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  • Daodejing: A Literal-Critical Translation
  • James D. Sellmann (bio)
Joseph Hsu. Daodejing: A Literal-Critical Translation. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2008. xvii, 159 pp. Paperback $27.00, isbn 978-0-7618-4152-4.

The Daodejing (Tao Te Ching) is, with the Bible, one of the most translated works of world literature, and the most often translated Chinese book. In this volume, Joseph Hsu offers his rendition of this obscure work consisting of eighty-one poems. The manuscript contains brief acknowledgments, a reader's guide that explains conventions used in the book, and a three-page introduction. Each of the eighty-one poems has been given a title by the translator. Each poem is presented in simplified Chinese characters with a line-by-line English rendition, followed by one or more paragraphs of interpretive text, and copious notes that discuss a wide range of issues from providing cultural or contextual explanations, to character or word choices made in the Chinese or English text, and so on. The book concludes with a list of Chinese dynasties; explanatory notes that offer very brief definitions of some of the key terms or biographical information about ancient and modern scholars, commentators on the Daodejing, poets, and so on; a bibliography; and a note about the translator.

For some reason Hsu thinks that the suffix "cius" is time honored, so he has chosen to romanize Laozi with the cumbersome Laocius, and Zhuangzi as Zhuancius [sic ;the letter "g" is consistently not present]. According to the note about the author, Hsu reads seven languages, so apparently he is comfortable using this dated system of romanization begun by Matteo Ricci, despite the fact that he wants to employ Pinyin as the system of romanization in the book. The three-page introduction provides very little historical, or philosophical context for the original text. After relating a few historical anecdotes, Hsu characterizes the Laozi as brief, simple, forceful, profound, and universal, noting its impact on Chinese culture and art. Hsu is captivated by the great poetry of world literature. He quickly reviews the history of the translations of the Laozi, beginning with a Sanskrit rendition in 647 c.e. to the more than 250 Western-language versions by 1998 c.e. I would add that a considerable number of translations of the Laozi have appeared in the first decade of the twenty-first century.

Hsu claims that "Translation causes the Chinese language to lose much of its beauty, terseness, and expressiveness" (p. xv). It seems to me that this kind of misuse of the English language is going to cause further conceptual errors for Hsu and his rendition of the Laozi. What I mean to say is that the Chinese language is what it is, and it is not adversely affected by the actions of others or by translators. A translation may not adequately convey the sense and meaning [End Page 568] of the original passage, but the beauty and expressiveness of the original passage in the Chinese language is not affected by a translation. Hsu goes on to claim that Chinese has some special features not shared by European languages. He says: "Unlike words in Greek, Latin and other inflectional languages, Chinese characters do not change according to grammatical relationships; that is they do not vary in number, case, person, gender, tense, mood, or voice" (pp. xv–xvi). There is some truth to the claim that Chinese characters do not change form the way that words in inflectional languages change shape or spelling with gender, plural, and other syntax changes, but Chinese characters do, in fact, change meaning and sometimes even pronunciation according to grammatical relationships. For example, nouns can be used as verbs, as is evident in the opening lines of the first poem of the Laozi. When the character wei (to do, to make), pronounced in the second tone, is used to mean "for," it is pronounced in the fourth tone, or the character wang (king), second tone, is pronounced in the fourth tone when used as a verb "to rule in the kingly way." Chinese characters do change meaning based on grammatical relationships.

Hsu studied a number of scholarly and literary translations...


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