In 1998, Shambhala Publications published a translation of the Tao Te Ching (in pinyin: Daodejing and Dao De Jing) by Ursula Le Guin. The Dao De Jing was written in Classical Chinese, so it takes much more than just "knowing Chinese" to undertake a translation task like this.

According to the publisher, Le Guin had studied the Dao De Jing for more than forty years and

She has consulted the literal translations and worked with Chinese scholars to develop a version that lets the ancient text speak in a fresh way to modern people, while remaining faithful to the poetic beauty of the work. Avoiding scholarly interpretations and esoteric Taoist insights, she has revealed the Tao Te Ching's immediate relevance and power, its depth and refreshing humor, in a way that shows better than ever before why it has been so much loved for more than 2,500 years.

(You can find the same blurb on the website of PenguinRandomHouse, which distributes Shambhala's books.)

The above description of the translation process is rather vague, so I would like to know if any further details are available, such as:

  • Which "literal translations" did Le Guin consult?
  • Which scholars did she work with?
  • What kind of interaction did she have with those scholars? (E.g. did she just ask questions about specific passages or did she also ask them to review passages that she had translated?)
  • How long did the process take?
  • Huh, I always thought esoteric Taoist insights were the point. – MissMonicaE May 18 '18 at 15:02
  • @MissMonicaE Blame the blurb writers ;-) – Tsundoku May 18 '18 at 15:59

Le Guin collaborated with James P. Seaton, professor emeritus of Chinese at UNC-Chapel Hill, who has translated other classical Chinese works (e.g. The Wine of Endless Life: Taoist Drinking Songs from the Yuan Dynasty.)

She worked on her version for forty years, starting with Paul Carus' 1898 edition which listed Chinese characters side by side with English words. She used that as a sort of Rosetta Stone to correlate with other editions and translations, working slowly over the years.

But Le Guin was adamant about not calling this book a translation. She is very familiar with that art, holding an undergraduate degree in Renaissance French and Italian Literature (from Harvard/Radcliffe) and a masters in French (from Columbia). She translated numerous works, particularly from Spanish to English.

Le Guin told interviewer Hélène Escudié in 2002:

I don't really call it a translation because I don't know Chinese. It is a version built up from all the other English versions, and a couple of French ones, and the Chinese word for word translation, and a lot of help from my collaborator who does know Chinese, ancient Chinese."

  • Thanks for the answer! Just wondering: what is your source for the info about Le Guin and Seaton? Is it the same book that you've linked to, or somewhere else? – Rand al'Thor Sep 3 '19 at 8:21
  • Many sources; Le Guin's DDJ was the subject of much controversy and polemic, especially in the early 2000s. First sources is Le Guin's book itself, of course. – Mark Saltveit Sep 4 '19 at 3:38
  • 1
    oops . Le Guin's book itself, of course, esp. the notes on her methods (pp. 119-126 or so). - Goldin, Paul, "Those Who Don’t Know Speak" - free on JSTOR = ch. 8 of "After Confucius: Studies in Early Chinese Philosophy " (2005) - Brain Pickings, "A Small Dark Light" - Discussion at Warp, Weft & Way - warpweftandway.com/popular-daoism - Reid, Suzanne Elizabeth (1997). Presenting Ursula Le Guin, p. 5 - Spivack, Charlotte (1984). Ursula K. Le Guin, p. 3 – Mark Saltveit Sep 4 '19 at 4:26

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