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The Tao (for Jeff)

Posted by Erik on April 12, 2010

The other day Jeff Lilly began a post with a quote from the beginning of chapter 72 of the Tao Te Ching, as translated by Stephen Mitchell. It sounded a bit odd to my ear, so I compared a number of different translations I have on hand, just out of curiosity.

I discovered two things: first, that Mitchell either has come up with the deeper meaning that had eluded all other translators, or his translation is more than a bit idiosyncratic. Second, that all the translations are fairly freewheeling, at least in places (the last version cited, which gives the original Chinese, is very helpful in seeing where translation ends and interpretation begins).

Following is the relevant section from as many versions as I could easily lay hands on, both from my collection and the library. [NB: in the interest of readability, I have elided out line breaks and indentation where they were present.]

You can compare several other translations at this site: http://www.duhtao.com/sidebyside.html

There is also an unabashedly personal version here that I am quite fond of, by Ron Hogan: http://www.beatrice.com/wordpress/tao-te-ching (there is a link to a free online edition of the translation near the bottom of the page.)

First, the Mitchell passage in question: When people lose their sense of awe, they turn to organized religion. When they no longer trust themselves, they turn to authority. 1

Next, the venerable Arthur Waley version: Never mind if the people are not intimidated by your authority. a Mightier Authority will deal with them in the end. Do not narrow their dwellings or harass their lives; and for the very reason that you do not harass them, they will cease to turn from you. 2

Gia-fu Feng and Jane English: When men lack a sense of awe, there will be disaster. Do not intrude in their homes. Do not harass them at work. If you do not interfere, they will not weary of you. 3

Wing-Tsit Chan: When the people do not fear what is dreadful, then what is greatly dreadful will descend on them. Do not reduce the living space of their dwellings. Do not oppress their lives. It is because you do not oppress them that they are not oppressed. 4

Lin Yutang: When people have no fear of force, then (as is the common practice) great force descends upon them. Despise not their dwellings, dislike not their progeny. Because you do not dislike them, you will not be disliked yourself. 5

Stephen Hodge: When the masses do not fear authority, then excessive authority has been reached. Don’t restrict the places where they live, don’t oppress their livelihoods. It is precisely because they do not oppress them that they do not detest them. 6

Ellen M. Chen: When the people fear no power, then great power has indeed arrived. Do not disturb them in their dwellings, do not weary them in their living. It is because you do not weary (pu yen) them, that they are not wearied of you. 7

Gregory C. Richter: (interlinear character-by-character translation, followed by completed text. The numbers after the Chinese words indicate tones: 1=high tone, 2=rising tone, 3=”dipping” tone, 4=falling tone.)


min2 bu2 wei4 wei1, ze2 da4 wei1 zhi4.
People not fear force, then great calamity arrive.


wu2 xia2 qi2 suo3 ju1; wu2 yan4 qi2 suo3 sheng1.
Not force their [particle] dwelling; not detest their [particle] livelihood.


fu2 wei2 bu2 yan4, shi4 yi3 bu2 yan4.
For not detest, be why not detest.

When the PEOPLE FEAR NO FORCE, THEN GREAT CALAMITY will ARRIVE. Do NOT FORCE your way into THEIR DWELLINGS; do NOT DETEST THEIR means of LIVELIHOOD. FOR if the ruler does NOT DETEST the people, the people will NOT DETEST the ruler. 8

Sources cited:

1. Mitchell, Stephen. Tao Te Ching: A New English Version. New York: HarperPerennial, 1992.

2. Waley, Arthur. The Way and Its Power: a study of the Tao Te Ching and its place in Chinese thought. New York: Grove Press, 1958.

3. Feng, Gia-Fu and Jane English. Tao Te Ching. New York: Vintage, 1972.

4. Chan, Wing-Tsit. A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy. Princeton U Press, 1963.

5. Lin, Yutang. The Wisdom of China and India. New York: Random House, 1942.

6. Hodge, Stephen. The Illustrated Tao Te Ching: a new translation and commentary. China: Barron’s, 2002.

7. Chen, Ellen M. The Tao Te Ching: a new translation with commentary. New York: Paragon House, 1989.

8. Richter, Gregory C. The Gate of All Marvelous Things: A Guide to Reading the Tao Te Ching. San Francisco: Chinabooks, Inc., 1998.


4 Responses to “The Tao (for Jeff)”

  1. Fascinating! From what I can find out about Stephen Mitchell, he is a student of Zen Buddhism who is not in fact a scholar of ancient Chinese. So his version might best be understood as a modern, western, Zen interpretation of the Tao. It’s no surprise, then, that he translates “force” as “awe”, and “great calamity” as “organized religion”! While I agree with his sentiment, I wouldn’t want to misrepresent the original text in this way.

  2. executivepagan said

    It’s concerning, to say the least… I have a copy of his book (for the moment, anyway) and in the Foreword he does say that his version is synthesized from other translations, but that he modified the text as he saw fit. So, at least he’s up front about it.

  3. Cat C-B said

    Fascinating! I have lately been reading about competing Bible translations, and the different philosophies that people bring to that. While I am no more a scholar of Greek or Hebrew than I am of Chinese, I am at least culturally more steeped in that mythos than that of the Tao Te Ching, so I can spot odd distortions more readily there than in the latter.

    Which is ironic; as a Pagan, I have a much easier relationship with the Tao Te Ching. I wonder how many of us are too ill-versed in the competing translations to really be able to make sense of any.

    Is this situation similar with the I Ching, I wonder?

  4. executivepagan said

    I’m sure it is – I think all translation is really interpretation, in the end… the Muslims may be on to something when they insist that the Qur’an can’t truly be translated, and that to really understand what it says one must learn Arabic (and, one assumes, become familiar with the culture in the process).

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