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  • Kniha Laozi: Překlad s filologickým komentářem (The book Laozi: A translation with philological commentary) by David Sehnal
  • Dušan Vávra (bio)
Kniha Laozi: Překlad s filologickým komentářem (The book Laozi: A translation with philological commentary). [Translated with commentary] by David Sehnal. Praha: Filozofická fakulta Univerzita Karlova, 2013. Pp. 458. 360 Kč, isbn 978-8-07-308456-1.

Kniha Laozi: Překlad s filologickým komentářem by David Sehnal is a new translation of the Laozi into the Czech language. The fifth Czech translation of the Laozi, it is based on Chen Guying’s 2009 edition, which is essentially Wang Bi’s text, with amendments based on the Mawangdui and Guodian manuscripts.

This is an unusual and extremely interesting translation within the context of the previous Czech renditions as well as those in other languages (as far as I can tell). The [End Page 993] uniqueness of this translation lies in its methodology. It is based on purely philological concerns with explicit disregard of any previous translations, traditional commentaries, or other interpretations of the text. The Laozi is taken as one of the Warring States–period texts and is read exclusively within this frame of reference. No partial tradition (such as Daoism) to which the text has traditionally been ascribed is privileged as a vantage point from which to read the Laozi. Moreover, David Sehnal primarily approaches the Laozi not as a famous philosophical text but rather as an instance of Classical Chinese. Sehnal says, “The purpose of our language analysis is not an analysis of the individual text. [It] is the modeling of the whole Classical Chinese language system through analysis of individual texts” (p. 57). The philological translation of the Laozi is presented here as actually a by-product of broader research in Classical Chinese. This unusual approach, however, results in a distinctive translation with profound implications for understanding the Laozi as philosophy.

The book consists of three parts: an introduction, the translation itself with commentary, and a dictionary of all words (lexemes) that appear in the Laozi. The introduction describes in detail Sehnal’s methodology and his approach to Classical Chinese. It is characteristic of the book that Sehnal introduces the reader primarily not to his understanding of the Laozi or Chinese philosophy but to his approach to Classical Chinese. In the introduction Sehnal describes his own method of analyzing this language, following several Russian experts in the field (especially Nikitina and Yakhontov) and Christoph Harbsmeier (Sehnal is a coeditor of Harbsmeier’s Thesaurus Linguae Sericae [TLS] project, which may be found at: Sehnal develops his own principles of analysis, based on an equal stress laid on categories of word classes and syntactic functions (Wortkategorien and Redetheile, in Gabelentz’ terminology, which Sehnal also mentions as a source of inspiration). This method of analysis is subsequently applied to the analyzed text and constitutes the most prominent asset of the book—the whole text of the Laozi is analyzed word by word in the comments to individual Laozi chapters and in the dictionary that forms the third part of the book. The dictionary is organized by characters, and each character is described in terms of the lexemes it represents and the syntactic functions in which the lexemes appear in the book. Sehnal also systematically points out some additional features of the text such as rhymes, passages that may represent shared early Chinese proverbs and sayings, and intertextual features of the text.

Besides the purely linguistic considerations, Sehnal formulates other premises that form his view and reading of the Laozi. Not surprisingly, most of them support and are consistent with his basic approach to the Laozi as a “piece of Classical Chinese.” Sehnal expects the Laozi to be “linguistically, conceptually, and ideologically consistent with other texts from the [Warring States] period,” considers “every early Chinese text a coherent ideological system,” and presumes that the text was understandable to its contemporary readers and does not contain parts that defy common logical thinking (p. 61). These premises are problematic in several ways. Above all, the coherence of both Warring States thought in general and individual texts is questionable, and...


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