Twenty years before Unlocking The Tao I created a free translation of Lao Tzu following the guidance of academic participants in the Australian National University’s taoism-studies list. After three years I released that work under the GNU public license as the GNL, a play on the recursive GNU acronym “GNU’s Not Unix” meaning “GNL’s Not Lao”.
And I figured I was done with that. Three years is a long time for a short book.
To get my reasons for translating Lao Tzu all over again two decades later you have to know that there are two broad schools of interpretation of this work. The literal, exemplified by Henricks, and the poetic, exemplified by Mitchell and Red Pine.
I see literalists labouring under the misapprehension that there was a single historical Chinese poem, or at least a small cabal of Chinese people working together at the same point in history compiling a single anthology. This illusion is dispelled by the sharply abbreviated content of the Guodian texts, the oldest recorded Lao Tzu, and by Prof. Victor Mair‘s work revealing clear textual relations between Laozi and the Sanskrit Gita.
But the modern poets not only credit this assumption of a single origin, they also have the idea that comparing multiple English translations will divine the original. My GNL translation fell squarely into this second trap. It ignored the fact is that both the text of Laozi and the underlying meaning of its words change from culture to culture over the millennia.
So I’ve attempted something new, a scientific approach to this problem. I take pains to be faithful to the historical texts, treating them as empirical data. But I have worked to develop a simple, systematic theory of reassembly of the coherent whole. I have had the temerity to re-order lines and chapters to make them make sense in the context of a whole. With a healthy skepticism concerning both English and Chinese dictionaries, I have also made novel but plausible word choices in the new edition.
Because this new work has been much more systematic than my previous attempt, I can claim it to be more conservative and more literal than the GNL. But because I’ve treated the text as a jigsaw puzzle in need of solution, and I have actually gone ahead to attempt that solution, I also regard it as by far the least conventional translation in English.
So now I’ve had time to complete the new translation, the GNL name no longer fits. This is Lao Tzu, complete, consistent, and very much alive. Anyone who wants to continue developing the old GNL under their own steam is of course welcome to do so under its copyleft license. For a delightful example of that check out Oliver Benjamin’s excellent Dude De Ching. Dudeism might be challenging to relate to Unlocking … but it is cool in its own right.
Unlocking The Tao is available for download right here online as a beta-book. While I put together commentaries and art I’ll post free chapters on a regular basis, each with a detailed log of refactorings. Beta-book customers can download the whole poem right now, get all future updates at no charge and deep discounts on the paper editions.
Non-paying readers are very welcome on the blog of course and I’ll try to answer all your questions in commentaries as we go. Excerpts from Unlocking The Tao are copyright © 2011 Peter Merel so please ask permission before you copy, mirror, or adapt this work.