Yes, there is a difference – occasionally profound – depending on the translator. Ninety percent of the time, authoritative translations (like those recommended here) convey the spirit, if not the letter of the literal original Chinese. Why? Understandably, translators need to use some beautiful speech to make their translations readable. Also, the brightest translators in academia have centered their life’s work around words. This may impede their ability to plumb the depths of the Taoist point of view. Nevertheless, no problem… according to chapter 70.
Our words are very easy to know, very easy to do.
Under heaven none can know, none can do.
Speech has its faction, involvement has its sovereign.
Man alone is without knowing, and because of this I don’t know.
Knowing self is rare, following self is noble.
Because of this, the sage wears coarse cloth and yearns for noble character.
Translators will also tend to bend the Taoist view to match the Western humanist paradigm into which they are conditioned. No problem either! If a reader is likewise steeped in the humanist paradigm, nothing else would be palatable anyway. Understandably, the translation that feels best to us is the one that matches our own personal world view.
My purpose in translating the Tao Te Ching is not to make it more understandable nor to make it more poetic. Although, I may succeed at both of these at times; you be the judge. I simply wish to convey what each chapter is actually saying in English as ‘clear’ and literal as possible. With the countless translations done over time perhaps others have succeeded in doing this. However, the one’s I have seen don’t – to one degree or another.
I first translate the chapter as literally as possible. I do rearrange prepositions and include other word meanings in parentheses to help. Yet, I imagine it is often difficult to read. Still, if you are interested enough, you can compare your version with the literal and mull it over. My ‘polished’ version of the literal may sometimes make sense, and sometimes not. But, heck, you get what you pay for.
Can you trust my translation? Ha! A few things may set me apart though. First, I’m no academic, brilliant or otherwise; I just barely put up with language. Second, I was never really integrated into Western culture, even before I left the country – so cultural conditioning was minimized. Being a rather ‘clean slate’ in these regards set me up for being a nut case for many youthful years (I expect anyone pulled to the Taoist view can identify!). Hmm,… given all that, I don’t know if I can trust my own translation either. But, that’s a good thing.
Do it Yourself Too!
Translate a little bit yourself at Wengu and Zhongwen. These sites provides a very easy way to check out the Tao Te Ching in the original Chinese, character by character with translation/s for each. Just checking out an original character or two can help you Subdue its sharpness, separate its confusion. The former, Wengu, also has a choice of translations of which D.C. Lau’s is one.
Why bother you say? Doing this can help you see the Tao Te Ching as a mirror of your mind, rather than as the authoritative source of objective wisdom. Ha! The Tao Te Ching doesn’t even consider itself as the source… just take Chapter 1, for example,…
Personally, I think of the Tao Te Ching as a mirror. What one sees is simply who one is — This is called the without of shape form, the without of matter shape, This is called indistinct suddenly.
To be sure, I did say, “We feel that the value of D.C. Lau’s translation lies in the fact that he does not seem to be a ‘true’ believer. After all, there is nothing like a true believer’s interpretation to muck up the possibilities for a broader, possibly less biased view.”
Now, I wouldn’t say I am a believer, true or otherwise, principally because I don’t believe in the essential truth of words and names. I take chapter 1’s ‘disclaimer’, The way possible to think, runs counter to the constant way, seriously! Thus, how can I believe anything that I think? As chapter 71 cautions us, Realizing I don’t’ know is better; not knowing this knowing is disease. Added to this is the ‘neutralizing’ effect the correlations process had on my mind a few decades ago.
I see two ways to regard thought; (1) we ‘rationally’ believe a certain thought is true, e.g., the Ten Commandments, “he is an evil person”; (2) we emotionally and vigorously expresses a point of view, like an actor. Although an actor ‘believes’ his role and dialog when he is playing his part, off stage he does otherwise. As Shakespeare said “the whole world is a stage and we are merely players in it”, whether we are aware of it or not.
Sometimes, the less one knows, the more one knows
Naturally, that sounds goofy at first glance. Think of this idea as a parallel to, ‘out of the mouths of babes’. Being deeply steeped in Chinese history, language and culture may not offer the best vantage point when it comes to sensing the nitty-gritty of the Tao Te Ching. It points to a view totally ‘outside the box’. So, do dig down toward that nitty-gritty if you like without concern for your lack of knowledge. After all…
Without going out the door, we can know all under heaven.
Without looking out the window, we can see nature’s way.
He goes out farther, he realizes less,
Accordingly, the wise person goes nowhere, yet knows.
Sees nothing, yet understands.
Refrains from acting, yet accomplishes.