2001-11-22: Tao The Ching [LeGuin]

Tao The Ching

A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way
A New English Version (1997)

by Ursula K. Le Guin (1929-)

This is not really a translation of Lao Tzu; Le Guin calls it a rendition. In her introduction she says:

Scholarly translations of the Tao Te Ching as a manual for rulers use a vocabulary that emphasizes the uniqueness of the Taoist “sage,” his masculinity, his authority. This language is perpetuated, and degraded, in most popular versions. I wanted a Book of the Way accessible to a present-day, unwise, unpowerful, and perhaps unmale reader, not seeking esoteric secrets, but listening for a voice that speaks to the soul. I would like that reader to see why people have loved the book for twenty-five hundred years.

It is the most lovable of all the great religious texts, funny, keen, kind, modest,indestructibly outrageous, and inexhaustibly refreshing. Of all the deep springs, this is the purest water. To me, it is also the deepest spring.

Here is Le Guin’s rendition of chapter 15:

Once upon a time

people who knew the Way

were subtle, spiritual, mysterious, penetrating,


Since they’re inexplicable

I can only say what they seemed like:

Cautious, oh yes, as if wading through a winter river.

Alert, as if afraid of the neighbors.

Polite and quiet, like houseguests.

Elusive, like melting ice.

Blank, like uncut wood.

Empty, like valleys.

Mysterious, oh yes, they were like troubled water.

Who can by stillness, little by little

make what is troubled grow clear?

Who can by movement, little by little

make what is still grow quick?

To follow the Way

is not to need fulfillment.

Unfulfilled, one may live on

needing no renewal.

By way of comparison, here is Stephen Mitchell’s translation from 1988.

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.

It seems to me that Le Guin’s poeticism is heartfelt, but her understanding is not as deep as Mitchell’s. Still, her rendition may be more accessible to someone who has never read the book in other versions.

Having read several versions of Lao Tzu, and a few of Chuang Tzu, I would like to see something new: a modern work that expresses the core ideas that the ancient masters were expressing for their ancient audience, but for a modern audience. If I could, I would write it myself.


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