Lost in translation

Jun 24, 2012, 11:54 IST | Lindsay Pereira

In his book on Lao Tsu, whether Hua-Ching Ni brings something new, is debatable

This is tricky stuff. Firstly, it’s hard to reach some sort of consensus on whether or not his name was Lao-Tsu, Laocius, Laotze or, as most Chinese know him, Laozi. What most scholars seem to agree upon is the fact that he was a philosopher born around 604 BC, he wrote the Tao Te Ching (also referred to, confusingly, as Laozi), and he was a founder of Taoism — the philosophical idea of living in harmony with the ‘path’ that is now followed by a reported 400 million people in China alone.

His most popular work, Tao Te Ching, aka Book of the Way and its Power, has been translated hundreds of times. It’s still confusing to non-practitioners though, so whether or not Hua-Ching Ni brings something new to the table with this version is, honestly, debatable.

Then there’s the Hua Hu Ching, also known as the Huahujing, also known as the Classic on Converting the Barbarians. Interestingly, this book documents Lao Tsu’s travels as a missionary to India, where he supposedly recognised in Buddhism simply another version of Taoism, albeit an imperfectly understood one. What is more controversial is how some refuse to attribute it to Laozi. In this translation, it takes the form of question and answer, between a Prince and a Taoist Master. The result is sentences like this: ‘The subtle cosmic body of the Universal One cannot be seen in any beautiful form, because to the Universal One there is nothing which can be considered as form.’

The problem with this book is how much is lost in translation. The original texts rely so much on Chinese word play, with everything from figures of speech to ancient sayings mixed in, render any attempt at translation partially superfluous. One can only grasp at straws, at best. What it does do rather well is give the reader a broad overview of a way of life that continues to influence as well as mystify.

The Complete Works of Lao TsuHua-Ching Ni
Rs 250 Published by Rupa 

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