Category Archives for: Eastern Philosophy

Notes on Translations of Ancient Literature

19 May 2016

[related writings: What is Worth Reading?, Notes on Translations of Ancient Literature, Lessons in Research of a Past Time, The Kinds of Literature and the Extraction of Ideas]

Two recent posts have been about finding a good, if not the best translation and/or publication of ancient literature: Dao De Jing (道德經) and Zhuangzi (莊子) and Plutarch’s Lives. I took the notes and the lesson from those posts and placed them here.

notes on publishers

1. Penguin [Classics]
– good, simple book format (which is becomes more important when reading digitally): intro, then straight to content
– most often has (/ probably can afford and copyright) the best translation
– for prolific authors they to divide works by several books often with different translators, which would make word choices inconsistent, and reading a bit more cumbersome (again, doubly important for digital reading)
2. Oxford [World’s Classics]
– similar [to Penguin], but in the case of Plutarch’s Lives, failed by excluding content


1. none
– if one doesn’t like the Penguin edition, then some other random publisher may have a better publication (physical format, digital format, extra content) or translation (Hackett, Basic Books, Yale, Cambridge, etc.)
– if one wants complete works, again, some other random publisher may have it (ex. Modern Library for Aristotle and Plutarch’s Lives, Hackett for Plato, Landmark for Ancient Greece historians, etc.)
*. Delphi Classics eBook
– made for digital! Translator is probably limited to those that are available for free, which could be crusty.
x. Harvard [Loeb Classical Library]
– avoid, billingual Greek and very literally translated English, made for anal academicians. Perhaps for ease of secondary translators?


1. none – probably some random native translator who is capable of thinking like an ancient native person, such as Yutang Lin and Wing-tsit Chan for ancient Chinese philosophy
A Source Book in Indian Philosophy by Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, Charles A. Moore (Princeton)
A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy by Wing-tsit Chan (Rongjie Chen) (Princeton)
— published after helping Watson with Sources of Chinese Tradition (Columbia)
The Wisdom of China [and India] by Yutang Lin (Random House, Modern Libary, picked it up)
— he wrote a history of Chinese philosophy and even translates the Chinese sources, which I thought were the best translations of Laozi and Zhuangzi. For the India portion, I believe he writes the history, but selects translations of sources.
Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy by Ivanhoe and Norden (Hackett)
0.5 Columbia (Watson, Mair)
– seems like a niche monopoly here. Better than Penguin and Oxford for Laozi, and maybe Zhuangzi too (doesn’t this show how insular and analytic (read: anal) Harvard and Oxford are? And on lesser level, how insular even Columbia is for not having more, smaller societies?)! Also has anthologies and “source books” for literature and everything else respectively, which basically cover the entirety of a civilization’s past:
Introduction to Asian Civilizations series: Titles beginning with “Sourcebook” are comprehensive, “Encompassing social, intellectual, religious, and literary traditions“; Titles with “Sources” is an “abridged introductory collection [that] offers students and general readers primary readings in the social, intellectual, and religious traditions“. So, it seems that they are composed of social, intellectual, and religious histories. That’s a huge feat. That makes this series, as far as the East goes, the most valuable source that I have found thus far.
Sourcebook of Korean Civilization: Volume One: From Early Times to the 16th Century by Peter H. Lee
Sources of Korean Tradition: Volume One: From Early Times Through the 16th Century by Peter H. Lee, Yôngho Ch’oe, Hugh H. W. Kang
– Victor A. Mair is the editor of The Columbia History of Chinese Literature, The Shorter Columbia Anthology of Traditional Chinese Literature , Columbia Anthology of Chinese Folk and Popular Literature, and a translator of at least Laozi, Zhuangzi, and Xunzi.
– Burton Watson is the translator of a ton of things all over East Asia (Hanfeizi, Xunzi, Mozi), and often a editor of the anthologies by Columbia, including one for Chinese poetry, The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry: From Early Times to the Thirteenth Century, and one for Japanese poetry, From the Country of Eight Islands: An Anthology of Japanese Poetry.
*. Shambhala
– I ran into this publication for Laozi (3 good translations) and Zhuangzi, quite modern and good

a recent lesson

The Oxford and Harvard editions are “scholarly”, which for us mortals translates to less accessible, which opposes one of the tenets of art, making them detrimental to life. Leave those insular schools and their [publishing] presses to their insular selves. For the future: simply get the Penguin edition, if not, jump into a crusty old translation, more convenient if it’s within a reader or sourcebook, if not, do something else.
Rahil, Translations of Plutarch’s Lives


– a forum thread about the best translations of Ancient Greece classics

– [todo:] worth reading, about the problems of translating Chinese

– random article Googled which contain some anthologies of Chinese philosophy

– CUNY Chinese Philosophy syllabus

– a crazy extensive list of writings that may be somewhat related to peace from ancient to now


– a cool text by an independent translator which compiles quotes from people about translating spanning two thousand years

Leave a comment | Categories: Art, Eastern Philosophy, Humanities, Literature, Literature Reviews, Philosophy

Translations of Laozi and Zhuangzi: A Translation Hell / 老子,莊子:翻譯的地獄

12 May 2016

I’ve recently had a stomach-based fever, which gave me some more down-time to continue reading light meditative material, and even watch a Ghibli film!

But before I could read, I had to get through translation decision hell for Laozi’s (老子) Dao De Jing (道德經) and Zhuangzi (莊子). For now, here are my notes:


Modern Chinese:
?. There are two versions on Project Gutenberg. One seems to be similar to the one on ctext; The other has more punctuation.
x. 陳鼓應,《老子今註今譯》
– The format makes this unreadable (digitally and physically!): original text in Classical Chinese -> massive amount of notes (500 pages) -> translation in Modern Chinese; No parallel text.

0. Yutang Lin
– best first verse, poetic yet literal, entirely comprehendable, no random words left as other translators do with Chinese, better choice of words: “absolute” over “eternal”, “from mystery to deep mystery” over merely “deep and profound” or “deep and deep” or “deep again”
– I initially got only the main text from terebess, which is what I based my decision on, but it seems his book, Wisdom of Laotse (maybe included in his Wisdom of China and Wisdom of China and India), is 300 pages with notes, probably having the best introduction, an imaginary discussion with Zhuangzi, then fits bits of Zhuangzi where it makes sense. He gets it. It must be a gem, a jade perhaps.
0. Tim Chilcott
– this fantastic find is a parallel text which includes simplified Chinese, hanyu pinyin, and his own translation, which itself seems quite good, probably borrowing a lot from past translations. It’s fantastic because the pdf file is modern, with links to notes on words and phrases. I’m starting to think this text is best translated by non-academics. Also, he created a cool text which compiles quotes from people about translating spanning two thousand years .
1. Wing-Tsit Chan
1. John Wu (Shambhala)
– Chan and Wu seem quite similar, both supposedly highly reputed translations. I started with Chan then changed to Yutang Lin.
1.2?. Waley
– also highly reputed
?. Ling-Feng Yen (both versions: Mawangdui Boshu Laozi)
?. Ivanhoe
?. Henricks (combines both versions [Wangbi and Mawangdui], also has other slip translations)
x. D.C. Lau (two versions)
– converts text to fit English grammar; Terrible.

1. Jane English (Vintage)
2. Ursula Guin (Shambhala)
– both look great, maybe English more attentive, with better intuition. Guin’s has nice informal contemporary dialog after every few verses.


Modern Chinese:
*. see Modern Chinese translation of Laozi, as the same applies here.

1. Hamill and Seaton (Shambhala)
– seems to combine the best traits of all translations, includes book names, certain Chinese words in brackets, and feels most logically flowing making it the most comparehendable, but less poetic and more wordy because it uses more accurate English words
– use this if one doesn’t understand something.
1. Brook Ziporyn (Hackett)
– flows almost as well as Yutang Lin, but more complete like Hamill and Seaton, without being as wordy

0. Yutang Lin
– little older, but my favorite translation [of all] (again!), poetic, detailed yet simple like Jane English’s Laozi, seems to have the best grasp of Chinese
– only translated the selected Inner (excludes one) and Outer chapters, eleven out of thirty-three, with reason in the intro
1. Victor A. Mair (normally Columbia, but Watson beat him)
– perhaps more accurate and still flows well, more wordy than Yutang, but on par with Watson, and even interprets into things less than Watson, original scholarly translation
– probably has a great intro, includes great concise history of China
– one of two complete translations
1. Burton Watson (Columbia)
– interprets a bit more than Mair and perhaps loses some of the Chinese poetics, but flows better than Mair with plain English, original scholarly translation
– probably has the a great intro
– one of two complete translations
?. Martin Palmer and Elizabeth Breuilly (Penguin), A. C. Graham, Jane English (Vintage, bilingual, inner chapters only), Feng Youlan (bilingual, parallel?), others
– I think Jane English’s version is probably the most valuable, and worth finding, it being poetic and bilingual [todo: find it!]. And of course anything Penguin is worth trying to get too.


– contains the text (with simple html table of contents!) of like a hundred Laozi translations (including the greats), and two great Zhuangzi translations (Lin and Watson)

– 8 side by side translation comparison (including Chan, Wu, Waley, Lin), the person recommends Chan, and Henricks for using a recently found source

– another list, unsure of credibility of judgement

Leave a comment | Categories: Art, Communication, Eastern Philosophy, Humanities, Linguistics, Literature, Literature Reviews, Philosophy

Positive and Negative methodologies

17 April 2016

Just some highlights and thoughts from the last chapter of A Short History of Chinese Philosophy by Fung Yu-Lan, edited by Derk Bodde. After reading a few books, it led to this thought.

28. Chinese Philosophy in the Modern World (last chapter)
end (the methodology of metaphysics):

“I maintain that there are two methods, the positive and the negative. The essence of the positive method is to talk about the object of metaphysics which is the subject of its inquiry; the essence of the negative method is not to talk about it. By so doing, the negative method reveals certain aspects of the nature of that something, namely those aspects that are not susceptible to positive description and analysis.”

“…the West started with what he [Northrop] calls the concept of postulation, whereas the Chinese philosophy started with what he calls concept by intuition. As a result, Western philosophy has naturally been dominated by the positive method, and Chinese philosophy by the negative one. This is espeically true of Taoism, which started and ended with the undifferentiable whole. In the Laozi and Zhuangzi, one does not learn what the Tao actually is, but only what it is not. But if one knows what it is not, one gets some idea of what it is.”

– sounds like a research programme by Lakatos, which is from 1976!

“…Ch’anism, which I would like to call a philosophy of silence. If one understands and realizes the meaning and significance of silence, one gains something of the object of metaphysics.”

– perhaps there’s something he’s getting at here, that Chinese Philosophy tries to focus on actuality, not language. Where western philosophy focused on creating ideas in the form of words, and even later, a terrible linguistic turn, Chinese philosophy maintains a better perception of reality, but simply cannot communicate much about it, at least, not through written language.

“In the West, Kant may be have said to use the negative method of metaphysics…he found the unknowable, the noumenon. To Kant and other Western philosophers, because the unknowable is unknowable, one can therefore say nothing about it, and so it is better to abandon metaphysics entirely and stop at epistemology. But to those who are accustomed to the negative method, it is taken for granted that, since the unknowable is unknowable , we should say nothing about it. t和business of metaphysics is not to say something about the unknowable, but only to say something about the fact that the unknowable is unknowable. When one knows that the unknowable is unknowable, one does know, after all, something about it. On this point, Kant did a great deal.”

”…A perfect metaphysical system should start with the positive method and end with the negative one. If it does not end with a negative method, it fails to reach the final climax of philosophy (~earlier he mentioned how Western philosophers usually use words like Good, God, Love denoting the end of their philosophy and the beginning of their metaphysics). But if it does not start with the positive method, it lacks clear thinking that is essential for philosophy.“

– isn’t this Hegel’s triad idea?

[Ch’an [Zen?] story of thumb being cut off and enlightened is referenced.] ”Whether this story is true or not, it suggest that the truth that before the negative method is used, the philosopher or student of philosophy must pass through the positive method, and before the simplicity of philosophy is reached, he must pass through its complexity.“

– perhaps what is meant is teaching should not involve any positive direction, people should arrive at it on their own. Do not en-culture or indoctrinate students.

“One must speak very much before one keeps silent.”

– similar to “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” by Wittgenstein

Leave a comment | Categories: Eastern Philosophy, Epistemology, Humanities, Metaphysics, Philosophy