In The Lathe of Heaven (1971) Ursula Le Guin uses an epigraph before the start of each chapter. The author most frequently quoted in these epigraphs is the Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi or Chuang Tzu. For example, the first epigraph uses the following words:

Confucius and you are both dreams, and I who say you are dreams am a dream myself. This is a paradox. Tomorrow a wise man may explain it; that tomorrow will not be for ten thousand generations.

The epigraph to the third chapter gave the novel its title:

Those whom heaven helps we call the sons of heaven. They do not learn this by learning. They do not work it by working. They do not reason it by using reason. To let understanding stop at what cannot be understood is a high attainment. Those who cannot do it will be destroyed on the lathe of heaven.

Other Zhuangzi quotes are used for the epigraphs for chapters 2, 9 and 11.

An anonymous author on Shmoop claims that Le Guin used a terrible Zhuangzi translation, since China didn't even have lathes when Zhuangzi supposedly wrote the work attributed to him. I'm curious to know who wrote the translation Le Guin used in the epigraphs.

  • In the Wikipedia article on lathes, it says that lathes were used in Greece as far back as the 13th or 14th century BC, and that the Chinese used them to sharpen tools and weapons in the Warring States period (ca. 450-220 BC). The Zhuangzi dates from the late Warring States period. (Of course, this doesn't prove that it's not a terrible translation.)
    – Peter Shor
    Dec 25, 2018 at 0:20

1 Answer 1


After some more searching I found Wikiquote's Zhuangzi page, which points out that the epigraph to chapter three is based upon James Legge's 1891 translation, where the passage (in Chuang Zu XXIII.7) reads as follows:

Those whom Heaven helps we call the Sons of Heaven. Those who would by learning attain to this seek for what they cannot learn. Those who would by effort attain to this, attempt what effort can never effect. Those who aim by reasoning to reach it reason where reasoning has no place. To know to stop where they cannot arrive by means of knowledge is the highest attainment. Those who cannot do this will be destroyed on the lathe of Heaven.

For comparison, here is Burton Watson's translation:

Those whom men come to lodge with may be called the people of Heaven; those whom Heaven aids may be called the sons of Heaven. Learning means learning what cannot be learned; practicing means practicing what cannot be practiced; discriminating means discriminating what cannot be discriminated. Understanding that rests in what it cannot understand is the finest.9 If you do not attain this goal, then Heaven the Equalizer will destroy you.

However, the epigraph to chapter 1 reads differently in Legge's translation (Chuang Zu II.11):

Bigoted was that Khiu ! He and you are both dreaming. I who say that you are dreaming am dreaming myself. These words seem very strange; but if after ten thousand ages we once meet with a great sage who knows how to explain them, it will be as if we met him (unexpectedly) some morning or evening.

Le Guin's quote is closer to Burton Watson's translation but still different (e.g. "paradox" versus "Supreme Swindle"):

Confucius and you are both dreaming! And when I say you are dreaming, I am dreaming, too. Words like these will be labeled the Supreme Swindle. Yet, after ten thousand generations, a great sage may appear who will know their meaning, and it will still be as though he appeared with astonishing speed.

The epigraph to chapter 9 in The Lathe of Heaven goes as follows:

Those who dream of feasting wake to lamendation.

(I am quoting the edition published Gollancz/Orion in the SF Masterworks series. I don't know whether the typo "lamendation" was also in the original version.)

In Legge's translation (Chuang Zu II.11), something similar can be found in the following passage:

Those who dream of (the pleasures of) drinking may in the morning wail and weep; those who dream of wailing and weeping may in the morning be going out to hunt.

Burton Watson translates the same passage as:

He who dreams of drinking wine may weep when morning comes; he who dreams of weeping may in the morning go off to hunt.

The epigraph to chapter 11 in The Lathe of Heaven goes as follows:

Starlight asked Non-Entity, 'Master, do you exist? or do you not exist?' He got no answer to his question, however ...

In James Legge's translation, this passage reads

Starlight [the points of light all over the sky] asked Non-entity, saying, 'Master, do you exist? Or Don't you exist?' He got no answer to his question, however, (...)

Burton Watson's version:

Bright Dazzlement asked Non-Existence, "Sir, do you exist or do you not exist?" Unable to obtain any answer, (...)

Of course, it is possible that Le Guin consulted several other translations, but I haven't been able to identify them yet.

  • Heaven the Equalizer will destroy you? How is that any better a translation than the lathe of Heaven? I think it's possible that nobody really knows what the words meant.
    – Peter Shor
    Dec 26, 2018 at 0:23
  • @PeterShor Well, Classical Chinese is difficult to translate; it's extremely compact. And my question is more about Le Guin's source than its quality (or lack of it).
    – Tsundoku
    Dec 26, 2018 at 0:25
  • Right. My point is (1) given that there isn't an obvious alternate translation and (2) it seems quite likely that lathes existed in China at the time (given that they were invented in Greece 10 centuries before), saying that it is a "terrible translation because China didn't even have lathes at a time" seems to me to be a completely unsubstantiated criticism.
    – Peter Shor
    Dec 29, 2018 at 16:54

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