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Reviewed by:
  • Zhuangzi: The Essential Writings with Selections from Traditional Commentaries
  • Bryan W. Van Norden (bio)
Brook Ziporyn , trans. Zhuangzi: The Essential Writings with Selections from Traditional Commentaries. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2009. xviii, 238 pp. Hardcover $42.00, ISBN 978-0-87220-912-1. Paperback $14.95, ISBN 978-0-87220-911-4.

Every translation is guided by previous commentaries, whether this is made explicit or not. For example, familiarity with the commentarial tradition is needed to understand why D. C. Lau renders as "doing one's best" in his translation of Analects 4.15. Readers are only fully empowered to understand and think critically about texts when they have some access to these commentaries. "However, for many years, those who could not read the commentaries in the original Chinese were simply out of luck." Consequently, that translations with commentaries are pullulating is a positive development. A few years ago, Richard John Lynn produced The Classic of the Way and Virtue: A New Translation of the Tao-te Ching of Laozi as Interpreted by Wang Bi (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999). More recently, Edward Slingerland translated the Analects: With Selections from Traditional Commentaries (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2003), and the author of this review produced the Mengzi: With Selections from Traditional Commentaries (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2008). The translation by Brook Ziporyn under review is a welcome addition to this genre.

The first section of the book (pp. 3-125) is a translation of all of the Inner Chapters, with selections from the rest of the received Zhuangzi text. Footnotes are used for cross-references and also for interpretive suggestions by the translator. (The notes are particularly extensive on the Inner Chapters, sometimes taking up a third of the page.) No two translators will render the Zhuangzi anywhere near the same way. Consequently, the most we can ask of a translation is that it be readable and defensible. Ziporyn's version succeeds on both counts. One of the trickier passages for translators is in chapter 2, where Zhuangzi makes use of an elaborate pun on the senses of , which can mean either "this" or "right" (in the former sense contrasting with "that," and in the latter with "wrong"). Zhuangzi uses the ambiguity to suggest that, just as it is solely a matter of perspective whether we call something "this" or "that," so it is also a matter of perspective whether we deem something "right" or "wrong." "Hence we have the rights and wrongs of the Confucians and Mohists, each affirming what the other negates and negating what the other affirms" (pp. 11-12). But how do we bring out Zhuangzi's paronomastic point in English? Ziporyn's solution is to amplify the original text:

"THAT" posits a "this" and a "that"—a right and a wrong—of its own. But "THIS" also posits a "this" and a "that"—a right and a wrong-of its own. So is [End Page 147] there really any "that" versus "this," any right versus wrong? ().


Even if we are not inclined to handle this passage this way, we can understand what Ziporyn is doing and why.

The second part of the book (pp. 129–212) consists of translations from selected commentaries, keyed to particular passages. I found that these commentaries, as is so often the case, opened up interpretive possibilities for me, helping me to see familiar texts in a new light. I was particularly impressed with the comments by the Ming dynasty Buddhist monk Shi Deqing, who remarks that "Zhuangzi's writing seems at first glance to be absurd and random, recklessly selfindulgent, but in reality the design is matchlessly rigorous and tightly structured" (p. 134). An example of Shi's illumination of a text's tight structure may be found in his commentary on the line near the end of chapter 2: "If so were ultimately so, its differentiations from not so would require no debate. Thus, even though the transforming voices may depend on one another, this is tantamount to not depending on anything at all" (p. 20). Shi Deqing suggests:

The idea is that if we contemplate sounds as if they were echoes in an empty valley, free of...