Lin's translation is natural, even lyrical, but the main strength of this book, at least for the serious student, is in his stanza by stanza commentary. The layout, with the commentary on the left (even numbered) pages and the text on the right (odd numbered) pages, makes for easy reading and study.
Lin's introduction gives a bit of the history of the Tao while exploring its accessibility and purpose. In "A Note on the Translation" he recounts some of the difficulties and presents his theory about how the "Lao Tzu" should be rendered into modern English. One of his methods was to
"Start from scratch and create an entirely original work. I could not use existing translations as references because they were not sufficiently accurate." (p. xxiii)
Lin adds "Existing translations tended to present interpretations as translations." (p. xxiv)
Of course any translation would be an interpretation to some extent. Lin calls our attention to this distinction:
"A literal translation (also known as formal equivalence) is the nearest linguistic equivalent between the source and the target language, while an interpretation (also known as dynamic equivalence) consists of amplifications and clarifications..." (p. xxiv)
He believes that he has kept his interpretations in the commentary. However whenever choices are made between ambiguous alternatives--and Lin and others all admit that the ancient Chinese they are translating from is full of them--that choice involves an interpretation. Furthermore because the Tao Te Ching is a treatise written in poetic language--actually it can be considered a long poem--interpretation is unavoidable.
We should keep in mind that a real poem is a non-linear extra-denotative expression. There are layers of meaning in poetic words and phrases beyond their denotative meanings. Allusion, sound, rhythm, rhyme, simile, reference--hyperbole even (or in the Tao, especially!)--create a context of meaning that often cannot be directly translated. So something is always lost in translation and something is sometimes gained. That which is gained may not be what was originally meant.
Another thing to remember is that ancient texts get corrupted. D. C. Lau in his Penguin Classics edition of the Lao Tzu from 1963 indicates that sometimes a negative slips in that doesn't seem to fit. But can we be sure? Sometimes scribes copying the text make mistakes. Sometimes they purposely alert the text to suit their beliefs.
It is also true that the meaning of some of the Chinese calligraphy characters has changed over time. Lin gives the example of the character "shuang" in his commentary for Chapter (or Verse) 12. He translates it as meaning "tasteless" whereas in modern Chinese the character means "refreshing."
In this context let's compare the first three lines of Lin's translation of "12" with the well-known poetic and dynamic translation from Stephen Mitchell. First here's Lin's:
"The five colors make one blind in the eyes The five sounds make one deaf in the ears The five flavors make one tasteless in the mouth"
Now here is the way Mitchell has it:
"Colours blind the eye. Sounds deafen the ear. Flavours numb the taste. Thoughts weaken the mind. Desires wither the heart."
It appears that the number "five" is in the original and Lin wants to keep it. However he notes on the facing page that "The five colors, five sounds, and five flavors denote the vast array of sensory stimulations in the material world." This usage is similar to the "ten thousand things" that the Chinese refer to when addressing something containing large entities. Our word "myriad" comes from the Greek meaning "ten thousand."
So which translation is better? True to his intent Lin's is truer to the denotative meaning, but to my sensibilities at least Mitchell's is the more poetic, and perhaps is more in keeping with the spirit of simplicity in the Tao. Mitchell writes in the Harper Perennial Modern Classic edition of his book from 2006: "With great poetry, the freest translation is sometimes the most faithful." (p. x)
By the way, notice the lack of punctuation marks in Lin's translation. Lin purposely eschews punctuation whenever possible. He notes that "punctuation marks did not exist in the ancient Chinese..." and so his lines do not have periods or commas or semi-colons. He says he "wanted to approximate the open, porous feel of ancient Chinese..."
I don't want to give the impression that I think Mitchell's translation is superior or even more poetic. Let's look at the first nine lines of the famous number "56." Let's look at Mitchell's first this time:
"Those who know don't talk. Those who talk don't know.
Close your mouth, block off your senses, blunt your sharpness, untie your knots, soften your glare, settle your dust. This is the primal identity."
Now here is Lin's:
"Those who know do not talk Those who talk do not know
Close the mouth Shut the doors Blunt the sharpness Unravel the knots Dim the glare Mix the dust This is called Mystic Oneness"
Here I would say that Lin's rendition is more poetic and more in keeping with the Tao's simplicity.
It is noteworthy that in his Forward for this book Lama Surya Das, an American born Tibetan Buddhist master, calls the Tao Te Ching "the wisest book ever written." Yes, from a Buddhist; but recall that the wisdom of the Tao informs and is compatible with Zen Buddhism.
Bottom line: the fine translation and the informed commentary make this book very much worthwhile.
--Dennis Littrell, author of "Yoga: Sacred and Profane (Beyond Hatha Yoga)"
The Tao Te Ching mainly seems to be about great harmony and oneness, balance, peace and trust. You can re - read it several times, contemplate and new sides and insights will arrise. It values down to earth ideas, a living in grace, peace and joy. Naming ideas, yet without naming them. Giving guidance without guiding. Improving without forcing improvement. Making the world better - being a enigma for the wholeness of the world and at the same time the solution without solution. A very natural book about the true and complex nature of existence.
Each chapter contains a thoughtful explanation of the thinking behind the words. This book makes more sense than other versions I have read which leave the reader to interpret some odd sounding phrases, possibly because the 'translator' is first having to interpret the Chinese symbols with the aid of a dictionary and no working knowledge of Chinese. I don't speak Chinese but I am aware of the possibility of things being lost in translation between the two languages.
We here in the west have differing cultural application of the Tao, it is refreshing to see a translation which not only is easily accessible to westerners but holds to and celebrates the ancient cultural ties Taoism still has to Chinese and specifically for I-Kuan-Tao Taiwan today.
A translation which does not hold poetry above meaning, but as many accurate translations (see Dr J Wu) has a poetry of its own which is more beneficial for being simple, pretty though poetical interpretatiosn are, they are like a glass of cola in the dessert, nice enough but not as beneficial as pure simple nourishing water.
Also useful in this translation is far more than being a simple translation from Chinese to English Derek Lin has provided insights and teachings to help understanding of the chapters of the Tao te ching. This is helpful for both begginers and those of us with a few years of Tao cultivation, reassessing the teachings and finding new meaning is art of what happenings on the Path of Tao.
A real labour of love, from someone i have counted as my friend for many years and has helped me to find my feet on the way, he has a good heart and this comes across in his work.
I have another translation of the Tao Te Ching which I couldn't understand. The excellent commentary in this one delivers and I compared the two to get a broader understanding. Read just a few pages at a time so you can fully absorb the meaning that is packed into so few words. It is one of those books where understanding increases with each reading, and returning to it from time to time is wise.