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Tao Te Ching: The Book of the Way and Its Virtue (Wisdom of the East) Hardcover – December, 1992
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Clearly Professor Duyvendak is eminently qualified for the task of offering Western readers a responsible and authoritative translation of a text which, despite its brevity, ranks in importance with both the Bible and the Bhagavad Gita and in some ways is deeper than either.
The Tao Te Ching will always prove irresistible to Sinologists, whether professional or amateur, and there must be well over one hundred English translations in existence. The widely divergent interpretations these translations can offer must often be a source of puzzlement to the non-specialist reader.
Some of the differences we find between the works of competent scholars have perfectly legitimate reasons which can be understood by anyone who takes the trouble to familiarize themselves with the way classical Chinese works. Others, however, are the product of incompetence, and Professor Duyvendak cautions us that there "exists a multitude of so-called translations made by people who try to make up for their entirely imaginary or extremely elementary knowledge of classical Chinese by philosophical speculations which are often completely foreign to the Chinese spirit" (page 1).
Clearly we cannot be too careful in our choice of a translator. Dilettantes and dabblers are thick on the ground, and this would seem to be one of the reasons Professor Duyvendak undertook his own translation - out of a sense of responsibility and a desire to act as a counterweight.
Many modern Sinologists seem to take up permanent residence on the higher levels of their ivory towers, and would never think of condescending to devote their energies to the needs of the non-specialist. One is extremely grateful to Professor Duyvendak for having come out to talk to us.
Although his own translation is now a little old, it has always been held in high respect by the cognoscenti. And despite the fact that he himself was not a native speaker of English, you certainly wouldn't know it from his translation. Also, as a competent and mature scholar, his work still has a great deal to offer to all serious students, and it is often cited in the best studies.
It was in fact the frequency of these references to Duyvendak that led me to his book. His translation differs from others in that it is based "upon a critical reconstruction of the entire text," and advanced students may find some of his textual rearrangements, on which he worked for many years, quite illuminating.
After a brief and extremely interesting 15-page Introduction, we are given his translations of each Chapter in a simple, clear, and vigorous English which reads very well. Here is how he tackles Chapter 47, slightly adjusted since it should be set out as verse:
"To know All-under-heaven without going out of doors! / Without peeping out of the window, to see the Way of Heaven! / The further one goes out, the less one knows. / Therefore: the Saint knows without travelling, names (things) without seeing them, achieves without acting" (page 107).
Noteworthy here is his use of "Saint" rather than the more usual "Sage," a usage commented on by Ellen M. Chen in her own superb edition of the Tao Te Ching (Page 22). Duyvendak makes the interesting comment in his Introduction that, although he usually translates "Te" as "Virtue," in older texts such as the Tao Te Ching "the word should not be understood so much in an ethical sense as in a magical one. 'Te' originally is magic power" (page 8). All of this begins to make a lot more sense when we realize, as Red Pine remarks in his 'Taoteching,' that "it was written by a man who was no stranger to shamanistic conceptions of the sacred world.... [Also], as Confucius noted, Lao-tzu was a dragon among men and ... a member of the serpent family" (pages xiii, xvii).
Professor Duyvendak's brief though helpful and elucidatory Notes follow the translations, and the book concludes with a useful Appendix of the characters of all the Chinese words quoted in the Notes. Throughout he seems to have been especially concerned to keep the needs of the general reader in mind.
No great expertise is needed to tackle this book, and I can recommend it to anyone who wants a good and authoritative edition of the Tao Te Ching. Unfortunately it seems to be out-of-print, but perhaps you'll get lucky and find a used copy as I did. It belongs in the collection of all serious students.