Translation or Interpretation?

Wandering around through a bookstore this weekend, I noticed a couple more of the ever multiplying translations of the Daodejing. I took a glance at both of these translations (I don’t remember the names of the translators, but I do recall that one of them is a scholar in Buddhist studies). The way I generally appraise translations of the DDJ is to look right at the first chapter, the “dao ke dao fei chang dao” bit to see how the translator handles this. All too often, I see very strange or “non-literal”, overinterpretive translations.

I think translators (especially of the DDJ) have flown too far into the realm of interpretation in their translations. “Literal” translations are fairly hard to come by (moreso for the DDJ and daoist literature than for other sources). Although I realize that it is a near impossibility to really render a classical chinese text in literal translation, I do believe that this ought to be our aim to come as close as we can. Following this methodology, we should translate such that if the original text is ambiguous, our translation should aspire to be equally ambiguous (ambiguous in the same way).

Why is this? Well, when we present hard works like the DDJ to a general audience (or any audience without the ability to read in classical chinese), we ought to allow the audience interpretive license of their own. When we translate texts to precisely follow our particular interpretations, we are begging the question against those who support other interpretations of the text. Thus, when one without the advantage of having classical chinese comes to our loaded intepretations, this person cannot even understand the debate between different camps on interpretations of the text. “How can intepretation x be correct?” the reader will think, “the text explicitly endorses view y!”

For example, in one of the translations of the DDJ I mentioned at the beginning of this post, Chapter 1 is translated to be about metaphysics (dao) and language/concepts (ming). This is certainly contentious–personally I think it’s also incorrect–but at least there is disagreement about this. Given that reasonable scholars disagree on these points, it can’t be the case that the DDJ makes an explicit statement of the “metaphysical dao” view. Of course, those of us familiar with the DDJ know, the text is very unclear on this point (and many others). Thus it seems to me that more “literal-minded” translations serve better as translations geared toward a general audience unfamiliar with the literature or one without classical chinese ability. We ought to save our intepretations (as much as possible) for our books and articles.

Again, I realize that a certain amount of interpretation is inevitable in translation of these texts. But there is certainly more interpretive license being taken when one renders ming ke ming fei chang ming as: “Conceptual constructions that can be grasped as such are not accurate conceptual constructions” (for example), rather than the closer to literal translation: “a name that can name is not a constant name”.


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