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