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  • The Ways of Interpreting Dao
  • Ruiqi Ma
Daodejing: The Book of the Way. By Laozi. Translation and Commentary by Moss Roberts. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 2001. Pp. ix + 226.
The Daodejing of Laozi. Translation and Commentary by Philip J. Ivanhoe. New York and London: Seven Bridges Press, 2002. Pp. xxxii + 125.

According to an old Chinese saying, "Good things come in pairs." This is certainly true for Laozi studies in America since two new translations of the Daodejing offer contrasting yet complementary readings of this ancient Daoist canon: Moss Roberts' Daodejing: The Book of the Way, and Philip J. Ivanoe's The Daodejing of Laozi. The Daodejing is the most translated of the Chinese classics, and there are more than "forty versions in English alone" (Roberts, p. 9). What makes these two new translations stand out is the linguistic sensitivity and philosophical sophistication of both.

Ludwig Wittgenstein once compared the complexity and multiplicity of language to a confusing "ancient city" with "a maze of little streets and squares, of old and new houses, and of houses with additions from various periods."1 Likewise, translating an ancient text into a modern language resembles leading readers through a labyrinth of strange city streets. The Daodejing is such a challenging text. Its mystical subject matter, its brevity, and the lexical and grammatical changes in the Chinese language all make it especially demanding for translators. According to Jacques Lacan, there is "an incessant sliding of the signified under the signifier."2 The linguistic sliding from classical Chinese to modern English is as enormous as a continental shift. The connotations of many words have changed so much that it is often very difficult to determine the most appropriate choice for some seemingly simple words. For example, in the opening stanza the word miao 妙 would appear easy to translate. In modern Chinese, miao means "wonder," "excellence," or "subtlety." However, according to the commentary of the third-century philosopher Wang Bi, miao refers to "the infinitesimal, for the ten thousand things initiate from the infinitesimal." 3 It becomes a crucial yet complicated task for a translator to determine which word one is willing to use in order to convey the meaning of the original text.4

The grammatical structure of the Daodejing poses another serious challenge to translators. In classical Chinese, the subject of a sentence is often omitted and a noun can be used as a verb, depending on the context. It is very confusing for non Chinese readers if the text is translated word for word, as some translators have attempted to do. An effective translation must preserve intended meanings and at the same time present them comprehensibly to the reader. Considering the linguistic challenge in the translation of the text, it is amazing to see how both Roberts and [End Page 487] Ivanhoe have offered us two equally accurate yet stylistically contrasting readings of the same work. Because of his training in classical Chinese literature, Roberts is better able to preserve the stylistic characteristics of the original text. The translation by philosopher Ivanhoe focuses on precision and clarity of terminology. Reading both their versions of the Daodejing is like listening to two masters performing the same musical piece: it is not the melody but their expression and interpretations that increase our appreciation and understanding.5

Roberts' Daodejing: The Book of the Way is an outstanding translation because he has so skillfully employed the English language to convey successfully the poetic quality of the Daodejing, a quality that, in my opinion, has often been overlooked by many previous translators. As Roberts states in his Introduction, his version attempts to "reproduce the condensed aphoristic force of Laozi's style, the appeal of his intriguing and often indeterminate syntax, and the prevalence of rhymed verse in his original" (p. 3). The Daodejing is a hybrid text combining both verse and prose.6 The versed sections often state philosophical principles or tenets, while the prose sections offer definitions or arguments.7 By faithfully following the structure of the original work, Roberts has contributed greatly to the study of the Daodejing by providing non-Chinese readers an opportunity to experience the beauty of form...


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