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Reviewed by:
  • Zhuangzi: The Complete Writings by Brook Ziporyn
  • Hans-Georg Moeller
Brook Ziporyn, trans., Zhuangzi: The Complete Writings. Indianapolis and Cambridge, MA: Hackett Publishing Company. 2020. xxxvii, 302 pp. US$79 (hb), US$28 (pb). ISBN 978-1-62466-868-5

The publication of this book will make it easier for me to answer the question: Which is the best translation of the Zhuangzi into English? So far, I used to say: “In my opinion, it is Brook Ziporyn’s Zhuangzi: The Essential Writings,1 but it is incomplete.” Now, I can recommend his Zhuangzi: The Complete Writings without the qualification.

Building on his earlier translation of “the essential writings,” this revised and enlarged edition not only adds the previously omitted chapters and sections, but also contains an intriguing new preface and an insightful section titled “Notes on the Translation.” The new edition still includes modified versions of the original introduction, the “Glossary of Essential Terms,” the bibliography, and the index, but the sections “Selections from Traditional Commentaries on the Inner Chapters” and “About the Commentators” have been taken out. In their stead, however, extended notes throughout the whole text point out clues taken from these commentaries.

Ziporyn’s translation combines major virtues of other commendable English translations in a unique fashion: it is as readable as Burton Watson’s,2 as spirited as Victor Mair’s,3 and as astute as A.C. Graham’s.4 It surpasses, in my view, all of these, however, in philological depth and philosophical subtlety—which is especially remarkable because Watson, Mair, and Graham are also, each in his own way, exceptionally qualified sinologists and gifted thinkers.

By “philological depth,” I do not mean to say that Ziporyn’s translation is necessarily more accurate or “correct” than others, but more (self-) critical. The philological depth of Ziporyn’s translation lies in its highly conscious treatment of the wide variety of potential readings and reconstructions of the segments that constitute the text from the level of the single character to the levels of the sentence and the extended passage. Often, on all these levels multiple interpretations and approaches are possible and can allow [End Page 311] for conflicting renderings. Given his extensive knowledge of the commentary tradition and both intra- and intertextual connections, Ziporyn is highly aware of these potentials and frequently points out (in the notes) alternative options of understanding the text. For the same reason, he translates many of the core terms in a variety of ways in different instances and depending on context.

The keyword in the Preface indicating Ziporyn’s sensitivity to the indeterminacy of the text is “choice.” More than any other translator of the Zhuangzi, it seems, Ziporyn regards translation work —rightly so, I believe—as the making of informed choices. His research method, as far as I am able to tell, essentially consists in first opening up as many choices as possible through meticulous philological study and then opting for the one that appears as the most “felicitous” (p. vii) to him. A felicitous translation choice is sinologically warranted, philosophically appropriate, and elegant in English. Readers of Ziporyn’s Zhuangzi translation can trust that the translator’s choices are almost always felicitous in these three respects. This kind of felicity is of much higher importance for a translation of a text such as the Zhuangzi than any claim to “correctness” in the sense of corresponding to any “original meaning” to which, in the unlikely case that it exists, no one has access.

By “philosophical subtlety,” I mean two related qualities of the translation. First, on a micro-level Ziporyn succeeds in avoiding over-reliance on sometimes unfortunate English standard translations of philosophical terminology. Instead, he develops a vocabulary that is both precise and accessible to readers. In this way, the philosophical arguments and narratives of the source text retain a particular smoothness in translation without having their complexity reduced. For instance, as outlined at length in the “Notes on the Translation” (pp. xxx–xxxiii), Ziporyn translates the “climactic line in Chapter 1” (p. xxx) zhi ren wu ji 至人無己 with “the Utmost Person has no definite identity” rather than with “the Utmost Person has no...


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