Lao Tzu’s Trucks
From Stephen Mitchell’s rendition of the Tao Te Ching:
the factories make trucks and tractors.
When a country goes counter to the Tao,
warheads are stockpiled outside the cities.
The same passage, this time from Ursula K. Le Guin:
they use horses to haul manure.
When the world gets off the Way,
they breed warhorses on the common.
I don’t necessarily mind archaism in translation — I remember one take on the Bhagavad Gita that described Krishna’s “nuclear power,” which I thought was cool and pretty apt in its context. But I’m fascinated by how badly Mitchell’s modernization backfires here. There’s a richness and a wryness to Le Guin’s verse that’s totally absent in Mitchell, who gives us this mechanical little formula, dry and humorless and a bit pedantic. The trucks themselves aren’t a problem — you could talk about pickups hauling shit for the fields and carry the tone of the Tao Te Ching wonderfully — but Mitchell’s so fixated on the lesson he finds important, on making for-damn-sure we understand this is relevant to us and our time, that he loses the spirit of the thing completely.