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Newsletter - July 2021

“Translations” versus “interpretations”: a controversy?


If I told you there was a controversy about translations versus interpretations of the Tao Te Ching, your first thought might be: Really? The short answer is, yes. Your second thought might be: Why? That’s what we’ll explore in this newsletter. Your third thought might be: Does it matter? This is perhaps the best question of all. So, we’ll save that for the end.


The Tao Te Ching is written in Classical Chinese. If you can read this, the good news is you don’t need a translation. The bad news is that most of us can’t read Classical Chinese. So, what are we going to read?


Here’s the controversy in a nutshell. The best “translation” will be something that scholars and academics agree to be a faithful representation of the Chinese text in some language other than Chinese. The question is, does this work for the readers of the second language? In other words, does the intended meaning of the original text come across? And the answer is, maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t.


On the other hand, the best “interpretation” will take into account where the readers in the second language are coming from, and will speak to them in words that work for them. The question is: Is this the same thing as the best translation? And the answer is, most likely not. That’s the problem.


Now you might say, this could be true of any translation of any text from one language into another. And you’d be correct. But it’s particularly true in the case of the Tao Te Ching for at least two interesting reasons.


First, as the scholar Holmes Welch notes, Classical Chinese “has no active or passive, no singular or plural, no case, no person, no tense, no mood.” What’s more, there are no punctuation marks, which makes it difficult to determine where one sentence ends and the next begins. Insert a comma in the translated version, or move a period, and you can profoundly affect the meaning of many passages. Needless to say, features like this do not make the translator’s job an easy one. (By the way, also interesting is that Classical Chinese is only a written language, not a spoken one.)


Second, Classical Chinese relies heavily on allusions to a body of knowledge and literary works which – typically – would be shared by the author and the reader. The educated Chinese reader would most likely have memorized many of these works in school, and so would know what the author was alluding to. This means that translating Classical Chinese text too literally into another language doesn’t work. The reader most likely won’t recognize the allusions and the context, which means the author’s intended meaning won’t come across – at least, not clearly.


An image can provide a good example of this problem. Think of a snowy countryside scene with shepherds watching over their flocks by night with a bright star above in the sky. What does that mean to you? Chances are it means more to you than just a snowy countryside scene. Then ask yourself why. There’s the problem in a nutshell.


In short, there’s more to the meaning than the words on the page.


 “Interpretations” solve this problem by using words that work for readers who do not share a common body of knowledge with the original author. This means, of course, interpretations will stray from literal translations to some extent. The question is, how much straying will they do? Some interpretations stay close to the original. Others stray further. There are upsides and downsides to this. The upside is that the meaning may be more easily grasped. The downside is that the translator, or “interpreter,” will have introduced at least some content that was not in the original. And the reader will most likely be unable to tell the difference.


So, where does that leave us?


Some Taoism scholars are highly critical of interpretations; examples include Eugene Eoyang and Russell Kirkland. Others say interpretations don’t claim to be scholarly and meet a real spiritual need in the West; examples include Michael LaFargue and Jonathan Herman. You can read what they say and decide for yourself. However, the question I’d like to end on is the one I mentioned at the start: Does it matter?


For me, it’s all about the author’s intended meaning. As a reader, my key question is: Do I “get it”? If the answer is no, then it doesn’t matter whether it’s a high-quality scholarly translation or anything else – I still don’t “get it.” In my opinion, words are just a means for getting ideas out of one person’s head (the author’s) and into another person’s head (the reader’s). Ideally, this works with as little being lost in the translation – as it were – as possible. So, for me, the best words are the ones that succeed in getting Lao Tzu’s ideas out of his head and into mine.


The Tao Te Ching has been translated over 250 times and there are many interpretations and versions out there. My personal favorite is the 1988 version by Stephen Mitchell (and he is careful to call it a “version” and not a “translation”). But there are many others.


The major English translations are by John Chalmers, a Scottish Protestant missionary (1868); James Legge, another Scottish missionary and scholar (1891); Lin Yutang, Chinese linguist (1948); Din Cheuk Lau, a sinologist (1963); and Gia-Fu Feng, a Taoist teacher, and his wife Jane English (1972). As for interpretations, there are too many to mention. There are poetic versions, novelized versions, “popularized” versions, and personal reflections.

Why do I like the Stephen Mitchell version? All I can say is that his words just seem to resonate best with me. I agree with religion scholar Huston Smith who said: “Mitchell’s rendition of the Tao Te Ching comes as close to being definitive for our time as any I can imagine. It embodies the virtues its translator credits to the Chinese original: a gemlike lucidity that is radiant with humor, grace, large-heartedness, and deep wisdom.” I feel this is very true.

Have you come across different versions of the Tao Te Ching? Do you have a personal favorite? Do you think it matters how close a version is to the original?

If you have any thoughts you’d like to share, you can get in touch with me by:


Thanks for reading. Feel free to share this newsletter.



 (In Harmony with the Tao: A Guided Journey into the Tao Te Ching is available from your nearest independent bookstore, from White Cloud Press, from, or from

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