"So many Tao Te Chings have appeared or reappeared," writes poet and sci-fi novelist Ursula Le Guin, "that one begins to wonder if Lao Tzu has more translators than he has readers."
Indeed, I discovered a dozen versions of the ancient Chinese classic just at the Detroit Public Library; still on order is The Tao of Sales: The Easy Way to Sell in Tough Times.
You can find myriad scholarly versions of Lao Tzu's thoughts, with commentary, or a Tao of Pooh and a Te of Piglet, even a rewriting for the modern office which urges the reader to "go after inefficiency and waste with a vengeance." Why, then, has Le Guin, recipient of a National Book Award and many others, chosen to produce her own rendition of the ancient Chinese text?
The 81 short chapters of the Tao Te Ching are attributed to a state archivist named Lao Tzu who lived 2,500 years ago. As the story goes, Lao Tzu was leaving the country and a border guard asked him to write down his wisdom. The resulting 5,000 words have nourished generations of seekers, from the adage-now-cliché of "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step," to the mystical opening lines: "The name that can be named is not the eternal Name." Lao Tzu counsels letting go, doing without doing, lying low.
Does all this sound New Age? Le Guin is not enamored of what she calls "the woo-woo movement -- people who chant, people who play drums in the woods, people who vaguely explore Eastern religions." When I interviewed her at her home in Portland, Ore., earlier this year, Le Guin was careful to differentiate her own Taoism from "a longing for a belief which is a kind of reassurance. It starts with a genuine spiritual yearning, and it often ends up in a kind of silly, frivolous self-reassurance, with lots of trappings."
Thus Le Guin wrote this new rendering of the Tao Te Ching partly out of dissatisfaction with other versions. "Many of them," she explains, "blur the language into dullness and vagueness" and "confuse mysticism with imprecision. Lao Tzu is tough-minded. He is tender-minded. He is never, under any circumstances, squashy-minded."
A second motive was to capture the poetry of the Tao Te Ching. "Most translations have caught meanings in their net," she writes, "but prosily, letting the beauty slip through. And in poetry, beauty is no ornament; it is the meaning." Le Guin wanted a version directed not toward "sages" or "masters" -- many scholars treat the book as a manual for rulers -- but to an "unwise, unpowerful and perhaps unmale reader." She uses the term "wise soul" for the person who wants to follow the Way.
Compare Le Guin's poetry to a 1988 translation by Stephen Mitchell. Mitchell's is more straightforward, but flatter:
We join spokes together
in a wheel,
but it is the center hole
that makes the wagon move.
We shape clay into a pot,
but it is the emptiness inside
that holds whatever we want.
We hammer wood for a house,
but it is the inner space
that makes it livable.
We work with being,
but non-being is what we use.
Then Le Guin's version:Thirty spokes
clay makes a pot.
Where the pot's not
is where it's useful.
Cut doors and windows
to make a room.
Where the room isn't,
there's room for you.
So the profit in what is
is in the use of what isn't.
Le Guin knows no Chinese. She worked by using an 1898 translation that showed the original Chinese characters, with a transliteration and translation of each. She compared what different translators had made of the original, enlisted the aid of a scholar of ancient Chinese, J.P. Seaton of the University of North Carolina, and then composed her own version.
Sometimes she took the liberty of tossing out parts she didn't like: "My authority for doing so is nil, a poet's judgment that 'this doesn't belong here.' I think a Confucian copyist slipped the king in." She explains her choices, sometimes reprinting other scholars' versions to compare to her own.
For example, Paul Carus, in the 1898 version, translates word for word: "(Who) dies/ yet/ not/ perishes,/ the-one/ is-long-lived (immortal)." Most of the translators that Le Guin respects interpret this to mean that one's reputation will live on after death: "To die but not be forgotten -- that's long life." Her version seems less true to the original, but a lot more useful: "To live till you die is to live long enough." Her version also seems truer to the spirit of the Way.
Le Guin makes no secret of the fact that she likes Taoism because it is nontheist. She chafes that "it is assumed in the United States that you're some kind of monotheist, that you believe there is a God." She, herself, is quite comfortable with polytheism, "people like the Hindus or ancient Romans who had little gods everywhere," or Native American religions, "a fully spiritual approach to reality, to the world. They don't have gods, but everything is sacred." Given that "since Reagan came to power this country has had a sort of orgy of self-congratulation about being Christian, I feel it's incumbent upon me to say I'm not, because people seem to be afraid to say anything against Christianity at all these days."
Because her writing is deeply humane and often concerned with ethical questions, many readers assume that Le Guin is religious. "That's because," she says, "they're coming from this culture where you have to believe in something." As the daughter of a scientist, she holds no truck with the pablum notion that "it doesn't matter what you believe, as long as you believe in something."
"The holding of belief is impenetrable to me," she insists. "Believe in God? I honestly don't know what they mean by it. I am simply not interested in the idea."
What, then, of the fact that Lao Tzu's teachings are plainly about being a moral person? Le Guin feels sorry for "those who will not admit morality without a deity to validate it." She calls "pernicious" "the assumption that morality and religion are interdependent. That an unreligious person is an immoral person. An honest look at history and our lives shows that very religious people often behave with profound immorality. There is no connection that I can see."
Rather than preaching her own moral philosophy, Le Guin lets it shine through her work. Although this latest book is a rendering of someone else's words, her own vision permeates every page. She and Lao Tzu both want a world where people are content with enough and don't boss each other around.
Jane Slaughter dines for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.