it The Great.” – James Legge

“I know not its name
So I style it ‘the way’.
I give it the makeshift name of ‘the great’.” – D.C. Lau

“I do not know its name
Call it Tao.
For lack of a better word, I call it great.” – Gia Fu-Feng and Jane English

Despite slightly different wordings, it is not difficult to see the fundamental meaning behind all three. “Tao” is just a name applied to an unknowable mystery. Similarly, the entire text of the Tao Te Ching is but an imperfect attempt to convey this mystery with the inadequate tool that is human language. Is our understanding of this lesson really hindered by our inability to read Chinese, or is the lesson itself obscured by the insistence that the original Chinese version is a perfect document that should never be tampered with?

Would a philosophy that goes to great lengths to convey its imperfections really insist on preserving one particular incarnation of the text at the expense of a modern audience’s understanding?

I suppose it is possible, but it seems rather unlikely.

I submit that reading an English translation from the original source is of great value, but also opens us up to potential errors or misinterpretations by the individual translator. Reading several different translations allows us to see all the different wordings and interpretations that this supposedly authoritative source inspires. By picking through these translations with a discerning eye, we can perhaps catch a glimpse of what the original version must have been shooting for, the lesson hidden behind the language.

One of the fundamental lessons of the Tao Te Ching is the acceptance of change. Rigid structures will inevitably crumble because they are unable to move with the changing world. If you apply this lesson to the Tao Te Ching itself, you see that the wisdom contained in the text should not be chained to one particular language.

Stephen Mitchell may well have gotten things wrong with his version. We may well have gotten things wrong in ours. Lao Tzu, if he is not thought of as some perfect deity but as a spiritual teacher, may well have gotten things wrong or been misinterpreted by those who compiled his teachings.

Our version is our own best attempt to reiterate the wisdom of the Tao Te Ching. We encourage you to see the potential value in this practice.

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