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Lao Tzu’s Trucks

December 5, 2009

From Stephen Mitchell’s rendition of the Tao Te Ching:

When a country is in harmony with the Tao,
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:

When the world’s on the Way,
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.

Of course, abandoning spirit in favor of a given message is in vogue right now.

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