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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?
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  • 1
    Huh, I always thought esoteric Taoist insights were the point. May 18 '18 at 15:02
  • @MissMonicaE Blame the blurb writers ;-)
    – Tsundoku
    May 18 '18 at 15:59
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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."

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  • 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. 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 Sep 4 '19 at 4:26
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How Did She Write It?

The book itself contains a well-supplied appendix, and among those items, you'll find a section, "Concerning This Version," which reads...

This is a rendition, not a translation. I do not know any Chinese. I could approach the text at all only because Paul Carus, in his 1898 translation of the Tao Te Ching, printed the Chinese text with each character followed by a transliteration and a translation. My gratitude to him is unending.

To have the text thus made accessible was not only to have a Rosetta Stone for the book itself, but also to have a touchstone for comparing other English translations one with another. If I could focus on which word the translators were interpreting, I could begin to understand why they made the choice they did. I could compare various interpretations and see why they varied so tremendously; could see how much explanation, sometimes how much bias, was included in the translation; could discover for myself that several English meanings might lead me back to the same Chinese word. And, finally, for all my ignorance of the language, I could gain an intuition of the style, the gait and cadence, of the original, necessary to my ear and conscience if I was to try to reproduce it in English.

Without the access to the text that the Carus edition gave me, I would have been defeated by the differences among the translations, and could never have thought of following them as guides towards a version of my own. As it was, working from Carus’s text, I learned how to let them lead me into it, always using their knowledge, their scholarship, their decisions, as my light in darkness.

When you try to follow the Way, even if you wander off it all the time, good things happen though you do not deserve them. My work on the Tao Te Ching was very wandering indeed. I started in my twenties with a few chapters.

Every decade or so I’d do another bit, and tell myself I’d sit down and really get to it, some day. The undeserved good thing that happened was that a true and genuine scholar of ancient Chinese and of Lao Tzu, Dr. J. P. Seaton of the University of North Carolina, saw some of my versions of bits of the Tao Te Ching (scurvily quoted without attribution by myself). He reprinted them with honor, and asked me for more. I do not think he knew what he was getting into.

Of his invaluable teaching, his encouragement, his generosity, I can say only what Lao Tzu says at the end of the book:

Wise souls don’t hoard; the more they do for others the more they have, the more they give the richer they are.

Source: RevoltLib.com ~ Tao Teh Ching, by Lao Tzu, Translated by Ursula K. Le Guin -> Notes, Concerning This Version

Why Did She Write It?

If you want to know more about the personal impression the Tao Teh Ching made on Ursula, take a look at the Introduction of the same work, where you can find a number of the same personal reflections as in the note above...

The Tao Te Ching was probably written about twenty-five hundred years ago, perhaps by a man called Lao Tzu, who may have lived at about the same time as Confucius. Nothing about it is certain except that it’s Chinese, and very old, and speaks to people everywhere as if it had been written yesterday.

The first Tao Te Ching I ever saw was the Paul Carus edition of 1898, bound in yellow cloth stamped with blue and red Chinese designs and characters. It was a venerable object of mystery, which I soon investigated, and found more fascinating inside than out. The book was my father’s; he read in it often. Once I saw him making notes from it and asked what he was doing.

He said he was marking which chapters he’d like to have read at his funeral.

We did read those chapters at his memorial service.

I have the book, now ninety-eight years old and further ornamented with red binding-tape to hold the back on, and have marked which chapters I’d like to have read at my funeral. In the Notes, I explain why I was so lucky to discover Lao Tzu in that particular edition. Here I will only say that I was lucky to discover him so young, so that I could live with his book my whole life long.

I also discuss other aspects of my version in the Notes—the how of it. Here I want to state very briefly the why of it.

The Tao Te Ching is partly in prose, partly in verse; but as we define poetry now, not by rhyme and meter but as a patterned intensity of language, the whole thing is poetry. I wanted to catch that poetry, its terse, strange beauty. Most translations have caught meanings in their net, but prosily, letting the beauty slip through. And in poetry, beauty is no ornament; it is the meaning. It is the truth. We have that on good authority.

Scholarly translations of the Tao Te Ching as a manual for rulers use a vocabulary that emphasizes the uniqueness of the Taoist “sage,” his masculinity, his authority. This language is perpetuated, and degraded, in most popular versions. I wanted a Book of the Way accessible to a present-day, unwise, unpowerful, and perhaps unmale reader, not seeking esoteric secrets, but listening for a voice that speaks to the soul. I would like that reader to see why people have loved the book for twenty-five hundred years.

It is the most lovable of all the great religious texts, funny, keen, kind, modest, indestructibly outrageous, and inexhaustibly refreshing. Of all the deep springs, this is the purest water. To me, it is also the deepest spring.

—Ursula K. Le Guin

Source: RevoltLib.com ~ Tao Teh Ching, by Lao Tzu, Translated by Ursula K. Le Guin -> Introduction

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