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Reviewed by:
  • Zhuangzi: The Complete Writings by Brook Ziporyn
  • David McCraw (bio)
Brook Ziporyn. Zhuangzi: The Complete Writings. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2020. xxxvii, 302 pp. Hardcover $79.00. Paperback $28.00, isbn 978-1-62466-868-5.

The Zhuangzi has done well by English-language translators. For example, every two decades, another Sinologist has given it a new life. In the sixties, Burton Watson took our understanding to new heights. In 1981, A. C. Graham produced an (incomplete) effort marked by rigorous fidelity, philological precision, and philosophical sophistication.

In the Oughts, Victor Mair (complete) and Brook Ziporyn (partial) added their productions. Now, Ziporyn has essayed a complete (and much revised) version, which deserves praise and close attention.1

Watson's streamlined modernist prose, one-part Waley, one-part Hemingwayesque vernacular, offered the optimal vehicle for conveying the Zhuangzi. Thus, Watson found a powerful resonance between the Zhuangzi and the inclinations of postwar Beat- and Zen-influenced freedom-seeking American culture. Graham's version, while not usually so smoothly elegant, remains unrivaled for honest and high-resolution insight into the Chinese original. So, what's left for Ziporyn to contribute? First, Ziporyn's philosophical acumen, while not quite a match for Graham's incisive authority, still runs a strong second. Readers can confirm this simply by reading Ziporyn's introductory "Zhuangzi as Philosopher" (Ziporyn ix, xxi–xxviii). Sometimes, Ziporyn can convey his insights with superb English equivalents. In Zhuangzi ii's difficult 滑疑之耀,聖人之所也 … 此之謂以明, Ziporyn 16 comes up with "the Radiance of Drift and Doubt is the sage's only map." This nearly rivals Watson 42: "The torch of chaos and doubt—this is what the sage steers by." Moreover, Ziporyn neatly conveys the Zhuangzian suggestion that in our darkened world, with our "way" obscured by all sorts of fixations and words (compare 道隱於小 成,言隱於榮華), we find our way only by the dimmest and most doubtful of illumination. As the Zhuangzi went on to say, only this gives us a way to "shed light" 以明. Elsewhere, Ziporyn capitalizes on the spirit of his age to outdo his predecessors. At Zhuangzi i 神人, Ziporyn 6's "spiritlike persons" adds a little woke sensibility to smooth the rendition; note that the original Chn specified neither number or gender. Ziporyn far outdoes the clumsy Watson "Holy Man" (holy cow), Mair "spirit man," and Graham "daemonic man." Ziporyn also pays close attention to people's names, often rendering them with brio and invention. Consider his (Zhuangzi xxxii, Ziporyn 260) Slowpoke, or the inspired punning Jamb (Zhuangzi xxv, Ziporyn 202)! Elsewhere, when faced with a mindboggling enumeration of obscure old demons (Zhuangzi xix, Ziporyn 153), he comes up with "Tufties," "Antfrogs," and so on.2 Ziporyn also makes [End Page 247] frequent and sometimes adroit use of the "double translation" technique (see "Introduction," xxxiv–xxxv). A characteristic example exploits a famously polysemous Chinese graph (Zhuangzi xiii, Ziporyn 30):

與人和者,謂之人: Harmonizing with humanity produces the music, the joy, of humanity.

Here, arguably at least implies both senses; compare the older English "glee." Though one might balk at recommending equivocation as solution for translation headaches, what text better rewards pluralist approaches than the Zhuangzi, which so prominently recommends "walk both ways at once" 兩行?

An awful asymmetry attends translation reviews. You can only say "this works" a few times before readers begin to nod. But "this doesn't"—for whatever the variety of potential reasons—needs fuller accounting, both to warn readers and to inform authorial revision. After all, translations have a long commercial life. So, we shall illustrate problems at length, though they occupy a small percentage of Ziporyn's text.

Above all, readers want to beware translations that, while plausible in English, import questionable assumptions into old Chinese texts. Case in point:

若夫藏天下於天下而不得所遯,是恆物之大情也. Ziporyn tries

"hide the world in the world, so that there is nowhere for it to escape to, then it has the vast realness of a thing eternal."

(Zhuangzi vi, Ziporyn 56)

The Chinese text did not wax metaphysical about "reality," nor less did it invoke "eternality." You would better keep to a more modest and faithful understanding of the last phrase, such as "the grand inclinations that keep things on a relatively constant keel." Of course, none of the major contenders...