Tao Te Ching

Guiding Principles of Translation

by Derek Lin

There are many Tao Te Ching translations available, and some of them vary wildly in their rendering of the ancient classic. When we compare these variant renditions side-by-side, they can seem like totally different books. So how can we know, with a reasonable degree of certainty, what the Tao Te Ching actually says?

This translation is an attempt to address this important question. We started out by envisioning the ideal Tao Te Ching translation, to see how close we could get to it. What would such a translation be like? We came up with the following thoughts:

1) Its translator would be a native speaker of both English and Chinese. Without this level of fluency, the translation would miss many linguistic subtleties and nuances. Native command and familiarity is crucial; academic knowledge alone is insufficient.

2) Its translator would be someone who knows ancient Chinese quite well. The Tao Te Ching originated 2,500 years ago, so some of its words are no longer in modern usage, and some have changed meaning over the centuries. A lack of understanding in this respect can lead to mistranslation.

3) Its translator would be held accountable on accuracy. There are very few people with the qualifications cited above, so there is no rigorous peer review of Tao Te Ching translations. The lack of accountability is a major factor that contributes to a situation where anyone can claim to have the most definitive and authoritative translation, and any challenges or disagreements can be labeled as merely opinions.

4) The ideal translation would be a true translation in that every character in the original can be matched to the nearest equivalent word or phrase in English, and no characters are skipped. If we were to scrutinize existing translations, we would find a surprising number failing this basic criterion.

5) The ideal translation would also guarantee the reverse: that every English word or phrase in the translation has a corresponding character in the original Chinese. Most translations cannot make this claim. They contain extraneous concepts or additional meanings not found in the source material, because sometimes translators cannot resist the temptation to inject pet notions or personal opinions into their work.

6) The ideal translation would resolve the gender issue. Chinese is contextual and gender-neutral, so a line that talks about a sage or a ruler makes no assumptions about the subject's gender. English is gender-specific and forces one to choose male or female pronoun, thereby creating a distortion of the original all-inclusive meaning.

(Some translators use the male gender as a convention for the universal third-person reference; some use the female gender to balance the perceived inequality; some switch arbitrarily between the two; some use "his or her" in making the inclusiveness explicit. These are all attempts to resolve the issue.)

A translation that fulfills the six points above, if possible to achieve, would set a higher and unprecedented standard for authenticity and accuracy. So now the questions become: How close can we come to it? How realistic is the ideal?

We can fulfill the first requirement, but cannot claim to be perfectly qualified for #2 - perhaps no living person can. However, we do have access to real-life sages who understand the Tao Te Ching better than anyone. We also have access to commentaries that have been passed down through the generations. With these two helpful assets, we should be able to handle the demands of the second point.1

Accountability is an issue that, in our case, would take care of itself. Because the Tao is the way of life for us, and not just an academic subject, we would be extremely interested in preserving the original meaning as much as humanly possible. Our commitment would go far beyond that of the typical scholar or writer. Our purpose in translating the Tao Te Ching is to embark on a quest to deepen spiritual understanding.

We would use #4 and #5 as our overriding principles. Every Chinese character will be linked to an English word or phrase. If we encounter a particularly difficult character, we will spend the time to do the research rather than to gloss over it. All English words except articles and prepositions must correspond with the Chinese original. Anything extra will be summarily discarded.

We would deal with #6 by utilizing the contextual nature of Chinese. Not only is Chinese gender-neutral, it is also unspecific in terms of plurality. Any given sentence about a type of person can refer to either a single individual or multiple individuals. This means it is perfectly acceptable for us to use the plural form in the translation, which would in turn let us use the gender-neutral "their" instead of the gender-specific "his" or "her." This takes care of the common distortion in an elegant way, and yields a more faithful translation.

  1. Special thanks to Master Wu Han Yih, Master Mong Ying, Grand Master Yuen Zhu Uh, and Grand Master Lin De Yang.