There are several books by the amazing Stephen Mitchell on the "Tao Te Ching." The two that I know--this one and his "Tao Te Ching Lao Tzu: An Illustrated Journey" 1999)--use his free-flowing and poetic translation from 1988. Here we have also a foreword, some interesting notes on the translation, some commentary, and an interview with Mitchell.
For an example of Mitchell's commentary, consider this line from Chapter 3:
"The Master leads
by emptying people's minds"
This always troubled me but Mitchell's explanation seems right:
"He empties them of concepts, judgments, and desires. Thus they can return to a state of childlike simplicity."
This is similar to the Zen story about a very learned man visiting a Zen master who poured tea. The master kept pouring until the cup overflowed. It also reminds me of the adage attributed variously to baseball managers Casey Stengel and Earl Weaver: "It's what you learn after you know it all that counts."
Mitchell is a master at turning religious works into contemporary English poetry while being essentially true to the original. Noteworthy is his graceful translation of the Gita in "Bhagavad Gita: A New Translation" (2000). However Mitchell does not know Chinese and therefore in effect is interpreting translations augmented by his scholarship and literary experience. Some people find this off-putting but I think it's okay as long as you are not looking for most faithful to the "original" rendering.
I have read the Tao in several English translations (or renderings) and I can say that Mitchell's is one of the best. By "best" I mean as a work of religious literature that is essentially true to the meaning and spirit of the original. Mitchell wrote "...the most essential preparation for my work was a fourteen-year-long course of Zen training, which brought me face to face with Lao-tzu and his true disciples and heirs, the early Chinese Zen Masters."
Mitchell adds (in true Taoist paradoxical style) "With great poetry, the freest translation is sometimes the most faithful... If I haven't always translated Lao-tzu's words, my intention has always been to translate his mind." (The quotes are from the Foreword.)
A nearly instant test of a rendering of the "Tao" is a quick look at the opening lines and at one or two of the most famous chapters. Here's Mitchell's opening:
"The tao that can be told
is not the eternal Tao
The name that can be named
is not the eternal Name."
For comparison let's look at some other translations. Here's J. Legge's version (from "Sacred Books of the East," Volume 39 1891):
"The Tao that can be trodden is not the enduring and unchanging Tao. The name that can be named is not the enduring and unchanging name."
There's a clear difference in the first line. Mitchell writes of the tao being told (small "t" indicating not the eternal Tao) while Legge refers to a "Tao" that can be walked upon not being the real unchanging Tao.
Since I don't read Chinese I don't know which is truer to the original text--or actually texts since translators who do read the Chinese characters typically rely on several versions. The simple truth is nobody knows what the "original" "Tao Te Ching" looked like. In fact it almost certainly came down from an earlier oral tradition. Consequently a free translation may indeed be the "best."
Okay, let's now look at another translation of the first two lines, this time by Derek Lin from his book, "Tao Te Ching: Annotated and Explained" (2006):
"The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao
The name that can be named is not the eternal name"
This is virtually the same as Mitchell's rendering.
One more, this time from Robert G. Henricks' "Lao-Tzu Te-Tao Ching: A New Translation Based on the Recently Discovered Ma-Wang-Tui Texts" (1989):
As for the Way, the Way that can be spoken of is not the constant Way;
As for names the name that can be named is not the constant name."
This examination of fine points of course is contrary to the Way (not to mention Zen) now that I think about it. Still it is fun to do. So let's do one more. Here are Mitchell's first few lines of the famous Chapter 41:
"When a superior man hears of the Tao,
he immediately begins to embody it.
When an average man hears of the Tao,
he half believes it, half doubts it.
When a foolish man hears of the Tao,
he laughs out loud.
If he didn't laugh,
it wouldn't be the Tao."
Here's Legge's version:
Scholars of the highest class, when they hear about the Tao,
earnestly carry it into practice. Scholars of the middle class, when
they have heard about it, seem now to keep it and now to lose it.
Scholars of the lowest class, when they have heard about it, laugh
greatly at it. If it were not (thus) laughed at, it would not be fit
to be the Tao.
And here is Lin's version:
"Higher people hear of the Tao
They diligently practice it
Average people hear of the Tao
They sometimes keep it and sometimes lose it
Lower people hear of the Tao
They laugh loudly at it
If they do not laugh, it would not be the Tao"
My vote is for Mitchell's "freer" version.
One of the things I don't like about Mitchell's translation is his alternative use of the pronouns "he" and "she." It's a shame that English does not have a gender neutral first person singular; however I think that, since the "Tao Te Ching" is the most feminine of all the great religious works of the world added to the fact that the Tao is itself considered feminine, Mitchell should have gone exclusively with "she."
What Mitchell brings to the translation of the "Tao Te Ching" is vast poetic and spiritual experience. When he says he was "face to face" with Lao-tzu he means that everything he had learned in his life up to that time allowed him to understand the old master in a way that a less experienced person could not.
--Dennis Littrell, author of "Yoga: Sacred and Profane (Beyond Hatha Yoga)"