on January 26, 2007
Tao Te Ching is ancient, now a couple of millenia in print. Stephen Mitchell has not translated this classic, but rather has paraphrased it -- as he admits in the Foreward. But he is a Zen student of a couple of decades and has good insight into the Zen of the Tao (Zen Buddhism is Buddhism heavily dosed with Taoism).
Mitchell's version of the Tao Te Ching is very, even extremely, modern. Perhaps to the point of being "politically correct." However, he does have a way with words and this is a very readable version of the Tao. To show how modern it is, let's take an example and compare his version of the beginning of chapter 46 with two other versions:
"When a country is in harmony with the Tao,
the factories make trucks and tractors.
When a country goes counter to the Tao,
warheads are stockpiled outside the cities."
- Victor Mair
"When the Way prevails under heaven,
swift horses are relegated to fertilizing fields.
When the Way does not prevail under heaven,
war-horses breed in the suburbs."
- Addiss & Lombardo
"With TAO under heaven
Stray horses fertilze the fields.
Without TAO under heaven,
Warhorses are bred at the frontier."
Obviously, there were no factories, trucks, tractors, or warheads in ancient China. So, Mitchell is providing a modern interpretation of the Tao Te Ching, while Mair as well as Addiss & Lombardo are closer to a literal translation (which is not possible however, because the Chinese language and the English language are so completely different from one another.)
None of this is to find fault with Stephen Mitchell. This is just to say that his book cannot be definitive, because it is less literal and not really a translation. However it is good, compelling reading, and honestly makes no pretense of being a literal translation. If you like Mitchell's approach, get one of the more literal translations too. I bet Stephen Mitchell himself would like you to have both.
on November 3, 1998
When my wife Sandy was diagnosed with terminal cancer, this is the ONE book she kept nearby at home and in the hospital. She found great comfort in it words and wisdom.
When she died I picked it up and began to read. Several passages fell right open (8 & 16). These were the passages that she must have been reading the most. So I read those passages at her funeral. I'm still reading this book and finding something new with each reading. Even if a passage may not make sense on the first or second reading, it may become clear by the fifth or sixth. Or maybe it will take years.
Sandy was a poet and teacher who studied many translations of the Tao, but this was her favorite. It may not be the most literal translation, but it surely is the most poetic. If this translation was good enough for her, then it's good enough for me.
In fact, this book is so good, I've given away at least 8 copies in the two months since her death. This book has helped me deal with and survive the most difficult time in my life. I'm much wiser and more open having read this book. My friends to whom I've given copies agree and are sharing it with their friends.
on February 25, 2005
I've been using this translation since 1965 and have found no better. When I want to clarify something, I struggle with a Chinese language edition - my knowledge of Chinese is sufficient to know at least the 'raw' meaning of the characters. Some thoughts and discoveries I've had...
1. D.C.Lau's translation comes closest to the actual Chinese most of the time.
2. I believe he does not consider himself a Taoist, and thus brings less 'pro' bias to his translation. Many other translations (not all) I've seen are written by 'pro Tao' folks who, to one degree or another, unconsciously bend their translations to agree with the 20th century cultural paradigm (values) in which they were conditioned.
3. It is not what a particular translation says, or how it says it, that is 'enlightening'. How you interpret what you read (hear or see) reflects who you really are at that moment. In other words, what you perceive the book to say is actually your own mind's reality. The notion that one translation or another is going to impart 'knowing' is wishful thinking. The knowing lies in the eye of the beholder. Thus, the disclaimer in chapter 1 of the Tao Te Ching, "The way that can be spoken of is not the constant way; The name that can be named, is not the constant name." This sentiment speaks to just how very inward and personal a Taoist journey is. For me, D.C.Lau's translation gets in the way of this journey less than others I've seen over the years.
I'm amazed at the storm that Mitchell's version of the Tao Te Ching has churned up. Reading previous reviews, there seem to be two factions: those who find Mitchell's version thought-provoking and soul-stirring, and those who focus on what they see as its poetical liberties with the original. The first group is primarily interested in using the text as a catalyst for reflective insight into the nature of reality. The second group is primarily interested in the text as an historical document. The first group seeks transformation. The second group seeks scholarship.
I don't know that there's any intrinsic dissonance between the methods of scholarship and the goal of transformation, but I do know this: as a professor of philosophy who wants his students to read texts as tools for discovery rather than as sacred cows to be worshipped, I'll take Mitchell's version over more "scholarly" translations any day. For the nonspecialist who's not interested in parsing Chinese, which is really more important: entering into the spirit of the Tao Te Ching so that the reading of it becomes a lived, integrated experience, or memorizing a lot of scholarly footnotes? Mitchell's version breathes new life into a 2500-year-old text that most people today would find too arcane if they read a more literal translation. What a pity to begrudge contemporary readers an opportunity to discover the Tao simply because we don't think that the vehicle made available to them is "scholarly" enough!
on May 16, 2001
I was a bit bothered by Stephen Mitchell's version at first, but after spending more time with it begin to have second thoughts. It's true that he hasn't given us a literal reading of Lao Tzu's text. He's dropped bits here and there, and seems to have sneaked in a few bits of his own. But hey! Surely a guy who has survived fourteen years of Zen torture, erh... training, has some rights?
In effect what Mitchell has done is to give us a stripped-down and interpreted and simplified version of the Tao Te Ching. This strategy has led to some very real benefits. Most of the obscure parts, parts that even have Chinese scholars scratching their heads, seem to have pretty well gone. What has been left is the essence, and it stands out clearly.
Frankly I don't think you'll miss much of Lao Tzu's message. No important notion seems to have been lost. And Mitchell's language has a wonderful simplicity and directness. Here's an example chosen at random from Chapter 9, with my slash marks to indicate line breaks:
"Chase after money and security / and your heart will never unclench. / Care about people's approval / and you will be their prisoner."
These are important truths. Two of the many in this text that we do well to keep in mind. And "unclench" - the heart as a tight clenched fist - is a very nice touch. Of course, it isn't exactly what Lao Tzu said. But somehow I don't think Old Master Lao would mind. In fact, he'd probably be honored by the paintings too.
on July 5, 1999
Dear Fellow Readers,
I would give this book an infinity of stars if possible. I have read about 10 translations of this ageless book, but this one is really unique. All translations are great and I recommend you read this book in any translation if you can.
This very short book gives insight into the greatest mysteries of life from a truly humble and enlightened master. Unlike other 'scriptures' (which were modified by power-greedy priests and politicians in their attempt to control the masses) full of dogmas, dos and donts, this Jewel has not been touched by fools.
This is a Spring of Immortal Wisdom and Divine Elixir. This book has in it the core of all religions or spiritual paths - be them Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, Taoist or whatever: letting go of all, we are ready to embrace all.
ONENESS with all that is is the ultimate freedom and joy. We are already enlightened, as we have always been. We are the ONE Itself.
Replace Tao with God and you will get one of the most Christian books ever written. Replace Tao with Brahman and you will get one of the most Hindu books ever written.
The simplicity and depth of this book reaches (if not surpasses) the heights of Bhagavad Gita, Upanishads and other ageless books.
I read this book more than 100 times in the last 3 years and each time I feel empowered by it. To live in ONENESS is to live in BLISS.
After reading countless books from all religions, few (if any) reach the depth, simplicity, modesty, wisdom and practicality of this very short book.
This book is so short, in one hour you can read it. But the nectar of wisdom in it will make you wanna read it over and over and embody what is written there... for the ONE is the source of all ecstasy, all peace, and all bliss.
Peace, a human
on February 8, 2001
This is a review of D.C. Lau's translation of the _Tao Te Ching_, as republished in the Everyman's Library series.
The _Tao Te Ching_ is a collection of brief sayings and verse attributed to Lao Tzu. Lao Tzu is semi-mythical. He is traditionally supposed to have been a contemporary of Confucius (about 500 B.C.), but he may just be a "composite" of stories about various early sages. The _Tao Te Ching_ itself is probably an anthology of early wisdom literature. It is concise to the point of being cryptic. Ironically, this probably helps to account for its popularity. Since it is so hard to understand, people tend to find in it what they want to find.
For millennia, the standard text of the _Tao Te Ching_ was the "Wang Pi text," named after an early commentator. However, earlier versions of the text were unearthed in a tomb in China in the 70's. These were called the "Ma-wang-tui" versions, after the place where the tomb was located.
D.C. Lau was one of the most talented translators of the 20th century. His translations of the _Analects_ of Confucius, the _Mencius_, and the _Tao Te Ching_ are among the best available. His original translation of the _Tao Te Ching_ was based on the Wang Bi text, and was published by Penguin Books. The book on this page includes both the original Penguin Books translation and a revised translation based on the Ma-wang-tui texts.
Lau is a very well informed scholar, but he does not allow the scholarship to overwhelm the translation. The language of his translation is concise and elegant. There will always be deep controversy over how to translate this deeply enigmatic text, but Lau's interpretations are always defensible.
One disadvantage of this book is that it does not include the introduction to Lau's Penguin Books translation. That introduction was itself one of the better philosophical studies of the _Tao Te Ching_. Overall, though, this is a fine translation in an elegant (and reasonably priced) format. I strongly recommend it.
Some different, but equally good, translations are those by Victor Mair and Philip J. Ivanhoe. Mair's translation has been published as a separate book, while Ivanhoe's is included in Ivanhoe and Bryan W. Van Norden, eds., _Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy_. If you would like some help interpreting the _Tao Te Ching_, a good collection of secondary essays is Mark Csikszentmihalyi and Philip J. Ivanhoe, eds., _Essays on Religious and Philosophical Aspects of the Laozi_.
on July 24, 2005
I have come to have a fondness and deep appreciation for Mitchell's work and choices of subjects. I bought this translation because of high praise for it hidden in one of Jim Harrison's poems. This version is, perhaps, the most readable of all I have encountered. Many people find it inspiring and that must be why it is such an acclaimed translation. Having dealt with a dozen or so translations and the texts behind them, I do note that Mitchell takes some liberties. His is a very idiomatic translation, which often reads better than word-for-word literalness, the latter often proving too wooden to be enjoyable or clear. And Mitchell might even omit a few phrases or add one here or there. But the spirit is all Lao Tzu. Also, the volume is full of the most exquisite ancient Chinese illustrations, making it the most beautiful of any of my Tao Te Chings.
on August 21, 1999
Caution: This review is on the text only as I have not seen the pictures.
I read this book every day. Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching ,(along and in harmony with all the worlds great religious and philosophical texts and teachings) is one of the most truthful,practical and important manuals on existance ever written. I have read 7 tranlations and Mitchell's is the most accesible and beautiful I have ever found. While maintaining its intrinsic poetic grace, Stephen Mitchell allows the wisdom of one of human civilizations greates teachers to permeate your being in a gentle non ridgid way. The book is totally aproachable and its lessons about life and the true nature of reality are a miracle.
Mitchells translation , in a wonderfully simple and sage like style, illuminates the challenging aspects of the human condition while simutaneously explaining how to remain blissfully centered, in the moment and at peace. The martial artist's eye of the huricane. Lao Tzu's insights on the true workings of the universe have never been conveyed in a clearer or more digestible way than in Stephen Mitchells translation. Its power to display the omnipresent current that affects (and is) all life and existance is a marvel of writing. I read it in traffic, I read it in line at the bank, I read it for pleasure, I read it to acknowledge reality, I read it before and after practicing Tai-Chi.
Put into practice the wisdom conveyed by Mitchell will transform your life. You will go through life burning all your fuel while simutaneously relaxing as you become lovingly enveloped in existance. A natural outgrowth of practicing the wisdom in this book is to become more humble, loving, peaceful, self compassionate, forgiving,strong, flexible, virile and supple.
Along with certain books from the Bible I would want this book if ever imprisoned. Along the same lines if I ever won the lottery and found myself surrounded by nude supermodels I would want this book. This book has made me realize that life, regardless of circumstances may not always be pleasurable but the moments of displeasure are as valid, important and life-affirming as the moments of ecstasy. By allowing your consciousness to transcend your senses desire can't touch you. Without desire your heart opens up.
on April 26, 2002
As Mitchell admits, he doesn't read Chinese. Instead of calling this a "translation," he calls it an "English version." But why would you want to read a loose English paraphrase by someone who can't read either the original or the early Chinese commentaries on it when you could read a translation by any one of a number of gifted and insightful scholars?
The standard defense of a "version" like Mitchell's is that he has some special insight into the text that entitles him to interpret it. But the danger of an interpretation like Mitchell's is that it projects modern Western preconceptions onto the Tao Te Ching instead of allowing us to be challenged by the powerful, paradoxical, and even frightening original text. In fact, Mitchell projects Zen Buddhist and New Age ideas into his "interpetation." (And, No, Zen Buddhism is not the same as Taoism, any more than Catholicism is the same as Judaism.) Someone who actually reads the original Classical Chinese, and is familiar with the historical and cultural context in which the text was composed is much more likely to be insightful about the text. Another common comment is that someone like Mitchell doesn't get lost in boring scholarly stuff. But there are plenty of exciting, fun to read translations by people who can actually read the original. The first Tao Te Ching translation I read was by D.C. Lau. He was a truly great scholar, but his translation is very elegant and very readable. Other terrific translations by people who actually know the "text and context" include those by Victor Mair, Robert Henricks, and Philip J. Ivanhoe. (Ivanhoe's translation is available both as a separate book, and as part of the anthology he co-edited, Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy.)
Oh, and the "editorial review" that Amazon lists above is actually not a review of Mitchell's translation at all. (There is no way to report that using their "corrections" button.)