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Saturday, May 26, 2012

I am pretty into ancient literature, exp. oriental ancient literature. So, I am doing a bit of personal researches on the book of Tao and other ancient masterpieces, and being totally fascinated.

One of the most interesting things about the Dao-de-jing (known as the Tao-teh-ching because of the outdated but still common Wade-Gilles transliteration) is that the translations into western languages are flawed by basics misunderstandings about the ancient Chinese language; more or less, serious western studies of the Chinese language started 100 years ago, and they were sort of amateur-like for many years.

Long story short, there's a wealth of ancient oriental literature waiting to be discovered anew if you just care to scratch the surface a bit, and see what's behind; and even one of the most studied books of all the times, the Dao-de-jing, makes no exception.
For instance, Giles translation of the Art of War was seriously taking the number 千 "1000" as a literal, and in its commentary, Giles is indicating that Sun Tsu had precisely calculated the expenses for a lengthy campaign, indicating that "the expenditure at home and at the front, including entertainment of guests, small items such as glue and paint, and sums spent on chariots and armor, will reach the total of a thousand ounces of silver per day". We know now that the "round figures" without specifiers, and especially the number 1000, had a general meaning of "thousands", or even more indefinitely, "a lot". And that's still going on; for instance, it's common to see the chapter about the Japanese queen Himiko in chronicles translated more or less as "in her palace she has one thousand of female servants and just one male servant", while the meaning of the passage should read actually as "she's got a lot of female servants compared to man servants".

Other than that, trying to stay as loyal as possible to the original text, both in terms of meaning and in terms of expressiveness, is a relatively new trend in the translation efforts. Up to late 60's, translations tried to be appealing to the target public more than loyal to the original. The genuine interest for the feelings and culture of remote populations, and also the instruments to understand and sympathize with them, has been growing after the world became smaller.

Even the commentary of ancient works in oriental literature were somewhat less precise than what we are accustomed to in the western world 'till recent times. Massive archaeological surveys were conducted by Chinese and Japanese scientist only recently, and so was study for ancient literature. While the work of Chinese scholars was less intermittent than those of Japanese ones, "preservation" of ancient literature was always less important than "reinterpretation" under the current dominant culture. In Europe, we have a long history of "borrowings" from former cultures; Latins were taught into culture by Etruscans, and then learned from Greeks always praising the Greek language as superior for poetry and emotions; then medieval monks, despite their religious belief, copied and at times translated the ancient Latin and Greek works and regarded them as something nearly as divine as their own religion. The cult for the ancient things was strong here, while eastern civilizations, possibly much more pragmatically, were less incline to preserve the things of the past "as is". This different approach to the works of the ancient is possibly also because of the quantum leaps that western civilization witnessed, while eastern civilizations was more constant in their development. A modern Chinese can read through texts of 2000 years ago and more and have a fair comprehension of the text, while the Greek, Latin, ancient European languages (as various Vulgar Italian speeches, ancient Saxon, Gaelic etc.) and modern languages are vastly incompatible.

But this is also causing errors and misinterpretations that only modern Eastern language scholars have been recently able to dispel. Even Chinese commentaries to the book of Tao, even relatively ancient ones, are visibly flawed by biases due to words and expressions changing their main meaning through time.

And finally, modern archaeology is discovering new versions of the Dao-de-ching, predating available copies by centuries. Two copies dated around 100 b.c. was found in the Tombs of King Ma in 1973, and one dated before 300 b.c., a bit less complete but confirming the differences between the formerly known text and the new findings, was found in Guodang in 1993. In other words, one of the most famous and profound works of literature of all times has come to us in all its deep and original meaning no more than 20 years ago! -- What an exciting time to be alive!

Despite all this evidence leading me to think that the available widespread translations and commentaries of the Book of Tao were grossly mislead, it was strange to me that my understanding of the text was so different from the currently accepted and available translations; until I stumbled on this video of Paul Yinzhe, a Taoism scholar; of course, the Book of Tao is pretty important to Taoists, so I was impressed by the fact that Yinzhe notices and underlines what I did notice too.

Despite the fact that the first verse of the Book came to us as " 道可道也,非常道也", usually translated as "The way that can be said <<the way>>, is not a normal way", the Mawang Dui strips have the character 恆 heng in place of 常 chang. This ancient and little known character 恆 heng, means "unchanging, permanent", so the meaning becomes "The way that can be said <<the way>>, is not an unchanging way". But Yinzhe goes a step further and that's where I found our reasoning incredibly similar. To a direct question of the interviewer, he replies that the term "道可道", very probably means "the road that can be traveled on".

In fact, this term seems to be cryptic for Chinese scholars as well, and was probably already misty when the first commentaries of the Tao appeared, around 700-1000 A.D. (the Book is believed to be originated around 100 years before Confucius, so before 500 B.C.).

The precise sensation I received from what I am studying about ancient Chinese texts is that the writing style was something like a "written code", a "direct usage" of the ideograms that had not a precise correspondence with the oral language, not even that of the time. You can see it nowadays in the newspaper headings. You're likely to read something like "3 Killed in blast". It's understandable by a contemporary reader, but you won't talk like that. I have noticed something similar reading Japanese online newspapers (and not just the title; usually, the whole article). I think that ancient Chinese texts were written like that, using an horizontal language register that just conveyed the essential concepts.

Yet, one thing that comes evident by comparing ancient texts and modern Chinese is that the ancient Chinese was much more nominal than today. Many ancient languages put emphasis on nouns rather than on verbs, for instance a Druid would have said "I do the going" rather than "I go". Using the potential 可 ke, "might -- could possibly", right in front of a noun, like 道 dao, way, without the word used to indicate the state of being, 是 shi being anywhere in sight, i think that way becomes somewhat an action; there's not an adequate word in English, but in Italian we have an action word "instradare" (to... way...) built out of "strada" (way), so the thing comes relatively natural to me.

To the question "but many think that dao-ke-dao means the way one can say (about)", Yinzhe replies following this same line of thought, using the pivotal potential particle as a fulcrum on which to build the sentence, indicating that when 可 ke is applied to 名 mei, "noun", then the action you can think out of it is "to name", but in the case of 道 dao, we should think of an action of getting something on the road, to follow a road, or similar.

So we have a Tao master available to review and improve millennia of studies by accepting the newly discovered 非恆 fei-heng, "non-immutable" as making more sense than the traditional 非常 fei-chang, "exceptional", and concluding that the second "way" in 道可道 is to be intended as an action, and there's no point in accepting the traditional interpretation of "a way that can be said so".

I got two out of two, and what struck me the most, it seems I didn't got them by chance, but because my line of thought seems correct. Encouraged by this, despite my very limited knowledge of the Chinese language, I am trying a translation of the first chapter of the Book of Tao.

Comments are welcome.

Note: the original text didn't have breaks as full-stops or comma. They are inferred by the structure of the sentence and by special syllables used as pause or emphasis marker in ancient Chinese, as the 也 - ye, today just a conjunction like "and", but formerly used to mark a stand-alone statement. So, I am removing commas and full-stops usually found in transliterations and digitized versions. Also, I am laying down a more literal translation, something that "sounds" like it should have sounded to the ears of an ancient Chinese, like in the example of the newspaper heading, to give the reader the possibility of a more direct deeper understanding.

道可道也 非恆道也
[The ways that can be trodden. Not immutable ways]
You can follow ways even if they're not drawn in advance(*).
Puoi viaggiare anche se la via è mutevole.

名可名也 非恆名也
[The nouns that can be named. Not immutable nouns]
You can call things by name, even when the name will change.
Puoi chiamare per nome le cose, pur se i nomi cambieranno.

無名萬物之始也 有名萬物之母也
[Foundation of the nameless things of the Creation. Mother of the named things of the Creation]
There's a beginning for everything, a mother of all things, be them named or not.
Vi è un inizio di tutto, una madre per tutte le cose siano esse senza nome o no.

故恆無欲也 以觀其妙
[Things unchanged since long without the will to stay so, see their wonders]
Now you'll see the wonders of the things unchanged since ancient times, despite their lack of will to stay so.
Ora vedrai le meraviglie di quanto, pur ignaro, esiste da tempi remoti,

恆有欲也 以觀其所噭
[Things unchanged (but) willfully, see their place <exclamation -- hurrah>]
Now you'll see where the things that strive to stay unchanged belong to!
Ora vedrai qual'è il posto per le cose che cercano di restare immutate!

兩者同出 異名同謂
[Both same place-where-they-come-from, different names same meaning]
They both come both from the same place, with different names but with the same meaning.
Hanno entrambe la stessa origine, con nomi differenti ma con lo stesso significato.

玄之又玄 眾妙之門
[Mystery of more mysteries, gate of wonders]
(this will be) a pathway to the wonders beyond the twisted(**) mysteries.
(sarà) la porta alle meraviglie che giacciono oltre il nodo dei misteri.

(*) You can see the translation of the two first sentences seems very liberal; however, once properly decoded from the "newspaper heading" style and the way to introduce the topic of the sentence of ancient Chinese, this really seems the most adequate meaning; also, considering the slightly subjunctive meaning of 也 ye, that would finally lead it to become a proper "and yet", it really seems that Lao Tze said something like, "to be a road, well, it's a road, and yet it's not like that was fixed in advance...".

(**) Regarding to this last sentence, the 玄 xuan ideogram means a mysterious thing, but it's etymologically deriving from the pictograph of a rope or twisted wire hanging on the ceiling. It got the modern meaning of "black" and "mysterious", from its ancient meaning of complex and hard to explicate, as a rope of twisted threads strong enough to hang things to the ceiling. The expression "玄之又玄" could be also be literally read complexities of more complexities, but it's actually a well-formed idiomatic used in ancient Chinese, (x of more x), and it seems to have a meaning and usage pattern similar to "bad to worse" or "add insult to injury"; it indicates a situation where X is added to more X to get things even more X (not necessarily, but usually to a bad outcome). I used the word "twisted" to describe this situation (and "nodo" in the Italian translation) because the visual impact of the rope in the ideogram plus the actual idiomatic meaning of "more and more of" resonate very well in this word.


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