07 January 2013

老子 Lao Zi: 道德經 17章 Dao De Jing Chapter 17 (Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching 17)

Wishing you a most successful 2013!  At this new year, I am posting a piece very different from the ones I have been posting in the last 5 years.  Today, I am posting Chapter 17 of 老子 Lao Zi (Lao Tzu)'s 道德經 Dao De Jing (Tao Te Ching) which begins with 太上下知有之 "Best of all, the ruler is only known to be there."

Unlike the lyricism of the quatrains and long-short-line verses I have been posting, the Dao De Jing is philosophical, political and didactic, being (in my view, at least) practical advice to those who are in authority.  

Although the Dao De Jing is largely rhymed (e.g. the word 之 ending the first 4 lines and the 焉、言、然 of the next 4 lines) probably in order to ease memorization, there is no systematic rhyme scheme to speak of and it is, therefore, more prose than poetry.

For these reasons, I have decided to adopt free verse (or perhaps just prose divided into lines) in my rendition of Lao Zi's Dao De Jing.

I had for long been preaching Chapter 17 and others in my speeches and lectures before my retirement. Last October, I was invited by the Hong Kong Institute of Education to speak at their Conference on "Trust Building and Governance in Hong Kong and Macau".  The main thrust of my presentation was line 5.  As the session was held in English, I used Stephen Mitchell's translation which goes "If you don't trust the people, you make them untrustworthy."  This I changed, according to my interpretation, into "If you don't trust the people, the people will not trust you."  劉殿爵 D.C. Lau's has translated the line as "Only when there is not enough faith is there a lack of faith."  This I find too ambiguous.  This is the genesis of my rendition.  I hope you will enjoy it.    

Lao Zi (circa 500 BCE):  Dao De Jing Chapter 17
(Lao Tzu:  Tao Te Ching 17)

1    Best of all, the ruler is only known to be there;
2    Next, he is loved and praised;
3    Further next, he is feared;
4    Furthest down, he is slighted.

5    It is the ruler’s lack of trust in the people that creates their mistrust.
6    He should be cautious and sparing in whatever he says or orders.
7    With good rule established and his task complete,
8    The people will say, “We ourselves have done it so naturally.”

Translated by Andrew W.F. Wong (Huang Hongfa)          譯者: 黃宏發
9th November 2012
Translated from the original - 老子:  道德經  17

1    太上,下知有之;
2    其次,親而譽之;
3    其次,畏之;
4    其次,侮之。

5    信不足焉,有不信焉。
6    悠兮其貴言。
7    功成事遂,
8    百姓皆謂我自然。


*    I am indeed most grateful to my friend the late Prof. D.C. Lau 劉殿爵 from whose works I have borrowed rather heavily: (1) his rendition of Lao Tzu’s “Tao Te Ching” (Penguin 1963, p.73 for Chapter 17), and (2) his slightly revised rendition of the same (The Chinese University Press, probably 1981, pp. 290-291 for Chapter 17) with the 2 oldest extant Ma Wang Dui (MWD) 馬王堆 manuscripts (unearthed in 1973) covered in the revised translation.

*   The late D.C. Lau’s renditions are the best of all renditions I have encountered.  I have, however, found it necessary to venture my own translation primarily because I wish to attempt to render the work in a less ambiguous manner.  For example, line 5 in Chapter 17 has been rendered by Lau in 1963 as “When there is not enough faith, there is a lack of good faith” and, in the 1980’s, as “Only when there is not enough faith is there a lack of faith”.  These rather literal translations have failed to depict the implicit causal relationship between the ruler and the people.  The line in the context of the whole chapter should, in my view, mean “If the ruler lacks faith in the people, the people will have no faith in him”.  Hence, my “It is the ruler’s lack of trust in the people that creates their mistrust.”

*    Line 1:  I have stuck to the 下知有之 version instead of the 不知有之 and 下不知有之 versions.

*    Line 4:  I have translated the line according to the MWD version of 其下(down) instead of the more popular 其次(next).

*    Line 5:  I have translated the line following Lau’s moving the comma from after to before the first and taking this first to have a substantive meaning of (be, is; so, therefore) and his punctuating the line after 信不足 with a comma before this first .  The second at the end of the line remains an “auxiliary word” 助詞/助語詞  meaning or .  In short, both Lau and myself interpret the line as “信不足,乃()有不信也()”.  That said, even the popular version of “信不足焉,有不信焉” (with both ’s taken as auxiliary words meaning ) is capable of this interpretation.  I have added “ruler” and “people” in the English rendition so as to make clear the message which is central to this whole chapter.

*    Line 6:  I have adopted for my translation the MWD version of “hesitant” instead of the popular version of “leisurely” but which can also mean .  While Lau has rendered the line as “Hesitant, he does not utter words lightly”, I find “hesitant” negative and prefer to use “cautious and sparing” partly borrowing from Chapter 23’s concept of 希言 “sparing of words”.  I have added the word “orders” as whatever the ruler “says” would most likely be acted upon by his officials.

*    Line 7:  Although in the MWD manuscripts, 功成事遂  is shown as成功遂事; the 2 versions more or less mean the same.  I have rendered 功成 or 成功 as “good rule is established” to echo and conclude the “best” state of affairs introduced in line 1 where “the ruler is only known to be there”.  I hope this is an acceptable improvement on Lau’s rather literal rendition of “his task is accomplished”.

*    Line 8:  “all” is not translated as I consider it unimportant and is not found in the MWT manuscripts     and some other versions.  is translated not simply as “we” but as “we ourselves” so as to emphasize “we the people (not the ruler) have done it”.  自然 is translated as “naturally” in the sense of “in a natural way/manner”.  The word “so” is added so as to exclude from the word “naturally” the meaning of “of course” or “as would be expected” or “needless to say”. 


Classical Chinese Poems in English


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