Daodejing Translations

I’ve been off the air for a bit, trying to catch up to a few things. One of them is ordering books for the Fall semester. I’m teaching a Daoism course and I’ve been pondering a change in the Daodejing translation that I use. I’ve used the Addiss and Lombardo recently–I’m kind of a sucker for their sparse style. I’ve used Lau in the past, and once tried using LaFargue. I’d like to do something different from any of those. I’ll take suggestions. As I implied, I like translations that are not as wordy as Lau and that have some poetry to them. I also like consistency–e.g. dao 道 translated with either the same or with a cognate form of the same word each time. A lot of translations flub that, as far as I’m concerned, in the very first lines of the traditional Chapter 1. Anyway, it’s a good way for me to get back into the flow of blogging. So tell me about a translation you like, and why you like it. Thanks!

22 replies on “Daodejing Translations”

  1. The two translations I use as my “standard references” are Ivanhoe and Henricks/MWD. I think Ivanhoe’s is very careful, and stylistically echoes the original in punchy sparseness. I also agree with most of his decisions; where I do not, the translation is modular enough to modify cleanly in small bites. I think Henricks has some similar virtues, and it is nice to see those virtues combined with facing-page Chinese text and copious explanatory notes.

  2. I like David Hinton. He does a lot of poetry and his daodejing reads very nicely in English. And it is consistent. I have heard criticisms that he is not a philosopher, so may not handle some of the philosophical points as accurately as some others. But it reads very well and, I find, it works in the classroom….

    (Also, for some reason this post is not coming up on your front page, at least not for me just now. I found it through your comments section…)

  3. I’ve used Henricks’s MWD version myself for several years. In one respect it partly fails Manyul’s desire for consistency: dao 道 is sometimes rendered as Tao and sometimes as Way. But this offers one’s students the game of trying to figure out what Henricks is up to…; and in other respects, he’s quite consistent. It’s also nice to always be clear on what parts of the translation are based MWD A or B, and where he’s filling in from the WB text. Silly title, though (“Te Tao Ching”)!

  4. I’ve used Derek Lin’s in the past. It reads and flows well, and seems to maintain poetic flow.

    However, I’m not as familiar with the differences in the various translations as I am with the Analects, so comparatively I’m not sure if it reads better or worse than others.

    It does have annotations on each poem on the left page (poem on right). Some students liked the annotations, most did not (for the same reason I don’t like using them in the classroom). In some cases, my students also found Lin’s annotations a bit odd (his interpretations).

  5. Stephen, I haven’t looked at all at Ivanhoe’s; that’s good to know.

    Steve and Stephen, I’m not sure I like Henricks’, mostly because of the “rearrangement” aspects; actually, now that I think of it, I’ve used it before, at Cal State L.A. For the same sort of reason, I didn’t like using LaFargue, though I was intrigued initially by the thematic rearrangement.

    Sam, I’ll have to look at the Hinton. Re: “I have heard criticisms that he is not a philosopher, so may not handle some of the philosophical points as accurately as some others.” — Funny, I don’t think of the Daodejing authors as philosophers in a narrow sense either, so that may not be such a hindrance for Hinton, for my tastes.

    Chris, I find annotations very useful for teaching Analects, but not for anything else; so I’m on the same page as you, I think, about the Daodejing. Still, I should take a look at the poetry of Lin’s translation.

    Joel, I’ve never looked at the Red Pine. I know people who know him (Bill Porter) personally and think well of his translating skills, so I’ll definitely take a look.

    Has anyone tried using that Jonathan Star “Definitive Edition” that lays out the Chinese text and provides a “verbatim” translation after the initial translation? Has anyone looked at that and found it useful? It’s also intriguing, despite sounding gimmicky. But I’ve never looked at it.

  6. Hi — Henricks simply follows the MWD ordering (although numbering passages following the received version, for clarity of comparison). LaFargue rearranges according to his own sense of topics. I guess it can be slightly confusing that the first passage in Henrick’s translation isn’t labelled passage number 1. On the other hand, I prefer my students having reminders that these texts were not simply written by one person at one time.

    I have looked at the Star translation you ask about, Manyul, and found it to be highly problematic. In fact it reminded me more of one of the “interpolations” one finds on the internet more than a genuine translation.

  7. A helpful (though I suspect illegal) site with dozens of DDJ translations, including most of those mentioned above:


    If the versions on that site are accurate, then I’d hesitate to use Hinton, Red Pine, or Star. E.g., consider the first line of ch. 2:


    Hinton and Star get the grammar wrong. (Lau does too, I think.) Red Pine’s version changes the wording too much to be a defensible translation. Derek Lin does well with this line, but then translates wuwei as “detached action.”

    Manyul, I had a thought about your request for “something different.” What if you were to skip a conventional translation entirely, and instead provide students with the Chinese text supplemented by word-for-word annotations and other notes sufficient for them to “read” the original text? E.g., for ch. 2, under the Chinese text you might have a pinyin transliteration and then “the world – all – know – beauty – nominalizing particle – deeming/acting – beauty – then – ugly – aspect particle,” with notes explaining what the particles do.

    This approach is obviously labor-intensive, both for the instructor preparing course materials and for student readers. But I’ve seen it used successfully to teach Tang poetry to students with no Chinese. Just a thought — something genuinely different.

  8. Hi,
    I prefer Henricks. I have dozens of translations and his is the one I usually grab first. (And for me, having the Chinese text beside an English translation is a must.) As Stephen Walker says about Ivanhoe, it is easy to alter bits of the translation to one’s liking without requiring a whole new rendering of the entire passage.

    I also like Ivanhoe, Lau, a little known translation by Stephen Hodge, Wing Tsit Chan, and Richard John Lynn’s translation I’ve recently discovered is pretty good.

    I’m not overly familiar with Addiss and Lombardo, but the opening lines (“Tao called Tao is not Tao. Names can name no lasting name.”) are poorly translated imo.

    Most translations have plusses and minuses.

  9. Hmmm. I’m starting to think Henricks is worth a second look. Chris, that site seems too good to be legal–which sounds like the sort of thing the DDJ would say–so I hesitate to link it officially on my Links list. Legally suspect yet useful; who would have thought?

    Your suggestion about eschewing a conventional translation is intriguing. I’ve done that several times in a very small dose with my students before, limited to the first 8 lines of ch. 1. It actually works pretty well, especially when they then look at some of the more popular translations and see what has been layered onto the text. That’s what intrigued me about the Star volume, but it’s starting to sound like people don’t much like it. Maybe I’ll try to develop at least a small reader that does this with some of the more frequently cited passages.

  10. I’ve photocopied Star’s verbatim translation list for Chapter One (from the back of the book) and given it to students as a teaching aid. It’s worked well for that purpose. (Star’s own translation leaves a LOT to be desired though.)

  11. That’s Nina Correa’s site Chris. Her comparison chart has a number of errors, but I’ve found that finding perfect versions of the texts like Wang Bi’s and Fuyi’s is difficult, so I can’t really blame her.

  12. Thanks, all. I’ve decided to try using the Richard Lynn edition because it includes Wangbi’s commentary and seems on casual perusal like a conscientious translation (scholarly, that is). I was leaning toward Henricks, but thought it might work better for a more advanced course. (I’ll also take up Chris’s challenge to do a bit of “Chinese for those with no Chinese” with some of the passages.) I’ll let you know how all this goes if you ever ask me after next Fall term…

  13. I’m interested in knowing which source text of the Daodejing you want to be used in the translation.

    Otherwise, I’m pretty dissatisfied with all of the translations I read, but I’m more partial than not to the Red Pine and the Feng-English translations.

  14. Hi Joshua,

    (Sorry your comment got trapped in the spam robot’s eager grasp.) I’m not really concerned with the source version, though I have a mild preference for the traditional Wang Bi text–not that there are a lot of Mawangdui translations around.

    I’ve used the Feng-English translation before; there are some things I didn’t like about it. For example, for the beginning of 38, 上德不德,是以有德, it has:

    “A truly good man is not aware of his goodness
    And is therefore good.”

    I know there will always be interpretation, but “not aware of” seems too narrow for 不德.

  15. Hi Bao Pu,

    Thanks for asking. Originally, I meant this to be a grammar point, though maybe it’s more substantive in the end. 不德 seems far more general, just by grammar considerations, meaning something like “is not virtuous” or “does no virtuous deed.” For “not aware of his goodness” I would expect 不知其德, or something else that indicates both some verb of knowing and reflexivity. Maybe it is the case that the person of high virtue (assuming 上德 is elliptical for 上德者) does no virtuous deed because he is not aware of his virtue, but that seems like it needs to be inferred from the line–in a commentary, say–not just translated into the verse. It is possible to take a different view: the person of high virtue understands that virtue, as it is usually regarded, is not worth what people think it is worth, so for that reason does not engage in virtuous deeds. Does it follow from that that he is unaware of his (truly elevated) virtue? That’s not clear to me.

    So, by “too narrow” I mean that the Feng and English translation of this line seems to direct the reader too quickly or rigidly down a particular interpretive path. With students who aren’t looking at the Chinese text, that seems undesirable to me as a teacher.

  16. Sounds fair. I get analogous problems in grammar manuals and syntax guides for Mandarin, where they demand verb structures, but not adjectival predicates on their own.

    More strongly connected, though, I find most every translation embellishing a bit where their own philosophical interests lie. Some want to really undo some of the paradoxical speech (e.g. 上德不徳), but I always found it better to use those statements to claim Laozi’s work ran a few aphoristic reductio arguments.


    If the greatest virtue is one in which people are unaware, then there is not any way to recognize such virtue as such (Ch.17). Thus, if someone is able to distinguish something as virtuous, it’s not really all that virtuous after all.

    That’s a basic modus tollens argument using his prior statements. The force of contextualism throughout Daoist and other Chinese philosophies, I think, gets underplayed in translations where linguistic or Analytic training is not being applied.

  17. Hi Joshua,

    (Sorry you got caught in the spam robot again–I don’t know why your comments are raising flags; I’ll try to keep a more frequent eye on the spammed comments.)

    But wouldn’t the beginning of 38, as Feng and English construe it (“A truly good man is not aware of his goodness…”) be affirming the consequent on your reconstruction, rather than denying it (hence committing a fallacy, rather than arguing modus tollens)? Maybe you’re thinking of the reconstruction differently from the way it’s coming across to me.

  18. No, I think you’re right about the inadequacies in some of the Feng-English work. My point is that they want the more bare statement, “High virtue not virtue,” to not seem so odd, so they overload it with content that wasn’t there to avoid the superficially nonsensical statement.

    The Feng-English just has too many extraneous assumptions: altered predications, reflexivity, overcomplicated noun phrases (for the passage), etc. I prefer translations where the work takes its wording to a minimum, while still allowing rather consistent translation throughout the text using just one or two terms (in the case of homonyms).

    If my Ch.17 interpretation is deemed adequate, then the Feng-English Ch.38 sample doesn’t yield anything deductively. My own argument embellishes a bit on the 38, as well, but not reflexively, and really takes “不德” as “not being distinguishable as virtuous,” but I tend to argue in philosophy of language that, “x being P” is indistinguishable from “x being differentiated as P.”

  19. My very late reply/comment regarding: “不德 seems far more general, just by grammar considerations, meaning something like “is not virtuous” or “does no virtuous deed.” For “not aware of his goodness” I would expect 不知其德, or something else that indicates both some verb of knowing and reflexivity.”

    I agree with Joshua when he suggests “not being distinguishable as virtuous” as being a good translation. Rather than 不知其德, I think it is an “elliptical” for 不為德 or 不以為德 (or even 不自德), for which there are plenty of examples in the “Daoist literature,” including Laozi 34: “It (the Dao) clothes and nourishes the myriad creatures, but does not consider itself as their ruler (Bu Wei Zhu 不為主) … thuse we can consider it great (可名為大).” Zhuangzi 6 similarly has “(The Dao’s) bounty extends myriads of generations and yet is not considered Ren” (不為仁).

    Zhuangzi 17 also has a relavent passage: “The conduct of a Great Person never takes a course harmful to others, yet he does not make much of being benevolent or generous” (不多仁恩). (Watson mod.).

    Another interesting passage is found in the Chunqiu Zuozhuan, Xiang Gong 29.7
    … 施而不德,樂氏加焉
    “But in giving, and not considering it an act of virtue, the Yue [clan] has the advantage.” (Legge)
    Zihan, of the Yueshi in Song followed the example of a minister in Zheng, in giving out grain in a time of famine. Both were able to win the hearts of the people of the the state. But Zihan went a step farther in not keeping records of what he gave out, thereby demonstrating his possession of a better character or “purer” generosity.

    I should stop here 8-/

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