When Sci-Fi Legend Ursula K. Le Guin Translated the Chinese Classic, the Tao Te Ching

Bren­da (laugh­ing): Can you imag­ine a Taoist adver­tis­ing agency? “Buy this if you feel like it. If it’s right. You may not need it.”

Ursu­la: There was an old car­toon in The New York­er with a guy from an adver­tis­ing agency show­ing his ad and the boss is say­ing “I think you need a lit­tle more enthu­si­asm Jones.” And his ad is say­ing, “Try our prod­uct, it real­ly isn’t bad.”

Per­haps no Chi­nese text has had more last­ing influ­ence in the West than the Tao Te Ching, a work so ingrained in our cul­ture by now, it has become a “change­less con­stant,” writes Maria Popo­va. “Every gen­er­a­tion of admir­ers has felt, and con­tin­ues to feel, a pre­science in these ancient teach­ings so aston­ish­ing that they appear to have been writ­ten for their own time.” It speaks direct­ly to us, we feel, or at least, that’s how we can feel when we find the right trans­la­tion.

Admir­ers of the Taoist clas­sic have includ­ed John Cage, Franz Kaf­ka, Bruce Lee, Alan Watts, and Leo Tol­stoy, all of whom were deeply affect­ed by the mil­len­nia-old philo­soph­i­cal poet­ry attrib­uted to Lao Tzu. That’s some heavy com­pa­ny for the rest of us to keep, maybe. It’s also a list of famous men. Not every read­er of the Tao is male or approach­es the text as the utter­ances of a patri­ar­chal sage. One famous read­er had the audac­i­ty to spend decades on her own, non-gen­dered, non-hier­ar­chi­cal trans­la­tion, even though she didn’t read Chi­nese.

It’s not quite right to call Ursu­la Le Guin’s Tao Te Ching a trans­la­tion, so much as an inter­pre­ta­tion, or a “ren­di­tion,” as she calls it. “I don’t know Chi­nese,” she said in an inter­view with Bren­da Peter­son, “but I drew upon the Paul Carus trans­la­tion of 1898 which has Chi­nese char­ac­ters fol­lowed by a translit­er­a­tion and a trans­la­tion.” She used the Carus as a “touch­stone for com­par­ing oth­er trans­la­tions,” and start­ed, in her twen­ties, “work­ing on these poems. Every decade or so I’d do anoth­er chap­ter. Every read­er has to start anew with such an ancient text.”

Le Guin drew out inflec­tions in the text which have been obscured by trans­la­tions that address the read­er as a Ruler, Sage, Mas­ter, or King. In her intro­duc­tion, Le Guin writes, “I want­ed a Book of the Way acces­si­ble to a present-day, unwise, unpow­er­ful, per­haps unmale read­er, not seek­ing eso­teric secrets, but lis­ten­ing for a voice that speaks to the soul.” To imme­di­ate­ly get a sense of the dif­fer­ence, we might con­trast edi­tions of Arthur Waley’s trans­la­tion, The Way and Its Pow­er: a Study of the Tao Te Ching and Its Place in Chi­nese Thought, with Le Guin’s Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Pow­er of the Way.

Waley’s trans­la­tion “is nev­er going to be equaled for what it does,” serv­ing as a “man­u­al for rulers,” Le Guin says. It was also designed as a guide for schol­ars, in most edi­tions append­ing around 100 pages of intro­duc­tion and 40 pages of open­ing com­men­tary to the main text. Le Guin, by con­trast, reduces her edi­to­r­i­al pres­ence to foot­notes that nev­er over­whelm, and often don’t appear at all (one note just reads “so much for cap­i­tal­ism”), as well as a few pages of end­notes on sources and vari­ants. “I didn’t fig­ure a whole lot of rulers would be read­ing it,” she said. “On the oth­er hand, peo­ple in posi­tions of respon­si­bil­i­ty, such as moth­ers, might be.”

Her ver­sion rep­re­sents a life­long engage­ment with a text Le Guin took to heart “as a teenage girl” she says, and found through­out her life that “it obvi­ous­ly is a book that speaks to women.” But her ren­der­ing of the poems does not sub­stan­tial­ly alter the sub­stance. Con­sid­er the first two stan­zas of her ver­sion of Chap­ter 11 (which she titles “The uses of not”) con­trast­ed with Waley’s CHAPTER XI.


We put thir­ty spokes togeth­er and call it a wheel;
But it is on the space where there is noth­ing that the
use­ful­ness of the wheel depends.
We turn clay to make a ves­sel;
But it is on the space where there is noth­ing that the
use­ful­ness of the ves­sel depends.

Le Guin

Thir­ty spokes
meet in the hub.
Where the wheel isn’t
is where is it’s use­ful.

Hol­lowed out,
clay makes a pot.
Where the pot’s not
is where it’s use­ful.

Le Guin ren­ders the lines as delight­ful­ly folksy oppo­si­tions with rhyme and rep­e­ti­tion. Waley piles up argu­men­ta­tive claus­es. “One of the things I love about Lao Tzu is he is so fun­ny,” Le Guin com­ments in her note,” a qual­i­ty that doesn’t come through in many oth­er trans­la­tions. “He’s explain­ing a pro­found and dif­fi­cult truth here, one of those coun­ter­in­tu­itive truths that, when the mind can accept them, sud­den­ly dou­ble the size of the uni­verse. He goes about it with this dead­pan sim­plic­i­ty, talk­ing about pots.”

Such images cap­ti­vat­ed the earthy anar­chist Le Guin. She drew inspi­ra­tion for the title of her 1971 nov­el The Lathe of Heav­en from Taoist philoso­pher Chuang Tzu, per­haps show­ing how she reads her own inter­ests into a text, as all trans­la­tors and inter­preters inevitably do. No trans­la­tion is defin­i­tive. The bor­row­ing turned out to be an exam­ple of how even respect­ed Chi­nese lan­guage schol­ars can mis­read a text and get it wrong. She found the “lathe of heav­en” phrase in James Legge’s trans­la­tion of Chuang Tzu, and lat­er learned on good author­i­ty that there were no lath­es in Chi­na in Chuang Tzu’s time. “Legge was a bit off on that one,” she writes in her notes.

Schol­ar­ly den­si­ty does not make for per­fect accu­ra­cy or a read­able trans­la­tion. The ver­sions of Legge and sev­er­al oth­ers were “so obscure as to make me feel the book must be beyond West­ern com­pre­hen­sion,” writes Le Guin. But as the Tao Te Ching announces at the out­set: it offers a Way beyond lan­guage. In Legge’s first few lines:

The Tao that can be trod­den is not the endur­ing and
unchang­ing Tao. The name that can be named is not the endur­ing and
unchang­ing name.

Here is how Le Guin wel­comes read­ers to the Tao — not­ing that “a sat­is­fac­to­ry trans­la­tion of this chap­ter is, I believe, per­fect­ly impos­si­ble — in the first poem she titles “Tao­ing”:

The way you can go 
isn’t the real way. 
The name you can say 
isn’t the real name.

Heav­en and earth
begin in the unnamed: 
name’s the moth­er
of the ten thou­sand things.

So the unwant­i­ng soul 
sees what’s hid­den,
and the ever-want­i­ng soul 
sees only what it wants.

Two things, one ori­gin, 
but dif­fer­ent in name, 
whose iden­ti­ty is mys­tery.
Mys­tery of all mys­ter­ies! 
The door to the hid­den.

All images of the text cour­tesy of Austin Kleon. 

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Ursu­la K. Le Guin Names the Books She Likes and Wants You to Read

Ursu­la K. Le Guin’s Dai­ly Rou­tine: The Dis­ci­pline That Fueled Her Imag­i­na­tion

Ursu­la K. Le Guin Stamp Get­ting Released by the US Postal Ser­vice

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (5)
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  • C33 says:

    I feel like this post should cite Austin Kleon’s from a cou­ple weeks ago, since it’s large­ly iden­ti­cal (pho­tos and all).

  • Gigs says:

    Here is a site (Dutch but Google transl. is your friend…) who is trans­lat­ing the Dao Deh Jing from the per­spec­tive of the DDJ being a spir­i­tu­al book i.e. a man­u­al for med­i­ta­tion. And the results he gets are real­ly great some­times. He has not com­plet­ed his work but has reached H20.

  • Kathy Seaton says:

    I was sur­prised and dis­ap­point­ed that you did not give cred­it, as Ursu­la did, to the very impor­tant role my hus­band. Jerome Seaton, played in the cre­ation of this won­der­ful ren­di­tion of this work. He is renowned for his trans­la­tions of clas­si­cal Chi­nese poet­ry and prose, and he and Ursu­la worked with plea­sure on this book.

  • Allen says:

    I find it fun­ny that in the ‘ungen­dered’ ver­sion the term moth­er appears.

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