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Section 6 of the Tao-te-ching, comparing translations

I finally got the Ames and Hall translation which was highly recommended to me as a “Philosophical translation” (as opposed to I suppose, a “metaphysical” or even a poetic one). I have to say that as I have jumped around through it, it strikes me as one of the beter ones that I have seen (given that I do not read Chinese). Many translations strain toward the saccrine it seems, attempting to capture some Eastern aura unavailable to the West. I prefer a perhaps more banal, image-centered translation. Although I was pleased with my intitial encounters, when I checked section 6, a favorite test case, I was a little disappointed when comparing it to the one that I have for a while preferred, the Richard John Lynn translation, with Wang Bi’s commentary (2005). Section 6 makes an interesting test case for it is essentially untranslatable, and also tempts all kinds of (spiritualizing) extrapolations.This is the Ames and Hall version:

The life-force of the valley never dies –
This is called the dark female.
The gateway of the dark female –
This is called the root of the world.
Wispy and delicate, it only seems to be there,
Yet its productivity is bottomless.

And this is the Richard John Lynn translation:

The Valley Spirit never dies, and we call it the “Mysterious Female.” The gate of the Mysterious Female is referred to as the “root of Heaven and Earth.” On and on, with only apparent existence, it functions inexhaustably.

Lynn has a foot note on the phrase “on and on”, which Ames and Hall had translated as “Wispy and Delicate”: “On and on” translates mianmian, which seems equivalent to the “on and on” (shengsheng) of Wang’s commentary to section 14, first passage. Both expressions describe unbroken continuity.  

There are several interesting decisions here. Lynn decides to capitalize the “Mysterious Female” (not to menion translating Xuan of Xuanpin as “mysterious” rather than “dark”. It can mean anything from “dark” to “obscure” to “mysterious”. It is the literally unseen, as I understand it. But really the “on and on” phrase is I think key to understanding the entire image being made.

The Ames and Hall translation presents commentary that reduces the image to a vaginal metaphor:

“In this chapter and pervasive in the text, the image of the dark, moist, and accomodating interior of the vagina is used as an analogy for this fertility”.

Certainly one can read the vagina in this image, but to completely reduce it to such is for me a wide mistake. The image is also that of an actual Valley, a valley whose emptiness provides the base for a running river which is implied. Such a river becomes the communal center of life, not just for human civilization, but also all animal life. This is really what is captured I think in the phrase “on and on” (mianmian). There is no “wispy and delicate” here, as far as I can tell. Mian is silk, one can see something of the continuity of silk being spun.

By the lights of my intuition, the word-image evoked in mianmian, (if, silk-silk), is of an incredibly thin, drawn out, but also incredibly STRONG strand of silk (as that which comes out of the silkworm’s abdomen when it is spun). There is a delicacy, but also a tensiled unbroken integrity. This is the river-line that pours through the river valley. “Wispy and delicate” really loses the combined, seemingly contradictory effect in reference to a continuous line of silk. A near invisible, strong as steel productive line.

The Gushen, is not just a vaginal force, but is quite literally the Spirit of the Valley, and one suspects nearly an animistic force, one that is experienced when actually standing in a valley. I think if you stand in a Valley, you get the full force of both the image of continity, fertility and even Dark Force (for light hits the ridges). All of this content is really lost in the Ames and Hall translation.

The ancient Wang Bi commentary that accompanies Lynn’s transation really brings this additional meaning out, “The Valley Spirit [Gushen] is the nothingness in the center of the valley. It has neither form or appearance and is utterly free from contrariness or disobedience.. Lying low and unmoving, it maintains its quiescence and never weakens.. Even though all things are completed by it, we do not see its form, for this is the most perfect thing.”

Now the Ames and Hall translation DOES bring out the sexuality of the image, something that is latent in the Lynn translation. “Pin” in the Xuanpin (Mysterious Female), is the female when referring to the sex of an animal (I have read). This force is an animal force. Its darkness and obscurity is here of an animal nature. The emphasis on the female sex organ thus can bring out a bit of this, but it should not be at the cost of losing the image of the Valley itself.

This is by no means a verdict on the Ames and Hall translation. Only an anecdotal connection to a favorite verse. The Ames and Hall translation has lots of notes and tries hard to steer from any romanticization of the text. The Lynn translation though has the distinct advantage of Wang Bi’s 3rd century commentary, and a rich index of terms at the back.

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