Saturday, April 28, 2007

Lao Tzu's Taoteching

Dear Reader,

Heraclitus and Lao Tzu were probably contemporaries, though Lao Tzu was probably the elder. Any reader of their books is struck by the similarities in their philosophies (though closer reading shows important differences as well). How few great thinkers are so fluent with the paradoxical, gnomic, compressed wisdom that best approaches nature's own dialectical weave!

Understanding either writer requires a deep immersion in his culture, as I have written about before. Likewise, neither writer can be understood unless you begin to see the cosmos as they see it, for even from their own highly original cultures they each stood out as unique thinkers. Each is a hazard to translators and readers alike.

Which is part of why I love Red Pine's translation of Lao Tzu, Lao Tzu's Taoteching. Here is a nuanced translation that includes an obvious and essential yet all-too-rare feature: each verse is accompanied by selected commentaries from a stunning pantheon of great Chinese thinkers, including some of the greatest students of Lao Tzu's masterpiece—Confucius, Mencius, Sun Tzu, Chuang Tzu, Chang Tao-Ling, Ssu-ma Ch'ien, Han Fei, and many, many more—and even an opening quote from the Buddha to go with Lao Tzu's first verse. The commentary is extremely well chosen, and severely concise, with only a two-page spread given for each verse. Red Pine restricts the majority of his own commentary to the Introduction and Glossary; in the verses themselves, he tightly restricts his own comments to brief and vital notes on the choices he made in his translation and occasional points of clarification. The overt interpretation itself he leaves largely in the hands of the masters, whose commentary is (not surprisingly given the star power at work) enlightening.

I have Arthur Waley's classic translation The Way and Its Power, and I am eagerly looking forward to reading Ursula LeGuin's translation recommended to me by Jerry Goodnough, but reading Red Pine's version is one of those delightfully surprising experiences that reminds me there are still writers of taste at work here and there in the modern world. Within my admittedly limited experience, this is the way to read Lao Tzu in English.

Yours truly,

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