Translations are sometimes divided into the more literal and the more literary. The former run the risk of holding so closely to the wording and structure of the original that the final rendering is clunky and difficult (A.C. Graham's version of the Zhuangzi might be an example), while the latter can veer into arbitrary and distorting paraphrase which obscures the distinctiveness of thought and expression of the original text, as well as the coherence of the discussion (there are too many examples to list, but even Watson's excellent translation of the Zhuangzi sometimes falls into this category). I have tried to avoid both dangers in this translation by faithfully rendering each and every phrase—rather than every word—literally, on the premise that "literalism" must ground itself in what we know about how whole semantic units were likely to be apprehended by a native reader of the original text. This means that sometimes the semantic effects intrinsic to Chinese syntax—for example, parallelisms—must somehow be expressed in English, which has its own semantic conventions. An example would be the opening lines of Chapter 2 (page 9). Two morphologically parallel phrases (literally, "leaned against low-table and sat, faced-up to Heaven and exhaled") evoke an up-down, Earth-Heaven parallelism, which is then underscored a few lines later with the mention of partnerings ("loosed from a partner" on page 9, foreshadowing the morphologically and phonetically similar term rendered "coupled as opposites" on page 12) which otherwise seems to be an irrelevancy that has come out of nowhere. A literal version in English will not capture this nuance. In such cases, I have attempted to recreate the original effect, in this case by adding the phrase "on the ground," which marks the parallelism with Heaven. The word "ground" does not appear in the text, so this is not "word-literalism," but the opposing vector toward the earth below is invoked structurally in the "leaning," which qualifies the translation as "phrase-literalism."
Another example would be the opening line of Chapter 3: "The flow of my life is bound by its limits. . . ." The word "flow" is not present in the Chinese; instead we have merely the character sheng 生, elsewhere translated simply as "life," as "to be born or give birth," or as "generate." But the unusual term used for "limits" in this particular passage means literally "the banks of a river," which, in context of the image as a whole, suggests an amorphous flow being shaped by its bounding outer contours. Hence instead of the word-for-word translation, "My life has bank-limits," I render the sentence as above. The never-explicit image of "flow" in turn informs the rest of this opening passage, and indeed it alone makes the passage philosophically and rhetorically coherent.
Another issue is the ambiguity of classical Chinese, which is sometimes crucial to Zhuangzi's argument and to the coherence of the text. Often a single Chinese word will carry many possible meanings, from which English translators must choose only one. But the text then plays on all of the implied meanings, tying together various resonances drawn from their diverging trajectories. Sometimes one can find an English phrase that will cover the range of ambiguity, but in most cases this is not possible. Translators sometimes handle this with footnotes or bracketed words. I have sometimes instead used an extra phrase or repeated sentence, for example, on page 11. There the translation has six phrases in four sentences: "But is there really any difference between them? Or is there no difference? Is there any dispute, or is there no dispute? Anything demonstrated, or nothing demonstrated?" These are collectively the translation of only two phrases in Chinese, because the word bian 辯 can mean both "differentiation" and "dispute," and thus—bringing together these two meanings—can also mean "to make clear by means of dispute," for which we have the English word, "to demonstrate [by argument]." (See Glossary). The text is asking 1.) whether there is really any difference between human language and the chirping of birds; 2.) whether there is therefore really anything to argue about; and 3.) whether anything can thus be proved or demonstrated by means of argument. Each meaning is necessary for the coherence of the discussion that follows, so I have expanded the telescoped Chinese into several English sentences. Another example is the astonishingly beautiful and strange passage on "music" in Chapter 14 (pages 67–68). The same Chinese character, pronounced differently, also means "joy," and every Chinese reader will realize that the discussion, ostensibly about musical performance, is also a rumination on human happiness. As the Confucian philosopher Xunzi said, playing on the pun, "Music is joy." To convey this, I have sometimes used phrases like, "Music, which is joy . . ." to translate the single character which can mean both.
Lastly, I have adopted a deliberately inconsistent policy for the translation of the names of people and places used in Zhuangzian fables. Sometimes the names are transliterated into their modern Mandarin pronunciations (using the pinyin system of romanization), and sometimes they are translated into English with words approximating their putative meaning. I attempt the latter, where the name has a meaning, implication or resonance that would have been immediately obvious to literate readers during the classical and medieval periods, of the kind sometimes played on in the commentarial literature, and which adds some interesting additional layer of meaning or irony to the story. It is impossible to know for sure what degree of punning allegorical sense was and was not intended in most cases, due to the changes in Chinese phonology and linguistic usage over the centuries, but I have tried to produce an English rendering that presents the same mixture of possibly significant puns and meaningless names that would have confronted the average Chinese literatus, steeped in traditional Chinese literary culture, when reading this text.
To return to the Zhuangzi main page, click HERE.