Chapter 43 – Without Words

The gentlest thing in the world
overcomes the hardest thing in the world.
That which has no substance
enters where there is no space.
This shows the value of non-action.
Teaching without words,
performing without actions
that is the Master’s way

Translation by Stephen Mitchell (1988)

This is a short chapter, so let us compare Stephen Mitchell’s  translation with that of poet Witter Bynner:

 As the soft yield of water cleaves obstinate stone,
So to yield with life solves the insoluble:
To yield, I have learned, is to come back again.
But this unworded lesson,
This easy example,
Is lost upon men.

Translation by Witter Bynner (1944)

San Miguel Mission, Santa Fe

San Miguel Mission, Santa Fe

 As I consider what I should say about each chapter of the Tao Te Ching, I often read Bynner’s translation.  Usually I do not understand exactly what he is saying.  Critics have called his approach to Lao Tzu’s writing “abstruse,” and it often is.  Still, he was a very good poet with an ear for English – and, I believe, Chinese – and it is often interesting to delve into his version of the abstruse.

Before continuing, I would explain that my belief that he has a good ear for Chinese (which I do not) is based on the fact that he spent a lot of time in China during the 1920s, culminating with his collaborative translation, Jade Mountain:  A Chinese Anthology in 1929.  That work, it seems, was well received by the scholarly community when it was published.*

Returning to this specific chapter, I do not doubt that Mitchell’s translation is the more accurate.  Bynner’s version, though, seems a very competent and poetic explanation of what Lao Tzu may well have meant.

Teaching without words might also refer to the wordless transmission that is at the heartZen Teachings of Huang Po of, for example, Chan Buddhism.  For an understanding of that concept, I can think of no better source than John Blofield’s translation of The Zen Teaching of Huang-Po:  On the Transmission of the Mind; and I highly recommend that book .

Teaching without words might also refer to leading or instructing by example.

Or, again, teaching without words could mean that I should simply shut up and let you see what Witter Bynner has to say.  Certainly those are words, but they are not my words.  Unlike my words, his are concise and have a nice a-b-c-a-b-c pattern of half-rhymes.

So, a few thoughts on Mr. Bynner himself, and I will, in fact, shut up.

Santa Fe, New Mexico has long been one of my favorite places to visit.  Cathy and my wedding invitation had a picture of the oldest church in the United States, which is just off the Plaza in Santa Fe, as its cover.  From the mid-1920s until his death in 1968, Witter Bynner was the absolute center of Santa Fe’s legendary literary and artistic community.

He was openly, monogamously gay at a time when that lifestyle was not accepted in this country (though he nearly married Edna St. Vincent Millay in his younger days).  Still, his friends and collaborators included D. H. and Frieda Lawrence, Mark Twain, Georgia O’Keefe, Robert Frost, Carl Sandburg, Igor Stravinsky, Isadora Duncan, Diego Rivera, Wallace Stevens, Aldous Huxley, Ansel Adams, Thornton Wilder, Willa Cather . . . and the list could go on and on.  His greatest contribution to American literature may have been his ability to simply bring this remarkable group of people together to share ideas.

One of Bynner’s poems that I think fits well with this Chapter 43 is entitled “Answer,” and it goes like this:

 Cease from the asking,
You receive the answer.
God is not God, life life
nor wonder wonder
Save as a man himself
becomes the dancer
Across all variations
of the thunder.

Witter Bynner’s former home still stands in Santa Fe.  It is now a bed and breakfast.  Ah, with all the great people who have slept there, what if those walls could teach without words?

They probably can.


* For a more scholarly look at Bynner’s translation, you can read “Translation Manipulated by Ideology and Poetics – A Case Study of The Jade Mountain”, by Mei Zhang, in Theory and Practice in Language Studies (2012) by clicking here.

11 thoughts on “CHAPTER 43 – WITHOUT WORDS

  1. I was unaware of Bynner’s translation or poetry. I subsequently looked up his translation and felt like Steve Martin in “The Jerk” when he exclaims, “This is My MUSIC!” What a gift. Thanks, Louis.

    • We are here to serve. Let me know if there is anyone else you’ve not heard of (of whom you have not heard?) and I will try to write something which mentions him or her. I am glad that people still remember The Jerk. They named that movie after me, you know?

  2. I read Mei Zhang’s paper at the link you gave, and thank you for that. It’s a good brief with a succinct scholarly explication about the nature of translations and why they vary so widely due, basically, to local cultural linguistic sensibilities and ideological perspective.

    I cherry-picked a quote from the conclusion and applied a certain ‘poetic adjustment’ (in parentheses) due to a difference between the author’s expressions and my own linguistic sensibilities. It gives us all a cautionary reminder:

    “Obviously no one can escape his own ideology, so that the absolute “faithful translation” is… (an unobtainable perfection when thought of) …as the only translational strategy possible or allowable, because translation always takes place within a certain ideology and poetics.” Which reminds me that:

    1.) No translation is the “best.” Each has its own flavor, root and perspective.
    2.) It’s a good idea to remember that every translation is looking at something which is in us all, and which we apprehend and understand with our own cultural ideology and poetics.
    3.) It’s a good idea to remember what is being looked at and seen before the linguistic concept is constructed and transmitted.

    It’s also worth a laugh to note that I had to restate the syntax and expression of the scholar and author in order to understand it in my own terms. Which is, of course, a proof of the scholar’s point.

    It’s a good idea to remember that every translation is looking at something which is in us all. When we know what that is, we can translate the strange linguistic expressions of any perspective of ideology or poetics.

    Expressions vary widely – not only linguistic expressions but also the expressions of religion and cultural beliefs and societal value systems and the resultant structures they create.

    What is expressed is a constant. Once we know that constant, which we have found in ourselves and not in translations of it, it makes no difference where we go to “church” or what languages are spoken there or what liturgies are practiced or what fogs of personality and interpretation and ideology and poetics have been imposed there.

    We know where all of that has come from and hear and see it because we know it.

      • Bob, those are all good points. I don’t know anything about Mei Zhang or his background. I came across the article as I was doing some research before commenting on this Chapter 43 and thought it interesting. I am glad to see you took the time to read the article.

        If you have not done so already, I think you would enjoy reading Mark Twain’s “The Jumping Frog, in English, Then in French, Then Clawed Back into Civilized Language Once More by Patient Unremunerated Toil.” I couldn’t find the whole thing available for free on the internet, but I highly recommend pulling out your Collected Works of Samuel Leghorn Clemens for a LOL (to use the digital age vernacular) look at the problems of making a good translation.

          • Oh, and I hope you have a laugh at this as well.

            Mark Twain’s real name was “Samuel Foghorn-Leghorn Clemens”, not, as is widely supposed, “Samuel Leghorn Clemens”.

            I think the confusion is due to the general perception that Calaveras frog legs taste like Plymouth Rock chicken combined with the scarcity (available nowhere except here) of the essay Twain wrote which begins as follows:

            “Ah say, ah say, ah say, lissen up here boah! I got sumthin’ to tell ya…”

          • I recently read that the Maryland Legislature, in considering the decriminalization of marijuana, heard testimony from the Annapolis police chief who stated that on the first day recreational marijuana was sold in Colorado 37 people died of marijuana overdoses. It was later revealed that his source had been a satirical online magazine called the Daily Currant. The Daily Currant satire can be read here and the Washington Post story about the testimony can be read here. It probably won’t be long before someone of significance claims that Mark Twain’s real middle name was “Foghorn-Leghorn” – perhaps in a doctoral dissertation. See what you have set in motion?

            For the record, in the police chief’s case he overstated the actual number of deaths by at least 37.

  3. I read both articles about the “marijuana deaths.” What a hoot! And the poor guy who didn’t have the on-board faculties to fact check his source proved it when he followed up his gaffe by saying the “information” was an urban legend. Apparently satire is unknown to him.

    Glad to see you said he overstated the actual number of deaths by “at least” 37, because it seems to me that America’s saturation with fast-food outlets combined with the sudden onset of a tidal wave of the munchies might produce enough additional body mass to equal the addition of dozens of people to the population of Colorado, if we assume that 175 pounds of body mass equals one person.

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