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Reviewed by:
  • The Book of Chuang Tzu
  • John Dye (bio)
Martin Palmer , translator, with Elizabeth Breuilly, Chang Wai Ming, and Jay Ramsay. The Book of Chuang Tzu. New York: Arkana/Penguin, 1996. xxx, 320 pp. Paperback $13.95, ISBN 0-14-019488-6.

Perhaps I should begin by saying that I wanted to come away with a favorable impression of this book. I really did. The Zhuangzi, perhaps more than any other work in the classical Chinese corpus (and despite the monumental efforts of some very noteworthy translators, among them James Legge and Burton Watson), still wants for a lucid translation and exposition that is philosophically attuned to the native version. Given the abundance and complexity of linguistic turns within the Zhuangzi (that often rely on tropes that work only within the language itself), such an English rendition may be too much to ask. This does not mean, however, that efforts to translate and elucidate the Zhuangzi will inevitably come up short. In fact, the scholarly community should encourage and embrace the efforts of those who try to bring this captivating Chinese text to a broader Western audience.

Having said that, it is with no small disappointment that I found this work wanting. It (unintentionally, one hopes) makes a mockery of that which it attempts [End Page 507] to honor, despite what certainly appears to be the noble intentions of those involved. Martin Palmer, the principal author/translator, is Director of the International Consultancy on Religion, Education and Culture and has been a student of the Chinese language for more than twenty years. His chief collaborator, Elizabeth Breuilly, "is really the main other translator … [and] knows no Chinese but she has a rigorous and vigorous understanding of English" (p. xi). Jay Ramsay, like Elizabeth Breuilly, "cannot read a word of Chinese" (p. xi). Nonetheless Palmer asserts that Ramsay "has a sense of Chinese symbolism and literature which is quite extraordinary" (p. xi). One wonders how it is that those lacking concrete training in and experience with Chinese can convincingly capture the flavor of a Chinese text—unless it is by dumb luck, and luck is not something to which we should entrust any translation effort. Of course, it is a great idea to enjoin the collaboration of a number of different voices and perspectives,especially for a project as daunting as this text (and it certainly seems in the spirit of Zhuangzi to do so). What is puzzling, however, is Palmer's implicit claim that people who lack familiarity with the Chinese language (let alone guwen) can significantly contribute to a translation. As editors and refiners of the English rendition, sure, but certainly not as translators.

Palmer cites three prior translations as serving as reference points for his own: those of Legge and Watson and Fung Yu-lan's A Taoist Classic: Chuang-Tzu. With such esteemed scholars at his disposal, it is surprising that Palmer so unfortunately misrepresents the text (not to mention contradicts himself) on numerous occasions in the introduction. Palmer proffers too many trite, throwaway phrases to be worth mentioning here, but one example should serve to illustrate the point: "Taoism is the search for the Tao, the Way of Nature which, if you could become part of it, would take you to the edge of reality and beyond" (p. xiii). The phrase "the edge of reality and beyond" (which is repeated on p. xx) is never explained, nor are we provided with any citations from the text to indicate whence Palmer might have deduced it. Palmer compares the Zhuangzi to "the writings of Kung Fu Tzu" (Confucius) (pp. xx-xxi), apparently unaware that the Analects was not authored by the text's central figure.

As for contradiction, in the midst of his introduction Palmer claims that "you will find no great theories set out in this Introduction as to what Chuang Tzu means" (p. xx), but he has just provided us with one such theory (albeit an erroneous one): "if there is one constant theme in the book, it is that logic is nonsense and that eclecticism is all" (p. xx). Any serious scholar of the Zhuangzi is well aware that the author was a powerful...


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