Sunday, December 27, 2009

Gibberish, Part One Redux (Word Choice)

Dear Reader,

Several different problems make translation hard. Word choice for example:

A word in the original language rarely means exactly the same things as any one word in the new language, so the translator has to pick a translated word that only means part of what the original meant, or means extra things the original didn't mean. Exact matches occur less often than most people think, and less often than even the translators themselves think.

For example, Red Pine's translation of the first half of chapter 81 is this:

True words aren't beautiful
beautiful words aren't true
the good aren't eloquent
the eloquent aren't good
the wise aren't learned
the learned aren't wise.

but the usual translation of the middle two lines is more like this (courtesy of Robert G. Henricks):

A good man does not argue;
He who argues is not a good man.

That's different! And Henricks is right: this is closer to the usual reading. Here are a few others for comparison:

J. Legge translates this as:

Those who are skilled (in the Tao) do not dispute (about it);
the disputatious are not skilled in it.

Frederic H. Balfour's translation is:

The virtuous do not bandy arguments.
Those who bandy arguments are not virtuous.

Stephen Mitchell suggests:

Wise men don't need to prove their point;
men who need to prove their point aren't wise.

And Aleister Crowley's take is:

Those who know do not argue;
the argumentative are without knowledge.

To argue effectively we have to be persuasive, and to persuade it helps to be eloquent, but given just the word eloquent we wouldn't understand it to mean argumentative, even though given the rest of chapter 81 that is almost certainly closer to what the author meant than eloquent. Red Pine's book is an excellent resource for studying the Daodejing for many reasons (including his translation), but in this specific case he probably chose a word that scans beautifully and reveals nuance but obscures the text's primary meaning.

This problem is not specific to Red Pine. Any translation of the Daodejing has this problem in multiple places, because for difficult-to-translate words there is no right choice. To understand the original text, we have to read it in the original language or at least read multiple translations, preferably including some that identify and discuss difficult words and phrases.

Now for the kicker: there are worse problems with translation than word choice. More next time.

Yours truly,