Saturday, September 14, 2013

Formal Intelligence: Understanding Lao Tzu, Part II

Understanding Lao Tzu:   The Letter and the Spirit

Lao Tzu:  Form

Lao Tzu, (Laozí), Tao Te Ching, Jeremy P. Tarcher/ Penguin, 2001, 349 pages.Translation and Commentary by Jonathan Star.

There have always been obstacles related to the understanding and appreciation of Lao Tzu’s masterwork. Even for the educated elite of Ancient China, perhaps already on the path of self-cultivation, even for people reading the Tao Te Ching in the original Chinese, Lao Tzu’s cryptic language has elicited puzzlement, and his simple declarations have piqued the desire for something more in the way of elaboration and explication. Hence the number of commentaries (around 700 in Chinese alone) on Lao Tzu written over the centuries. One of the oldest extant commentaries on the Tao, written by Wang Pi  (Wang Bi) around 249 BCE, established the basic format, including sequencing, of the text for readers over the next several centuries. Wang Pi’s commentary was followed by hundreds of other books written to guide and inform Lao Tzu’s readers. Yet despite the obvious challenges associated with understanding this foundational text of Chinese literature, the Tao Te Ching is today the second most widely translated book in the world, after the Bible.

As wisdom literature, the Tao Te Ching belongs within a certain cultural tradition and within a specific historical context. Knowing about this context is useful, but does not in itself lead to the fulfillment of the text’s literary and philosophical mandate for teaching the spirit and lessons of the Tao.

The redactor of the above-listed edition, translator Jonathan Star, focuses his introduction to the text on the learning curve awaiting the reader of the text in English translation, as well as the manifest rewards awaiting the reader who can succeed in discovering aspects of its original style and meaning. Less interested in the individual to whom the Tao is attributed, than in the text as wisdom literature, Star says little about Lao Tzu as author of the contra-Confucian book of the Way.

Jonathan Star briefly outlines various sources of difficulty for the contemporary reader of the Tao in English, including the following:

Problem: Transmission

The evolution of the manuscript of the Tao Te Ching over centuries, during which time it accrued multiple layers of contextualizing comments and sayings, makes it difficult to know when one is reading the original text. Jonathan Star outlines a plausible path of development for the text.

Star’s evolution hypothesis:
·      Lao Tzu records the sutras.
·      Grouped units of sutras constitute a view of reality.
·      Notes and commentaries are added.
·      Sections of the book may have been lost.
·      Political commentaries are added.
·      Book is divided into two sections.
·      Scribal errors may have occurred.

Problem:  The Book

Books in Ancient China were made of wood or bamboo slips held together by a thong.
Individual bamboo slips sometimes got lost.

Problem:  The Text

Jonathan Star refers to one of the oldest surviving texts of the Tao Te Ching, called “The Bamboo-slip Lao Tzu.” It was written around 300 BCE. The Tao Te Ching as we have it today was divided into two parts and 81 sections at the time of the Han Dynasty (206 BCE – 221 CE) – hundreds of years after Lao Tzu existed. The overall organization of this classic of Chinese literature was thus not part of the original document.

Problem:  Time

So much time has passed that we do not really know whether the Tao Te Ching was written by one sage named Lao Tzu, or was the inspiration of several individuals who contributed sayings at different times.

What then, is the answer to these difficulties in approaching the text?

Free Verse Translation

One answer offered by Jonathan Star is presented in the form of a sensitive free verse translation of the kind that allows the reader to read both analytically and intuitively, grasping the truth of the Tao from without and from within.

 Verbatim Translation

Another solution offered by Jonathan Star, clearly immersed in Lao Tzu scholarship,
is something the translator calls a verbatim translation. The verbatim translation, no mere addendum, is presumably what allows Star to claim his publication as “Tao Te Ching: The Definitive Edition.”

How well does the verbatim translation work?

On the principle that a translation is written to enable the fluent reading (in a language fully assimilated by the reader, if not in his native tongue) of a foreign language text ––Jonathan Star’s character-by-character notation system doesn’t work as a translation. The verbatim translation doesn’t deliver qua translation because the reader cannot read it with any degree of fluency. One does not so much read, as parse it.

The verbatim translation is not truly a translation, or even a continuous text; rather a list of words, signs and symbols formatted line by line, constituting a chart. In order to know its meaning, the reader must painstakingly decode it, word by word, symbol by symbol. 

The verbatim translation is the translator’s attempt to provide the reader with a facsimile of the Chinese text.

The avowed purpose of the verbatim translation was to bring the reader closer to the original text. Star formulated the project in response to his own disenchantment with currently available English translations, when he found that the clarity he experienced on first reading the Tao Te Ching faded with subsequent readings. The birth of the verbatim translation was the translator’s attempt to provide the reader with a facsimile of the Chinese text. Using this literal rubric, those unfamiliar with the Chinese language could get some idea of its conceptual nature by looking at the characters alongside designated words and elucidating punctuation marks.

Why can’t people just read through these lists, and why does it matter?

Here is an example of line 1 of verse 1 of the Tao Te Ching, in the free verse and in the verbatim translation:

Free Verse Translation

A way that can be walked
          Is not The Way

Verbatim Translation
01-01      162  tao  Tao/ the Tao/way/ path/ paths/ “That”/ “The Absolute”/
01-02       30   k’o can/ able to/ can be/ “becomes”
01-03     162  tao  Tao/ path/ way/ walked/ trodden/ be told/ talked about/ spoken of
01-04     175   fei  not/ cannot/ surely not/  opposes/ “other than”/ “not identified with”/  
          (Duy) (the)

While such juxtaposing of semantic clusters may be of interest to the scholar or translator, the reader is left mostly at sea. The experience of reading such lists clearly cannot approximate the experience of the reader of Chinese. After all, the reader of Chinese reads the Chinese characters with fluency. Fluency matters because the fluent reader is essentially performing a synthesis, rather than engaging in an exclusively analytical activity. The absorption that comes with fluency allows the reader of literature to read both analytically and intuitively, grasping precise meanings as well as meanings that are general and subjective in nature.

Just as important, such list-reading not germane to the main purpose of reading the Tao Te Ching.

The main purpose in reading the Tao Te Ching, for most readers who are not Taoists, is understanding; for Taoists and readers who belong to other spiritual traditions, the purpose in reading and studying the text is enlightenment. The typical first-time reader likely seeks to understand the Tao by in some way connecting the wisdom of the sayings, or sutras, in the text with examples from personal experience that complete the sense of the words. No initial reader, while reading the Tao Te Ching, would be likely to be capable of focusing on each saying or sutra with an equal degree of concentration. This is so because new readers will likely lack the context, depth of experience, and spiritual awareness, to fully understand and connect with every sutra, or to connect equally with all of the sutras. Reading wisdom literature for the first time, is not, for most, a smooth, uniform experience. Each new reader will bring a different set of aptitudes and experiences to the text.

In sum, the verbatim translation, while potentially useful for bilingual readers or researchers, does not address the problem, as it relates to most English language readers, of translating the Tao into English.

A Potted History of Tao Te Ching Translations

According to translators Roger Ames ad David Hall, the majority of English translations of the Tao Te Ching have been made by missionaries or sinologists (China experts). While several writers such as Ursula K. LeGuin have translated Lao Tzu, a translation by a philosopher is a rarity.

Considered the best scholarly translation by universal acclamation, Ellen M. Chen’s 1989 version is conscientiously researched, and incorporates knowledge of the Mawangdui silk manuscripts discovered in 1973. However, Chen’s heavily footnoted translation does not allow for a spontaneous experiencing of the Tao Te Ching.

Jonathan Star’s translations, published in 2003, incorporate the findings of the Mawangdui silk manuscripts, but not those of the Guodian manuscript. Discovered in 1993, the 800 bamboo-slip manuscript contains 2,000 characters (out of 13,000 total) that match the Laozi. Dated to prior to 300 BCE, the Guodian bamboo-slip manuscript is currently the oldest known version of the Tao Te Ching.

Praise for Jonathan Star’s Apparatus Criticus

While the verbatim translation is little more than daunting to my untutored eye, I was unable to find any critical comments about the verbatim translation from the cognoscenti. To the contrary, gurus and seasoned students of the Tao Te Ching praised Jonthan Star’s work as having great utility. One guru describes the verbatim translation as “word by word parallel to the Chinese signs – completely according to the Wang Pi version…It is quite useful to the devoted student.”[1]  Others praised Star’s book as erudite, comprehensive, and again, of great utility to the devotee. I am willing to concede that the experts know more about Lao Tzu scholarship than I do, including the utility of the verbatim apparatus. Just don’t call it a translation.

Lao Tzu:  Content

Some of the Tao’s tributaries
                                    feed mainstream spiritual traditions.
Other streams are channeled into
                                             a divergent reality:
                                                       a questioning of  norms,
                                                               a philosophical skepticism.

There are numerous translations of the Tao out there, many of them good, all of them, of necessity, with limitations. Some may be too freeform, some too scholarly. Often, readers in English for whom this is a crucial, perhaps sacred text, acquire more than one translation of the Tao, each to be read according to inclination. There will probably never be a definitive translation of the Tao Te Ching. One could do worse than have a freeform translation for inspiration, and a literal translation with commentary for study.  

The Tao Te Ching contains many streams of thought. While some of its tributaries feed widely practiced, mainstream spiritual traditions, other tributaries – formed of philosophical sutras and unconventional aphorisms – are channeled into a divergent image of reality: a kind of non-normative skepticism. The Tao’s argumentation over conventional mores and normative behavior can be seen in several clearly expressed passages in Jonathan Star’s free verse translation, which emphasizes the superfluous nature of rules for the individual who can think for himself.

             When the Tao is lost one must learn the rules of virtue 
  When virtue is lost, the rules of kindness
When kindness is lost, the rules of justice
When justice is lost, the rules of conduct…

The rules of conduct
are just an outer show of devotion and loyalty––
quite confusing to the heart
(Verse 38)

The Tao, albeit a cosmological and philosophical principle of immeasurable dimensions, is clearly humble and practical enough to be on the side of the human heart in its daily struggles with social imperatives and conventionality.

[1] Stenudd, Stefan,  Taoistic: Tao Te Ching: Each Chapter Translated and Explained, 

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