1997-04-11: Tao Te Ching [Mitchell]

Tao Te Ching (1988)

by Lao Tzu(-6C?), tr. Stephen Mitchell (1943-)

This new English translation is modern and very interesting. Mitchell has taken liberties with the text to keep the meaning meaningful. I like it very much.

One of his innovations is to mix the use of male/female pronouns to refer to the Master or Sage; the Chinese doesn’t make the distinction, so he feels it only fair not to be too one-sided.

By way of comparison, here are two passages, the first from Victor H. Mair’s 1990 translation:

Those of old who were adept in the Way

were subtly profound and mysteriously perceptive,

So deep

they could not be recognized.

Now, because they could not be recognized.

One can describe their appearance only with effort:


as though crossing a stream in winter;


as though fearful of their neighbors all around;


as though guests in someone else’s house;


as ice when it melts;


as an unhewn log;


as turbid waters;


as a broad valley.

If turbid waters are stilled,

they will gradually become clear;

If something inert is set in motion,

it will gradually come to life.

Those who preserved this Way did not wish to be full.

Now, simply because they did not wish to be full,

they could be threadbare and incomplete.

Now here is Mitchell’s translation of the same chapter (15 in his numbering, 59 in Mair’s):

The ancient masters were profound and subtle.

Their wisdom was unfathomable.

There is no way to describe it;

all we can describe is their appearance.

They were careful

as someone crossing an iced-over stream.

Alert as a warrior in enemy territory.

Courteous as a guest.

Fluid as melting ice.

Shapeable as a block of wood.

Receptive as a valley.

Clear as a glass of water.

Do you have the patience to wait

till your mud settles and the water is clear?

Can you remain unmoving

till the right action arises by itself?

The Master doesn’t seek fulfillment.

Not seeking, not expecting,

she is present, and can welcome all things.

Mitchell seems to have the much clearer idea of the Master’s mind, based on 14 years of Zen training.

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