<>b>Wisdom from Books

<>b>Wisdom from Books
Stephen Lau's website on getting your wisdom from books.

Monday, October 1, 2018

Why I Translated “TAO TE CHING” and Wrote A Book About the BIBLE

It never occurred to me that I would write a book about Tao Te Ching and the Bible—two of the world’s most translated and extensively read books of all time. I have neither the background nor the credentials to take up this huge literary challenge. But I have done it nevertheless. Maybe if there is a will, there must be a way somehow.

Where did my will come from?

My first contact with Tao Te Ching was probably when I was a 5th or 6th grader back in Hong Kong, prior to my coming to the United States. In those days, ancient Chinese classics were taught in Chinese classes; students were occasionally given a few verses from some famous Chinese classics, including Tao Te Ching, to commit to memory. In the texts from Tao Te Ching, the phrases taken were usually short and easy to remember, and the words rhyming and catchy; they were much like lyrics from a Chinese pop song. Other than those memories, the content made little sense to the students, including me.

Several decades later, when I began writing The Book of Life and Living, I did some research on Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching. With Internet access, I was surprised to find that there are thousands of translations of the immortal classic of Lao Tzu.

I must say that many of the translations available in the Internet are imperfect (however, it does not imply that mine is in any way near perfection, or even good enough when compared with many of them). The reason is that the text of Tao Te Ching is in itself one of the most difficult ones in the world for intellectual understanding, let alone translating it into a different language. Without a sound knowledge of the Chinese language (which, to me, is extremely difficult to learn, not to mention to master) and a thorough understanding of the cultural background, any attempt to express its profound content in a language other than the original Chinese without any punctuation mark is an insurmountable literary challenge.

To me, the main reason for the imperfections in nearly all the translations, including mine, of Tao Te Ching is best explained by the famous Indian fable of the blind men describing an elephant. Like the blind men in the fable, each translator or interpreter of Tao Te Ching is always looking at the text from his or her own perspective. That explains why there is no perfect translation of Tao Te Ching: none of us is Lao Tzu, and each of us is striving to probe into the mind of the great sage according to our own perspectives and interpretations. But, by the same token, that is also the beauty of the book: it is open to any interpretation. For that reason, it is timeless; its value changes with the change of perspective of its readers.

Tao Te Ching is not meant to be read in a single sitting, and then forget about it; it is a book to be read, re-read, and then re-read as often as needed. Michael Crichton, the best-selling author and acclaimed film-producer, once said in interview with Amazon.com that if he were stranded on an island the only book he would take with him would be Tao Te Ching. His comment speaks volumes of the substantial intrinsic merit of this ancient Chinese classic.

Yes, Tao Te Ching is one of the world’s most difficult and yet most intriguing masterpieces. By design, the book is riddled with unexplained perplexities and contradictory possibilities through the deliberate use of simple, but vague and ambiguous words. The real essence of the book is its absolute and pure wisdom of living a life of balance and harmony, and thus enabling us to reassess our own lives through the many life lessons that we undergo in varying stages of life. Therefore, its unique content is eternal and timeless. That is why I would like to introduce Tao Te Ching to you, if you have not already read it.

Stephen Lau
Copyright© by Stephen Lau


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