ExEAS Teaching Unit

Translation and Interpretation: Critical Exercise
Bradley Park
Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies
St. Mary’s College of Maryland

This exercise is designed to increase students’ understanding of the relationship between translation and interpretation by critically analyzing and evaluating translations without necessarily possessing the requisite language skills. Students will also gain an appreciation for the difficulties inherent in translation and a sense of the differences separating source language and target language texts.
Translations of Laozi’s Dao De Jing are used for the exercise below, but it could also be successfully repeated with other philosophical texts, poetry, or other works with a wide range of translations.

Student Activity
Break students up into partners. Each partner should locate a translation of Laozi’s Dao De Jing other than the one used in the course. Both students should read the introductory sections of the two translations — Preface, Forward, Introduction, Translator’s Introduction, Notes on the Translation, etc. Next, ask them to compare passages across both translations and discuss what they find. Encourage students to pay due attention to any supplementary comments by the translator contained in the footnotes and/or endnotes.
Each pair is required to submit a three-page analysis trying to account for the differences between the two translations by focusing on methodological and “meta” issues informing the translations. Each group will also formally present their findings to the class in a short five minute presentation. They will be evaluated on the thoroughness, subtlety, and insightfulness of their written analysis, in addition to the overall quality of their oral presentation.
Questions (These questions are intended to be suggestive not exhaustive!):
  • Are there significant differences in the basic meanings of the text? If so, what might account for these perceived differences?
  • Are there differences in choice of vocabulary? Are these differences merely ornamental or do they express substantive deviations in interpretation?
  • What are the explicit commitments of the translator as stated in the introductory sections of the text? Are these commitments construed broadly in terms of the general theme or purpose of the text or specified in terms of key vocabulary?
  • Can you discern any implicit cosmological or metaphysical commitments supporting the translation?
  • Who is the translator? What is his/her background? If he/she is a scholar, to what academic discipline does he/she belong? Do you think that this disciplinary training shapes the translation?
  • Are both translations based on the same source material?
  • Are both translations aimed at the same audience? What do you see as the organizing principle of each translation?
  • How would you categorize the stylistic differences of the translations?
  • Overall, which translation to you prefer and why?
Possible Editions of Dao De Jing/Tao Te Ching:
  • Laozi. Dao De Jing. A Philosophical Translation. Translated by Roger Ames and David Hall. New York: Ballantine Books, 2003.
  • Laozi. Tao te Ching. Translated by D.C. Lau. 1963. Reprint, New York: Penguin Classics, 1980.
  • Laozi. Tao te Ching. Translated by Ellen Chen. New York: Paragon House, 1989.
  • Laozi. Dao De Jing. Translated by Moss Roberts. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004.
  • Laozi. Tao Te Ching. Translated by Richard Wilhelm. New York: Penguin Group, 1989.
  • Laozi. Tao Te Ching. Translated by Stephen Mitchell. New York: Harper & Row, 1988.

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