A number of problems arise when translating any work from a written language, such as early Chinese, into twentieth century English. One such problem is the difference between the written forms of the two languages, another is the difference between the two cultures, and a third is the time which elapsed between the writing of the original work, in this instance, some time between six hundred and three hundred years before the Christian era, and the compilation of the textual arrangement by Wang Bih, dating from the third century A.D., used today.

There are however, other problems for any translator/interpreter of this work. The first is the number of changes in the form of written Chinese characters since the original work was written. At least one such change occurred prior to the arrangement of the text by Wang Bih, and at least another three have been implemented since his time.

The source of another problem has been described by Dr. L. Wieger (please see bibliography/reference section below) as, ".... the ignorance of scribes who continually brought to light faulty forms which were .... reproduced by posterity ....".

Another problem related to those mentioned immediately above is the change in writing instruments used by Chinese scribes. With the invention of the paint brush, the efficient 'fiber tipped pen' (made from vegetable fiber soaked in ink, and held in a hollow bamboo tube) fell into disuse. The resultant change in writing style was due to the fact that the writer had less control over the stroke of a brush than of an instrument with a fine, firm tip. Despite this handicap, the brush could be used to paint on silk, and was considered to produce a more 'artistic' form of calligraphy than the earlier instrument. Furthermore, it became almost a 'hallmark of a gentleman' to write in a free, flowing and virtually illegible style. There can be no doubt that this was the cause of many errors which were made and subsequently compounded.

A further problem is the possibility of confusion, caused in part by the multiple meanings of some of the limited number of characters said to have been used in the original text, this being attributed to the cryptic style of Lao Tzu. It is also in part a result of the nature of early Chinese grammatical structure itself. Even if a literal translation were desirable, it would make little sense to the reader schooled only in Western grammar, who would therefore be unfairly presented with the problem of 'guessing the missing words', which, it may be said, is a primary function of the translator of any work such as this.

Having discussed the problems which exist for the translator of such a work as the Tao Te Ching, it is only reasonable to mention briefly the problem which exists for the reader, concerning the significance of various influences upon a translator.

There are already at least forty-two English translations of this work (listed by Clark Melling of the University of New Mexico), each, I am sure, carried out as ably and honestly as was possible. However, it is difficult, if not impossible, for any person not to be influenced by the philosophy, beliefs, culture and politics of their own society, historical period and education system.

Even a brief glance at various translations of the work of Lao Tzu will illustrate how such a 'hidden curriculum' surreptitiously imposes itself upon even the most honest of men, thus creating a major problem for the reader. This is the case even for the reader who merely hopes to see an accurate English rendering of the work, but the reader's problems are compounded if he or she seeks a translation which presents a reasonably accurate description of Taoism (Tao Chia), the 'system' of which the Tao Te Ching is a major work. It must be said of the existing English translations, that most treat the Tao Te Ching as a literary or poetic work, whilst many others treat it as a work of mysticism, rather than a work of classical scholarship, which I believe it to be, describing the key concepts of Taoist philosophy (tao chia) expressed in a poetic manner. My intention here has been to provide a translation suitable for those readers wishing to discover something of that philosophy, as described in one of its major works.

On the matter of 'translation', I should state that I consider the term to be a misnomer when applied to an English rendering of this classical Chinese work. For the reasons mentioned above, I believe that any such work is at least as much, and probably more a matter of interpretation than of literal translation. This problem is admirably expressed by Arthur Hummel, former Head of the Division of Orientalia at the Library of Congress when he writes in his foreword to Dr. C.H. Wu's translation (referenced), "Any translation is an interpretation .... for the language of one tradition does not provide exact verbal equivalents for all the creative ideas of another tradition."

Whilst I have tried to ensure the accuracy of my own sources, this does not of course guarantee the accuracy of the result. Furthermore, since I have not attempted to be literally accurate in my interpretation, and because this rendering is not intended to compete with such translations, I have listed below some titles, including ten translations of the Tao Te Ching, which have been of value in this undertaking. They are listed in order to acknowledge the work of the translators, as well as to provide alternative sources for those readers wishing to conduct their own research and comparisons. The other titles are those of books on the Chinese language, and these are listed for the benefit of those readers wishing to undertake their own translations.

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