I liked Stephen Mitchell’s translations of Rilke, but I remember hearing his Tao Te Ching as a book on tape (remember those?) lo these many moons ago, and feeling puzzled at how different it sounded from the other versions I’d read. So this is pretty funny (and several months old, but I just happened across it while looking for something else):
Tao Te Ching is an ancient Chinese scripture originally written by Lao-tzu (who some scholars believe is actually an amalgam of various wisdom texts). Mitchell alleges he studied the texts and various interpretations for years, immersing himself in Zen training before writing the book. As a result, “rather than provide a literal translation, the book embodies language that conveys Mitchell’s version of Lao-tzu’s meaning and the spirit of his teaching,” the complaint says. “Accordingly, Mitchell’s book is a highly original work.”
When an otherwise notable translator like Stephen Mitchell muddies the waters with something as irresponsible as his wild interpretation of Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching passed off as translation, it is like a virus in a computer that begins to invade other programs. Mitchell writes that he felt no compunction to study the original Chinese because he somehow got the transmission directly from his Zen master, so felt free to interpret the Tao Te Ching freely. In at least a couple of chapters, there is not so much as a single word brought over from the original. The problem with this kind of practice is that the naïve reader might assume that the English bears some resemblance to the original, which all too often simply isn’t so. Or as Chuang Tzu might say, “Not quite there yet, eh?”To truly understand Lao Tzu, Chuang Tzu or most classical Chinese poetry, we would need a large scholarly apparatus to clarify all the allusions and explain a cast of characters and provide an explication of cultural-philosophical contexts and linguistic differences. We would know the Analects of Confucius and the Classic of Filial Piety, the I Ching, and elementary Chinese cosmology.