By Jim Teeters. Barclay Press, 2018. 104 pages. $14/paperback.
Jim Teeters’s new book, Because of This: Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching: How to Live, Love, and Lead declares with its title what is either a bold stepping forth or an unusually casual approach to one of the great works of literature.
Of the Tao Te Ching it has often been said, “If you think you understand what’s written there, you haven’t understood it at all.” Perhaps that notion is illustrated by examining a few of the often widely divergent translations. For example, these are three from the beginning of the first poem of the Tao:
There are ways but the Way is uncharted;
There are names but not nature in words.
(translation by R.B. Blakney)
The tao that can be told
is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named
is not the eternal Name.
(translation by Stephen Mitchell)
Don’t try to name
You’ll miss it.
(translation by Jim Teeters)
The responsibility of reviewing a new translation of the Tao calls for at least as much humility as is asked for by anyone bold enough to try translating this 2,400-year-old Chinese text into contemporary English.
That, of course, has not stopped over 100 people from trying, including Teeters, who tells us that he finds the Tao Te Ching to fall into “three distinct categories: how to live, how to love, and how to lead.” Teeters has restructured the order of the 81 poems to fit equally into those three categories. He acknowledges filtering this translation through his Western mind and Christian–Quaker heart, and challenges his readers to “keep your mind and heart open as you read and reflect.”
Perhaps it is the burden of my academic background that encourages me to wonder if there might also be value in approaching this translation with a critical eye. For example, Teeters’s sparse explanation of why he undertook this translation leaves one curious about the intellectual and spiritual rationale that informs the choices he made. Why, for example, did he choose to title his Tao Te Ching “Because of This”? What determined his other language choices for this translation? What is his rationale for choosing to apply a Quaker perspective to a centuries-old Chinese text, as opposed to, say, applying the Tao to his understanding of Quaker thought?
The fact that he prefaces each of his three sections with a quotation from the New Testament makes clear that one of Teeters’s goals is to offer a Christian approach to the Tao. Teeters begins his introduction to each section with an assertion about Lao Tzu’s intentions. This suggests that for Teeters, unlike many other scholars, Lao Tzu is a single person rather than an amalgam of many ancient Chinese philosophers.
One of the books I was reading while preparing this review was Li-Young Lee’s new collection of poems, The Undressing, which I found to be a deeply moving work—one that embraces both story and metaphor, while turning philosophy into theology into a spirituality that shimmers in its authenticity. Because I was thinking about the Tao Te Ching, it struck me that it might not be too much of a stretch to suggest that there is a direct line from Lao Tzu through Rumi and Hafiz straight to Li-Young Lee’s The Undressing. Indeed, the very kind of connection I imagine Teeters was also hoping to achieve.
I am always grateful for books that stimulate my thinking about language and the expression of wisdom, and Jim Teeters’s Because of This has certainly done that. It has also evoked further thoughts about the limitations and responsibilities of translating any text—especially poetry—from one language into another.
Always there is the fascination and wonder that engage us as we seek better questions, deeper understanding, and greater wisdom. Because of This is an offering for that feast.