The gale will not last the morning, the rain will not pour down all day

APRIL 07 05

Someone asked my opinion of Stephen Mitchell's translation of the Daodejing. I notice 120 people have managed to give this book four stars on Amazon, which is the average you get from a majority who think it's worth five stars and a few who think it barely scrapes through with one. The latter are right, this is a novice work.

How good can any version be where the 'translator' hasn't looked at the Chinese and bases his 'translation' on those of other people with the addition of, or replacement by, his own 'insight' into what he supposes the text means? I don't regard paraphrase as translation, and the 'insight' of those bothered enough to fulfil a publishing contract but not bothered enough to look at the Chinese doesn't interest me.

Some people say Mitchell has translated 'his understanding' of the Daodejing, as if you could understand the Daodejing best by steering clear of the original in all that time you've devoted to the subject. I guess though that Mitchell must have made a few friends by referring to 'the Master' as 'she', pandering to a right-on PC kind of thing; just a shame that in many of the passages where he inserts 'she' you don't actually need to specify a gender at all. So much for that.

Glancing through his translation, there are things that are quite wrong. Take this section of chapter 23, for instance, which I have given a very literal translation below to show how simple it actually is:

The original emphasises something anyone who has walked in the hills knows, that violent wind blows itself out soon enough, and heavy rain is unlikely to last all day, at least not without pockets of fine weather. Despite the fact that this section is so simple as to be got right by most of the translators that Mitchell might have looked at in cobbling together his own version, he has replaced what the text says with something resembling cliché Zen:

when it blows, there is only wind;
when it rains, there is only rain;
when the clouds pass, the sun shines through.

In rehashing the original concrete image, divorced from the exactness and simplicity of the unlooked-at Chinese, he has lost (and obviously never understood from the translations he read) the main idea. The Daodejing was written in the mountains, where the changeability of the weather is felt more acutely than in cities. I have walked many times in the mountains during bad weather thinking 'these gales will not last all morning, this rain will not pour down all day'. And I trudge on emboldened by this truth I have seen so many times play out in nature, but which I first encountered in this chapter of the Daodejing. It is a sustaining truth in difficulty that has settled deep in me over the years. Here is a poem I scribbled in my notebook in a moment of sunshine during a storm:


From a rich seam of sudden sunlight shining
With endless gratitude I’m mining
Under the very nose of this mountain storm
The fleeting glee of feeling warm.

Rain nearly all day in the mountains is pretty bleak, but when it passes, how it changes things. Laozi's purpose in saying that the wind and rain won't last a whole day was to create a parallel whereby he could add that wind and rain were created by Heaven and Earth, and if Heaven and Earth cannot make things last for long then how much more this was so of people. None of this is in Mitchell's version. As for the second half of chapter 23, it is somewhat obscure in the original. I think the gist of what Laozi is saying is that in light of this analogy of the wind and the rain those who experience loss can remain optimistic in the knowledge it will be a swiftly passing matter.

This is the unrelenting impermanence of Buddhism, that there is not one thing that is permanent, and that everything is empty of real existence. We are living an idea, dreaming a dream. This life, in the words of the Pure Land monk Kyobutsu, 'is but one night's lodging'. Something I have taken to heart is the image of this world being just a dewdrop evaporating in the morning sun, soon over. There is another saying, quoted in the Mozi, that our life on Earth is 'as brief as the passing of a team of horses glimpsed through a crack in the wall'. There is a play of the Muromachi period that has the line 'as a white colt flashes past a gap in the hedge, so do the days pass'. The original of this idea is in the Zhuangzi (chap 22). For years I have immersed myself in the philosophy of fleetingness and constant change, and have been attracted to its texts. So it seems to me that chapter 23 of the Daodejing is another formulation of the 'soon over, it never mattered' philosophy, encapsulated most consolingly as 'This too shall pass'. If there is something more to the second half I'm not sure what it is, the more I look at the Chinese the more it seems completely enigmatic. D C Lau noted that loss seemed the wrong word and that it didn't make much sense to him, and other translators seem to have struggled here, none that I have read offering anything remotely satisfying.

Stephen Mitchell remains blissfully unaware of these problems. When you're just looking for a meaning, any meaning, and another form of words culled from a collection of already extant English versions, you don't have to trouble yourself with being faithful to the original or even understanding it. How satisfying it must then be to find that people prefer your work to those you cribbed from. And better still, a few actual Chinese people are writing on Amazon that your book is great.

That's another thing I find faintly objectionable, the idea that merely being Chinese puts you in a position to judge the worth of a translation of the Daodejing. It's been my experience that Chinese people too will rate highly bad translations from the Chinese into English. Perhaps they never understood it in Chinese, you see…

I was amused once when a Chinese friend told me that she never understood the Daodejing in Chinese, but now in this new translation into English it was crystal clear to her. I asked which translation, and she pulled some utter crap off her shelf.

I look at her, 'Have you compared it with the Chinese?'

She looks at me, 'Yes.'

And so I say, 'What did you think?'

And she says, 'Chinese one too hard, prefer this one.'