Dàodéjīng 2: a field of ambiguities

I’m mostly producing these versions as a way to deepen my own understanding, but someone may find something to value here anyway. Notes are after the chapter.

When the whole world actively perceives beauty as beauty, then there is ugliness.

When all actively perceive good as good, then there is no good.

So presence and absence create one another,

Hard and easy complete one another,

Long and short measure one another,

High and low upturn one another,

Voice and music harmonise one another,

Before and after follow one another.

So the wise person’s role is to accomplish without acting, practice teaching without words.

The swarm of creatures arise! But no excuse.

Create, but no presence.

Act, but no expectation.

Work is completed, but rest is impossible.

Yet because rest is impossible, there is no loss.

In lines one and two, ‘actively perceive’, although more clunky than ‘know’ or ‘perceive’, seems to avoid their undue passivity and preserves the quiet contrast with ‘without acting’ later on (due to the repetition of wei in both sentences).

I’ve rendered the famous appearance of wu wei as ‘accomplish without acting‘. I feel it’s important to preserve the ambiguity between ‘accomplish [something else] without acting’ and ‘accomplish [the state of] without-acting’. More common translations, such as ‘no-action’, sacrifice the first to emphasise the second; but then you need long explanations of how wu-wei doesn’t mean literal inaction. Better to preserve the ambiguity. A bonus is that in ‘accomplishes without acting’, ‘acting’ is ambiguous between the usual interpretation and ‘acting’ as artifice or pretence, so this rendering preserves the text’s emphasis on naturalness.

The final section is often rendered along the lines of ‘The swarm of creatures [lit: the ten thousand things] arise, but the sage does not refuse them’. No subject is given, though, so translations like ‘…arise, but they [the swarm of creatures] do not refuse’ are just as plausible. I tried to preserve this ambiguity, and that made me realise that a third reading is also possible ‘…arise, but there is no refusal’. I like that reading, but I don’t think that any translation is the reading; so, in the end, I returned to a structure parallel to the Chinese, ‘but no x’ (although ‘and no x’ would also fit). I think this preserves all three possibilities.

‘Create, but no presence’, gave me a certain amount of trouble. In translations where this section is taken to mean something like ‘The sage creates, but he does not…’, the most natural reading is ‘possess’ or even ‘take ownership’, but translating like this misses the metaphysical meanings of the word (‘being’). ‘Presence’ keeps a (slightly deflated) metaphysical reading, and fits well with interpretations along the lines of ‘Create, but there is no presence’, but I have had to sacrifice some of the connotations of not taking ownership. An alternative, which I toyed with, would be ‘Create, but no possession’.


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