Galen Pearl

Galen Pearl

Galen Pearl

Lost in Translation

The Tao Te Ching has been a source of inspiration in my life for many years. I don’t remember how I first encountered it in my young life, but I do remember that its simple wisdom resonated in my soul and I have loved it ever since.

Several years ago, I gathered various translations with the intention of taking one chapter at a time and comparing the different interpretations. However, I quickly saw that this was not enough. I needed to go to the source. And so I began a journey into the original ancient Chinese text. It was like finding a door hidden in the overgrowth to a secret garden of unimaginable beauty.

“Here there be dragons,” say the old maps designating uncharted areas at the edge of the known world. Dragons indeed, bursting from the depths of the sea, water diamonds cascading from their wings, dancing in the air, their form too brilliant to behold, then disappearing in a puff of smoke. I had no idea.

And that is the point perhaps. Having no idea.

The Chinese text dances like those dragons, defying analysis or intellectual understanding. It is poetic, with rhythm and music to delight the soul. The characters are cryptic, with multiple meanings swirling in fluid mystery. Trying to pin down a single meaning is like trying to catch with your bare hands a single slippery fish in a vast school of fish. Better to float in the water, watching the colorful fish dart and twirl. I quit trying to understand and just immersed myself in the experience.

We see such variations in translation, not because one is right and one is wrong, but because translators by necessity must dip their net into the water and catch a single meaning to put into language that we recognize. We form ideas about the meaning so that we can use words to share our ideas with each other.

My daughter grew up in China with Chinese as her first language. When I shared with her my exploration of the Chinese text of the Tao Te Ching, she brushed her hand through the air and shrugged. “No one understands this,” she said dismissively.

I had to laugh. But her response gave me a deeper insight. Even if we were native Chinese speakers, we would have to form ideas and use words to communicate with each other about the meaning of this wisdom teaching that defies explanation in any language!

Expanding even more, we can include all of life in this process. All of us, all the time, are “translating” our experience into ideas, concepts, beliefs. And using words to communicate these to each other. That’s not bad. Or good for that matter. It is a necessary process for us as embodied separate individuals. Our ideas, beliefs, and concepts then in turn shape our experience because we will only recognize what comports with the internal structure we have built. We create a loop of what we call reality through what we create and perceive.

Meanwhile, our direct experience of true realty has been “lost in translation.” To me, this is what the Tao Te Ching teaches. If I can embrace all the possible meanings in the mystery of the text, then I can appreciate the various translations without judging them as right or wrong, good or bad. Likewise, if we can embrace the direct experience of what is, then we can engage in and enjoy the dialogue of human-ness without the added suffering of attachment. We can dance with dragons.

Any belief limits my reality, because any belief is a prejudice. Any belief imposes an artificial structure on the free flow of experience. ~Paul Ferrini

12 thoughts on “Lost in Translation”

  1. I love the image of dancing with dragons, Galen! Yes, words do not do justice to so many things we experience in life – they are limited in scope, but sometimes, it's all we have to express to another our deepest longings, fears and dreams.

  2. Very interesting thoughts here, Galen. I used the Wilhelm version when I was into the I Ching, and there were only a few times that the words didn't illuminate my current situation. I resonate with that last quote and realize its truth as I read the news. Thank you for sharing this thoughtful post and enriching my day. 🙂

  3. Thanks, DJan. The I Ching, like the Tao Te Ching, is full of wisdom. Isn't it wonderful that we can find illumination from so many sources?!

  4. Yes, Martha, as long as we are in this human form, we need some way to communicate with each other. I love words. In fact my legal career was based on words. I've learned over the years, however, that the words represent something but are not the "something" themselves. Hope those words made some sense — ha!

  5. My first introduction to Taoism and Buddhist thought was through the fictional Kung-Fu series of the early 70's. I was a teen at the time and Kwai Chang Caine was my Hero. we wouldn't miss it. I didn't realize it at the time but the gentle wisdom of Caine and his masters influences me.I have the series now on dvd and I have enjoyed listening to it once again. My next Introduction to Tao was through a commentary by Wayne Dyer. I have since bought three other translations of which Stephen Mitchell's is my favorite. I just bought a book written by Alan Watts called Tao -The watercourse way but I haven't read it yet. Taoism appeals to me so much. I can very naturally adopt it into my lifestyle. In a sense it has become who I am. I don't like labels but the Taoist way has become my path.

  6. I loved that series too, Brian! Many those teachings come right out of the Tao Te Ching. Pretty radical for back in that day. The story is that Bruce Lee was supposed to have the lead in that series–racism meets Taoism. Funny since the opening of the series shows Caine encountering racism because he is only half Chinese.

    All the translations/interpretations you mentioned have something to offer. I like them all.

  7. As always, you post thoughts that help me to ponder more and open my mind to different multilayered ideas found within your writings.
    You do have a poetic flair to your posts. I also love your own poetry.
    I continue to enjoy your interpretation of Taoism. I find it interesting that there are more than one interpretation. I often see my own religious beliefs in these teachings.
    As always you keep my older brain thinking deeper thoughts.
    Blessings and hugs to you!
    I hope this posts and that your comments are working.

  8. LeAnn, thanks for your persistence in figuring out this comment glitch. I will now look for your comments on my comment moderation page instead of my email inbox! I appreciate you for the same reason–I like to hear your perspective on things from your own faith orientation.

  9. I have one version of the Tao Te Ching, then soon became aware that due to the verses being so open to interpretation, there were therefore many other 'translations' out there. So i had a decision to make – try and find a 'true' translation that suited me and my beliefs or leave it with my having one version with the verses in, that would have to be 'good enough'. I could simply read the verses and see what tried to say to me – so I went for the latter option.

    Yes, language is so finite. I felt this way when I began to do my creative writing. I became very aware that compared to my painting's colours, lines and textures and the infinite choices of mark making and color mixing one can do,there is something that feels restrictive about language in comparison. So then it became about finding the words to bring images to life in the imagination – and that is why I will always be susceptible to too much description I guess!

  10. I am sometimes asked for advice in choosing the best translation, but I like different ones for different reasons. So your approach of just letting the verse (in whatever version) speak to you is the only way to enter more deeply into the wisdom.

    And yes, you are a master of description! The scenes in your book are so vivid. You take your reader right into the scene.

  11. "We see such variations in translation, not because one is right and one is wrong, but because translators by necessity must dip their net into the water and catch a single meaning to put into language that we recognize. We form ideas about the meaning so that we can use words to share our ideas with each other."

    I like what you said here. There are so many ways of looking and seeing Tao, we grasp onto a little bit of its truth as you mentioned … "translators by necessity must dip their net into the water and catch a single meaning" Tao Te Ching for me is like any work of art. It is open, each interpretation speaks truth for that individual, there is no right and wrong. It is so beautifully written, I love its poetic flow. It speaks to my inner core more then any other writing that I have studied. Thanks Galen for sharing your interpretation of what Tao is.

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