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Book Review: “Tao Te Ching” by Stephen Mitchell

November 22, 2009

Tao Te Ching: A New English Version
by Lao-tze, Stephen Mitchell
1988, 2006, Harper Perennial Modern Classics
10 out of 10

Stephen Mitchell’s version of Tao Te Ching is often cited as among the best translations of this most fascinating and beautiful book. And for good reason! Mitchell’s Tao Te Ching is lyrical and clear, a worthy effort at capturing the poetry of the Chinese while maintaining the “no-nonsense” matter-of-factness of the message.

I normally prefer a more literal translation than Mitchell’s, and I’m the type of person who will read the same story in the Bible in multiple very different translations just to make sure that I’m getting the sense of the original. Mitchell’s Tao Te Ching is not even a translation; he didn’t know a word of Chinese while creating his version, so he compared renderings from multiple well-respected translations available to him. In the process, he tried to keep the literal meanings intact as much as possible, but would sometimes modify the verses in order to make the meaning more plain or to clean-up the poetry a bit, as most English translations are done by scholars who are (understandably and laudably) more concerned with the content than the form. In other words, Mitchell’s mission was to produce an English poem out of Lao-tze’s classic.

This, he does admirably. While not as literal a translation as you can get elsewhere, Stephen Mitchell has definitely captured Lao-tze’s mind in English verse. My other favorite translation, that of John Bright-Fey (2004, Sweet Water Press) is considerably more dense, literal and truly esoteric. Bright-Fey’s translation is one to study, but Stephen Mitchell’s is one to simply absorb.


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