As a masterpiece of the Chinese classic philosophy, Daodejing (or Laozi, Tao De Ching, etc.)has been the most widely translated work both in Chinese language and in foreign languages. The versions are simply numerous. The nature of its being variedly interpreted speaks for its eternal charm and stimulating sophistication.
I am analyzing two versions of translation of the 20th chapter. The translators are Arthur Waley, English orientalist and sinologist, and Lin Yutang, influential Chinese writer and translator in English literature.
Here are the Chinese original and two versions of translation with source information attached:
English Translation by Arthur Waley
Banishing learning1, and there will be no more grieving.
Between wei and o
What after all is the difference?
Can it be compared to the difference between good and bad?2
The saying “what others avoid I too must avoid”
How false and superficial it is!
All men, indeed, are wreathed in smiles,
As though feasting after the Great Sacrifice,
As though going up to the Spring Carnival.3
I alone am inert, like a child that has not yet given sign;4
Like an infant that has not yet smiled.
I droop and drift, as though I belonged nowhere.
All men have enough and to spare;
I alone seem to have lost everything.
Mine is indeed the mind of a very idiot,
So dull am I.
The world is full of people that shine;
I alone am dark.
They look lively and self assured;
I alone, depressed.
I seem unsettled5 as the ocean;
Blown adrift, never brought to a stop.
All men can be put to some use;
I alone am intractable and boorish.
But wherein I most am different from men
Is that I prize no sustenance that comes not from the Mother’s6 breast.
1. “Learning” means in particular the “3300 rules of etiquette”. Wei and o were the formal and informal words for “yes”, each appropriate to certain occasions. For “learning” in the sense of knowing which words are taboo at which courts, see Kuo Yu, 15, fol. 3.
2. Good and bad in the Taoist sense, i.e., like and unlike the Way. This leads up to the description of the great gulf that separates the Taoist from other men. This description is in the form of a generalized jung and cannot be taken as in any sense a self-portrait of the author. The sense of the first six lines is very doubtful.
3. see additional notes. I read teng ch’un t’ai.
4. A child “gives sign” by stretching its hand towards some object. This is an important omen concerning its future.
5. for this sense of tan, see Lu Shih Ch’un Ch’iu, P’ien 111, line 7.
6. i.e. the Way’s. The image may equally well be that of a child in the womb, “feeding on the mother”.
Source：Tao Te Ching 《道德经》外语教学与研究出版社 1997.12 （本书中文部分以河上公章句《老子道德经》为底本，主要参校王弼《老子注》，并参考了陈鼓应《老子注释及详介》相关章节。
English Translation by Lin Yutang
Banish learning, and vexations end.
Between "Ah!" and "Ough!"
How much difference is there?
Between "good" and "evil"
How much difference is there?"
That which men fear
Is indeed to be feared;
But, alas, distant yet is the dawn (of awakening)!
The people of the world are merry-making,
As if partaking of the sacrificial feasts,
As if mounting the terrace in spring;
I alone am mild, like one unemployed,
Like a new-born babe that cannot yet smile,
Unattached, like one without a home.
The people of the world have enough and to spare,
But I am like one left out,
My heart must be that of a fool,
Being muddled, nebulous!
The vulgar are knowing, luminous;
I alone am dull, confused.
The vulgar are clever, self-assured;
I alone, depressed.
Patient as the sea,
Adrift, seemingly aimless.
The people of the world all have a purpose;
I alone appear stubborn and uncouth.
I alone differ from the other people,
And value drawing sustenance from the Mother.
The most obvious difference between the two translations is the use of notes in Waley’s. It is said that notes should be the last resort as it simply shows the incompetence on the part of the translator. For such a profound work as Tao De Ching, a more lenient eye might be cast on such notes. Yet, these notes have, apparently, posed two obstacles in the process of reading. First, the Arabic numbers protrude in the territory of Anglo-Saxon letters. They steal the whole translation’s thunder in quite an annoying manner. Second, within such a short chapter, five notes are employed. Not only had the translator abused his power, but the smooth flow of the eye and the mind has suffered a lot. It is a sheer bumpy read. The poetic beauty of the original is smeared.
Let’s take a look at the aspect of effective communication reflected in the two versions. Two examples are cited here. The original says, “唯之与阿，相去几何？”Waley translated as “Between wei and o What after all is the difference?” Yutang did as “Between 'Ah!' and 'Ough!' How much difference is there?” The former’s “wei” and “o” are quite vague, resorting to notes that make little sense to the English readers. The translator, straining himself a little bit, added immediately a very explicit “after all” to emphasize the “difference”. The latter, on the other hand, strikes the readers first and foremost by “Ah!” and “Ough!”, two exclamation-mark tagged expressions bearing rich connotations in the mind of the English readers. They do make sense to them. Thus, Lin’s following translation talking about “difference” rests confidently calm. Another example is “俗人昭昭，我独昏昏；俗人察察，我独闷闷。” We understand that the Chinese ancient philosopher was actually praising “我” and degrading the “俗人” for “I” am the very person that knows the Dao. In this sense, “俗人” can not simply be translated as “people”, which Waley mindlessly did. On the other hand, Lin’s “vulgar” makes the whole picture clearer. By translating “昏昏”as “dark” only, Waley was too lazy to clarify, whether “I” was sad, ill-minded or anything else the word “dark” can connote. Compounded by the vague translation of “俗人” as “people”，Waley might mislead the readers in believing that “俗人”are praised while “我” debased. Lin’s version is, by all means, better at effective transfer of the original meaning.
The next point worth discussing is rhyme (alliteration and adagio included) in the two translated poetic lines. In Waley’s version we can find pairs such as “learning” and “grieving”, “good” and “bad”, “droop” and “drift”, and etc. These pairs appear more on the one-word-to-the-near-word level. In Lin’s version we can find “there” in the 3rd line and “there” in the 5th line, “confused” in the 20th line and “depressed” in the 22nd line. We find rhyming in Lin’s version more on the macro-level while Waley’s more on the micro-level. In terms of coherence, the broader level of rhyming can hold the whole body tighter. In this way, Mr. Lin also outdoes Mr. Waley.
Finally, let’s look at the last line. The Chinese original is “我独异于人，而贵食母。” The British translator offered “But wherein I most am different from men is that I prize no sustenance that comes not from the Mother’s6 breast.” The Chinese counterpart proposed “I alone differ from the other people, and value drawing sustenance from the Mother.” We do not know by what reason Mr. Waley is particularly fond of Mother’s “breast”. We may have further doubt why here “breast” is in singular form but not plural. What is wrong with “Mother”? However, we understand that “母”in the original means mother nature, who embraces Dao. By capitalizing “m”, the idea of mother nature is clear enough. No particular female specialty that implies productivity and life need to be addressed here.
All in all, Lin’s version out-performs Waley’s. Besides Lin’s advantage of reading his native tongue, he might owe his success to his experience as a successful writer. It may ushers some light on us future professional translators. As translators, we’d better write well first.