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  • A Response to Sellmann's Review
  • Joseph Hsu

Recently, I spotted a lengthy review by James H. Sellmann of my book, Daodejing:A Literal-Critical Translation (University Press of America, 2008), in China Review International 15.4. I am grateful for the generosity of his time and work. However, I would like to clarify several of his misunderstandings.

My reply follows the sequence of his review.

In use since the sixteenth century, the suffix "-cius" is, unquestionably, "time-honored."

An old system is not necessarily a "dated system," especially when still in active use.

"Laocius" is a Latinized name patterned after that of "Confucius" and "Mencius"; so either all are "cumbersome" or none is.

The adoption of the pinyin system does not imply that one should relinquish the two well-established, universally accepted Latinized names of "Confucius" and "Mencius." In the interest of uniformity and consistency, I proposed "-cius" as the suffix for all other names of ancient Chinese sages ending in 子 (zi)—a character which, I regret, does not lend itself to an exact phonetic transliteration, pinyin included.

"Sic; the letter 'g' is consistently not present," says Sellmann after seeing "Zhuancius" (Zhuangzi) and other romanized names without "g." Apparently, he is not aware that "g" is also missing in "Confucius" (Kongfuzi) and Mencius (Mengzi). Its inclusion in these and other names would not only make them look bizarre and difficult to pronounce, but also far from being Latinized.

While the source language itself remains unchanged, its beauty, terseness, and expressiveness tend to get lost through translation; hence the saying "Translator, traitor."

My statement that "Chinese characters do not change according to grammatical relationships" does not deny that they "do, in fact, change meaning and sometimes even pronunciation according to grammatical relationships." But Sellmann should know that even these changes do not alter the characters themselves.

The reviewer who does not favor an occasional nonliteral translation would be puzzled should I render 小心 (xiaoxin, "be careful!") as "little heart," literally.

Whether Daojing or Dejing goes first is debatable. The few reasons I give are to show why my book title is Daodejing, not Dedaojing. However, placing Daojing ahead of Dejing seems logical also because "de" is a Daoist expression.

Eternity and absoluteness are dao attributes. The Encyclopaedia Britannica writes, "[I]n its essence, tao (dao) is eternal, absolute, and beyond space and time." [End Page 18] A Major Dictionary of the Ancient Chinese Language explains 常 (chang) and 恒 (heng) as "eternal," "everlasting" as well—terms used interchangeably as dao modifiers in the first verse of Daojing. Noted Daoism scholars like Mair and Wu also describe dao as "eternal." To trace the origin of the concept of eternity is one thing; to affirm that this concept is foreign to the ancient Chinese is quite another.

My translation performs a dual function: namely, literal and critical. The subtitle indicates this duality; the introduction amplifies it by stating that "To reflect its literal and critical nature, I have placed the Chinese and English texts side by side and line to line with numerous emendations derived from variant readings." Apparently, Sellmann fails to grasp the meaning of "critical" in this context.

The question of being and nonbeing is a profound one. The reviewer raises it with respect to the sentence "being and nonbeing beget each other" in verse 2. However, the more logical place for this question is verse 40, where it is stated with a note that "being is born of nonbeing." In verse 2, the statement is poetical; in verse 40, it is philosophical. (Note that this book is philosophical poetry.) Sellmann is for "nothing from nothing" (ex nihilo nihil), but there are philosophers who assert just the opposite; that is, "everything from nothing" (omnia ex nihilo). Thus, being and nonbeing seem to be the two perennial paradigms in philosophy. The context, however, shows that in verse 2 they are not philosophical in nature; they are, instead, just two more examples of many antonyms.

Sellmann's explanation that "possessing or not possessing something is partly a psychological phenomena [sic] and partly a social phenomena [sic] as well as a physical one" seems to complicate an already difficult subject further.

As meaning is primarily context...


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