Thursday, May 04, 2006

Welcome to The Layman's Tao

Hello, and welcome to The Layman's Tao! In this blog I'm going to have a go at translating the 81 chapters of the Tao Te Ching into English.

What is the Tao Te Ching? It's an old Chinese text which legend says was written around 600 BC by a sage named Laozi (spelled variously). In reality, it's almost certainly a compilation of various kinds of writing, some older than others, some commentary on others. The oldest original parts of it were probably written around 300 BC, although they may draw on sayings that are even older.

In my approach to the Tao Te Ching, I'm very much indebted to Michael LaFargue and his fantastic book Tao and Method. In the West, at least, the Tao Te Ching is often looked at as a religion, with interpreters and translators treating the sayings as though they were intended to form a logically airtight cosmology and belief system. As LaFargue points out, they were probably applied more conditionally, like aphorisms. To use his example, when we say "Love makes the world go round," we're not explaining what makes the Earth spin, we're just saying that love is great. Similarly, when one of the authors of the TTC says "The Way is the origin of everything," he may not be talking about how dogs (and everything else) was created, but just saying that the the Way is very important.

What qualifications do I have to translate the TTC? Very few. I don't know any Chinese, although I can read some of the characters because I speak Japanese. Luckily, Jonathan Star's The Definitive Tao Te Ching features each Chinese character, with all of its meanings, so anyone who knows something about translation can have a go at cooking up their own syntax. I majored in Linguistics, and I have an MA in Applied Linguistics, so I know a thing or two about translation. But compared to the big name translators like Walker and Cleary, I'm as much of a layman as you. I'm doing this because I hope I'll learn something, about the book itself, about language, maybe about life. I hope you'll learn something too.

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