Zhuangzi glossary


how literal to be

Though ancient Chinese and modern English are so different that it would be impossible to do a word-for-word translation, a translator is still torn between replicating what a text says and exploring what it means. There are advantages and disadvantages to leaning in either direction. By staying very close to the original, Graham, for example, reveals intricacies of Zhuangzi's language and logic, but in a way that is hard for a normal person to understand. While it is obviously dangerous to jump into what the text means without first understanding what it says, someone like Father Thomas Merton, for example, who didn't even read Chinese, drew on his experience as a Trappist monk to offer some real insights.

Given the number of excellent translations that there are out there (Watson 1968, Graham 1981, Mair, and ZIporyn, just to name a few recent ones), as I move forward I am inclined take inspiration from Father Merton: less literal but hopefully more accessible. For example, while one could spend a lifetime figuring out what words like de ("powers"?) and qi ("energies") meant to people in ancient China, I will try to be more flexible in figuring out analogous ideas for us today. Similarly, while references to people and events the Warring States may have clarified his ideas to ancient readers, they can obscure them for modern readers who don't know what he's talking about. It might be interesting to replace Li Ji in 2:12, for instance, with Melania Trump, or Sage Emperor Yu with "a clever mathematician ( or even "Einstein"?) in 2:09. How far to take this is another thing I can use feedback on.