Sunday, September 13, 2009

Tao Books: Dao De Jing: A Philosophical Translation

Today's book review is for Dao De Jing: A Philosophical Translation by Roger T. Ames and David L. Hall. This work is different than the previous books reviewed. While Diane Dreher and Ursula LeGuin are poetic, Raymond Smullyan is whimsical, John Lash is straightforward and easy to read, and Alan Watts is...well...Alan Watts, this book is more scholarly in approach.

It offers a very strong introduction which speaks to the historical context of the early "Taoist" writers as well as providing a very clear analysis of the difficulties in transforming Chinese into English. Each chapter is presented in English alongside the written Chinese. A commentary accompanies each verse.

Here's a review from Publisher's Weekly via
The authors offer two reasons for a new English version of the classic Chinese Daodejing, better known as the Tao te ching. First, the translators have the benefit of recent archeological finds of earlier versions of the text, particularly a portion discovered only in 1993, "The Great One Gives Birth to the Waters," included in an appendix. Second, as philosophers-Ames is a University of Hawai'i professor of Chinese philosophy and editor of the journal Philosophy East & West, and the late Hall was professor of philosophy at the University of Texas, El Paso-the translators wish to correct previous translations that, in their view, distorted the text by either "Christianizing" it or "locating it within a poetical-mystical-occult worldview." In contrast, Ames and Hall take a secular, pragmatist view indebted to Whitehead, Wittgenstein, James and Dewey. Their view is laid out through historical and philosophical introductions, a chatty glossary, an elegant and "self-consciously interpretive" translation and a chapter-by-chapter commentary. Any textual language that might seem to smack of God or a metaphysics of essences is reinterpreted to lose such trappings. Instead, Ames and Hall insist that the Daodejing aims to "prescribe a regimen of self-cultivation that will enable one to optimize one's experience in the world" and that its title should best be translated as Making This Life Significant. These claims are not completely persuasive: too often it seems that they are replacing one distorting set of Western spectacles with another. But their unconventional renderings -- for example, translating dao not as the "way" but as "way-making"-- provoke the reader to see the text with fresh eyes. This is a valuable find for anyone who wants to reengage a foundational work.
In their own words, here's a brief snippet which discusses the underlying difference between Taoism and other belief systems.
The compilers of the Daodejing seek rather explicitly to develop a contrast between the glimpses of insight this text strives to impart, and the substance of other philosophical doctrines. Many if not most doctrines evolve with their antecedents in an elaborate genealogy of values and ideas. These philosophical doctrines are often hierarchically structured by precepts and governing principles, and they may well require an extended course of study for their mastery and transmission. The precepts that form these "doctrines" are professionalized by their learned "doctors," and within their marble academies these erudites -- for appropriate status and recompense -- are only to glad to amaze the hoi poloi with the flashing dexterity of their philosophic thrusts and parries.
As you've probably noted, I've quoted from this book several times throughout the series on the TTC. Even when I don't cite it directly, I always read their commentary of the verse I'm working on. There's no question that they come at these verses differently than many of the others authors.

I will grant straight off that this book is not for everyone. As I stated at the outset, it's more scholarly, in nature, and not everyone enjoys and finds resonance with this sort of approach. That said, if you are the type of person who likes that style, then I highly recommend this book. Soon I will need to return this copy to the library, but it's going on my "books to purchase in the future" list!


  1. This is one of my favorite translations as well. Ames and Hall brings first class scholarship and understanding to the subject.

    What I don't care for are "versions" of the Dao De Jing that aren't translations, but recasts of other people's translations.

    One of my goals in learning Japanese is to read the Dao De Jin. Japanese isn't Chinese, but they use many of the same characters and China has had a tremendous influence on Japan's culture. Given my circumstances, Japanese is much more practical for me to learn than Chinese.

  2. You know, I'm not picky. There are several renditions that I like. The way I look at it is that there are loads of folks who can get me to think about concepts in different ways. So, while I do like to refer to strict translations, I have no qualms whatsoever with also utilizing "versions".


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