Through the Western Gate: Le Guin, Francoise Sagan, and the Tao Te Ching

A Chinese painting of dragons, inspired by the Tao Te Ching

Translating a written work from one language to another is a tricky business or a tricky art or a Sisyphean task with a boulder weighing more than the universe. Translating is not transliteration, which is simple, if awkward – even ugly – word-for-word replacement. Almost anyone with a 20-pound dictionary and lots of patience can do it – you take a word or two in, say, Russian, then look them up, hope you don’t have to spend the weekend digging through verb conjugations, then put those down in, say, English. And you do this until you are finished. And when you are finished, what do you have? A polished, faithful transmission of the thought, the ambience, the idea of the original? No. You have a clunky, misshapen, machine translation-like rendition of something – God knows what.

In his translation of Francoise Sagan’s La Chamade, Douglas Hofstadter states the case for a certain leeway in the transmission of a novel in French to one in English, at least for HIS translation style. His favorite analogy seems to be a musical one, wherein he recounts how one piece of music which is performed in many different ways by different artists. The music is written, solid, there for all to see, but when some particular singer or band renders it, it’s different – the same, but different, re-interpreted.

In my copy of this work, the translation is up front, but if you turn the book over and put it upside down, there is Hofstadter’s essay. It’s interesting, if a bit self-serving and way too long, but he makes some points, with examples, about word choice, mood, idioms, Americanisms, etc. He acknowledges that readers and translators may disagree about words, mood, and intent. He mentions Robert Westhoff, who also translated this novel and who was actually married to Francoise Sagan. And here there is a discussion about the title. Westhoff left the title in French. I have the dictionary Hofstdter mentions, the Collins-Robert French Dictionary, which is very big, very thorough, well over 2200 pages, filled to overflowing with definitions and verbs and enough other stuff to fill to overflowing one’s eyes and mind. When one looks up “chamade”, one is led to “battre”, and then begins a long perusal of the column-and-a-half of definitions and examples. “La chamade” was originally the beating of drums or trumpets sounding, indicating that one army wanted to parley with another. Collins-Robert, under “son coeur battait la chamade” (his heart was beating wildly), tells the reader that this “chamade”  is a wild beating associated with the heart. And Westhoff chose, in his translation of his ex-wife’s novel, to leave the title in French. Hofstadter decided to go his own way, using the title That Mad Ache. Someone picking up the novel in a bookstore would probably never know – or really care – that the original title was “La Chamade” or what it originally meant. And the title of Sagan’s first novel, written when she was 17 and published when she was 18, was left in French: Bonjour Tristesse, which CAN easily be translated word-for-word with no loss of meaning or intent or mood (“Hello Sadness”) – so there IS precedent. But now you and I DO know the etymology and definition of “La Chamade” and perhaps we wonder: How does Hofstadter get his title from that definition? Well, he defends his choice by basically saying HE is the translator and just…well, decided. OK, fair enough…my French is so poor, I have no choice: It’s  Hofstedter or Westhoff or some other translator. So what responsibility do I, as a reader, have to Francoise Sagan or to myself? I read Bonjour Tristesse, Aimez-vous Brahms, and A Certain Smile, all in translation of course, but until I read Hofstedter’s essay, I never considered the possibility of finding other translations to compare to the ones I had already read. If I – or any other Sagan fan – REALLY wanted to KNOW the Sagan style, word-choice, context, did I have the obligation to myself to read other translations? Well, I’ve done that with one book I truly admire, puzzle over, gnash my teeth over – the Tao Te Ching.

A Chinese painting inspired by the Tao Te Ching

I confess my 7 copies of the Tao were purchased out of frustration rather than academic intent.  After I read my first copy, I wondered what, exactly,  it was that I had read. I got another translation and was surprised that part of it read like a whole different book, so…I got another translation, then another. And then I realized that the Tao was a book of open interpretation, of ellipsis, of thought. It is a Chinese painting. Chinese painting is not about ferns and weird-looking rocks and barely-sketched water; Chinese painting is about space and spaces. When one first views such art, one sees not very much; Westerners like a busy canvas, so it first appears there is nothing much to see in Chinese art.  But some time with it, some contemplation, produces a dawning realization that the spaces, the apparent emptiness, is what produces the context, what makes it the art that it is. It takes a whole different mindset which produced the work and a different mindset to begin to understand it. And so it is with the Tao Te Ching.

Ursula K. Le Guin has also worked on presenting the Tao to readers, but she is quick to say it is NOT a translation: “This is a rendition, not a translation.” So, if someone wants to read the Tao, should he or she even bother with Le Guin’s work?  A rendition is a translation, an interpretation, according to the dictionary, and this version of the Tao is one of those Chinese paintings. It is beautiful, spare, mystical, wry, and breathtakingly puzzling and thought-provoking. If Lao Tzu, the somewhat mythical author, were to read her version, I picture him nodding and smiling approvingly. She also states plainly she doesn’t read Chinese. Wait, what? How can anyone translate Language A into Language B if the translator has no knowledge of language A? Le Guin explains that she had Paul Carus’s 1898 transliteration and translation as her Rosetta Stone, the same copy – now heavily handled, underlined, taped to keep the binding intact – which her father had:

To have the text thus made accessible was not only to have a Rosetta Stone for the book itself, but also to have a touchstone for comparing other English translations one with another. If I could focus on which word the translators were interpreting, I could begin to understand why they made the choice they did…And finally, for all my ignorance of the language, I could gain an intuition of the style, the gait and cadence of the original, necessary to my ear and conscience I was to try to reproduce it in English.

Whew!  Sounds like an immense amount of work, not to mention an immense amount of ego, but it was a labor of love for Le Guin and she tells the reader that, just as her father underline parts of the Tao to be read at his funeral, so has she. So what does her version look like, feel like? How does it read compared to some other version? She decided not to use the order the received texts use – the Te (Power, Virtue) first, then the Tao (the Way) – so her version doesn’t start with Chapter 38, but Chapter 1. Already, I was smiling.

For a representative comparison, I’m using the Victor H. Mair translation, which is based on the Mawangdui Texts (The Silk Texts).  His Tao starts with Chapter 45:

The ways that can be walked are not the eternal Way;
The names that can be named are not the eternal name.
The nameless is the origin of the myriad creatures;
The named is the mother of the myriad creatures.

There are three more stanzas but let us jump to Le Guin and see what she does with this origin stanza:

The way you can go isn’t the real way.
The name you can say isn’t the real name.
Heaven and earth
Begin in the unnamed;
Name’s the mother
Of the ten thousand things.

There isn’t much difference here.  Both versions say the Tao is not obvious, is ineffable, and is the source of Everything That Is. So Le Guin shows the reader her spare prose is up to the task of communicating the Basic Tao to the reader. The whole of Le Guin’s version is poetry – not of meter and rhyme, but of patterned intensity of language. It is clean, to the point, not busy, not crowded, allowing the reader to think, to avoid the forest in the way and see and appreciate the individual trees. And it is prescient:

People are starving,
The rich gobble taxes,
That’s why people are starving.
People rebel,
The rich oppress them,
That’s why people rebel.
People hold life cheap,
The rich make it too costly,
That’s why people hold it cheap.
But those who don’t live for the sake of living
Are worth more than the wealth-seekers.

That’s not Bernie or the Squad talking, either.  So, as a reader, I recommend Ursula K. Le Guin’s version of the Tao Te Ching. It is Essence, Soul, the very meat of the nut.

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If you enjoyed this piece, check out the automachination YouTube channel and the ArtiFact Podcast. Recent episodes include an interview with singer Eva Schubert on writing good songs, an in-depth look at Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Sonnets from the Portuguese” with poet Joel Parrish, a philosophical look at kitsch, aesthetics, and NFTs with UK painter Ethan Pinch, and a long discussion on Edward P. Jones’s classic short story collection, “Lost in the City”.

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