When Sci-Fi Legend Ursula K. Le Guin Translated the Chinese Classic, the Tao Te Ching

Brenda (laughing): Can you imagine a Taoist advertising agency? “Buy this if you feel like it. If it’s right. You may not need it.”

Ursula: There was an old cartoon in The New Yorker with a guy from an advertising agency showing his ad and the boss is saying “I think you need a little more enthusiasm Jones.” And his ad is saying, “Try our product, it really isn’t bad.”

Perhaps no Chinese text has had more lasting influence in the West than the Tao Te Ching, a work so ingrained in our culture by now, it has become a “changeless constant,” writes Maria Popova. “Every generation of admirers has felt, and continues to feel, a prescience in these ancient teachings so astonishing that they appear to have been written for their own time.” It speaks directly to us, we feel, or at least, that’s how we can feel when we find the right translation.

Admirers of the Taoist classic have included John Cage, Franz Kafka, Bruce Lee, Alan Watts, and Leo Tolstoy, all of whom were deeply affected by the millennia-old philosophical poetry attributed to Lao Tzu. That’s some heavy company for the rest of us to keep, maybe. It’s also a list of famous men. Not every reader of the Tao is male or approaches the text as the utterances of a patriarchal sage. One famous reader had the audacity to spend decades on her own, non-gendered, non-hierarchical translation, even though she didn’t read Chinese.




It’s not quite right to call Ursula Le Guin’s Tao Te Ching a translation, so much as an interpretation, or a “rendition,” as she calls it. “I don’t know Chinese,” she said in an interview with Brenda Peterson, “but I drew upon the Paul Carus translation of 1898 which has Chinese characters followed by a transliteration and a translation.” She used the Carus as a “touchstone for comparing other translations,” and started, in her twenties, “working on these poems. Every decade or so I’d do another chapter. Every reader has to start anew with such an ancient text.”

Le Guin drew out inflections in the text which have been obscured by translations that address the reader as a Ruler, Sage, Master, or King. In her introduction, Le Guin writes, “I wanted a Book of the Way accessible to a present-day, unwise, unpowerful, perhaps unmale reader, not seeking esoteric secrets, but listening for a voice that speaks to the soul.” To immediately get a sense of the difference, we might contrast editions of Arthur Waley’s translation, The Way and Its Power: a Study of the Tao Te Ching and Its Place in Chinese Thought, with Le Guin’s Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way.

Waley’s translation “is never going to be equaled for what it does,” serving as a “manual for rulers,” Le Guin says. It was also designed as a guide for scholars, in most editions appending around 100 pages of introduction and 40 pages of opening commentary to the main text. Le Guin, by contrast, reduces her editorial presence to footnotes that never overwhelm, and often don’t appear at all (one note just reads “so much for capitalism”), as well as a few pages of endnotes on sources and variants. “I didn’t figure a whole lot of rulers would be reading it,” she said. “On the other hand, people in positions of responsibility, such as mothers, might be.”

Her version represents a lifelong engagement with a text Le Guin took to heart “as a teenage girl” she says, and found throughout her life that “it obviously is a book that speaks to women.” But her rendering of the poems does not substantially alter the substance. Consider the first two stanzas of her version of Chapter 11 (which she titles “The uses of not”) contrasted with Waley’s CHAPTER XI.

Waley

We put thirty spokes together and call it a wheel;
But it is on the space where there is nothing that the
usefulness of the wheel depends.
We turn clay to make a vessel;
But it is on the space where there is nothing that the
usefulness of the vessel depends.

Le Guin

Thirty spokes
meet in the hub.
Where the wheel isn’t
is where is it’s useful.

Hollowed out,
clay makes a pot.
Where the pot’s not
is where it’s useful.

Le Guin renders the lines as delightfully folksy oppositions with rhyme and repetition. Waley piles up argumentative clauses. “One of the things I love about Lao Tzu is he is so funny,” Le Guin comments in her note,” a quality that doesn’t come through in many other translations. “He’s explaining a profound and difficult truth here, one of those counterintuitive truths that, when the mind can accept them, suddenly double the size of the universe. He goes about it with this deadpan simplicity, talking about pots.”

Such images captivated the earthy anarchist Le Guin. She drew inspiration for the title of her 1971 novel The Lathe of Heaven from Taoist philosopher Chuang Tzu, perhaps showing how she reads her own interests into a text, as all translators and interpreters inevitably do. No translation is definitive. The borrowing turned out to be an example of how even respected Chinese language scholars can misread a text and get it wrong. She found the “lathe of heaven” phrase in James Legge’s translation of Chuang Tzu, and later learned on good authority that there were no lathes in China in Chuang Tzu’s time. “Legge was a bit off on that one,” she writes in her notes.

Scholarly density does not make for perfect accuracy or a readable translation. The versions of Legge and several others were “so obscure as to make me feel the book must be beyond Western comprehension,” writes Le Guin. But as the Tao Te Ching announces at the outset: it offers a Way beyond language. In Legge’s first few lines:

The Tao that can be trodden is not the enduring and
unchanging Tao. The name that can be named is not the enduring and
unchanging name.

Here is how Le Guin welcomes readers to the Tao — noting that “a satisfactory translation of this chapter is, I believe, perfectly impossible — in the first poem she titles “Taoing”:

The way you can go 
isn’t the real way. 
The name you can say 
isn’t the real name.

Heaven and earth
begin in the unnamed: 
name’s the mother
of the ten thousand things.

So the unwanting soul 
sees what’s hidden,
and the ever-wanting soul 
sees only what it wants.

Two things, one origin, 
but different in name, 
whose identity is mystery.
Mystery of all mysteries! 
The door to the hidden.

All images of the text courtesy of Austin Kleon. 

Related Content: 

Ursula K. Le Guin Names the Books She Likes and Wants You to Read

Ursula K. Le Guin’s Daily Routine: The Discipline That Fueled Her Imagination

Ursula K. Le Guin Stamp Getting Released by the US Postal Service

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Last Interview Book Series Features the Final Words of Cultural Icons: Borges to Bowie, Philip K. Dick to Frida Kahlo

Where were you when you heard that Hunter S. Thompson had died? The uniquely addled, uniquely incisive taker of the strange trip that was 20th-century America checked out sixteen years ago last month, a span of time in which we’ve also lost a great many other influential figures cultural and countercultural. The departed include many of Thompson’s colleagues in letters: societal diagnosticians like David Foster Wallace and Christopher Hitchens; conjurers of the fantastical and the familiar like Ursula K. Le Guin and Gabriel García Márquez; and specialists in other fields — Oliver Sacks from neurology, Anthony Bourdain from the kitchen, Nora Ephron from Hollywood — who on the page entertained us as they shared their expertise.

All of these writers have passed into esteemed company: not just that of luminaries from bygone eras, but of volumes in Melville House’s Last Interview series. “Can you think of three writers who, on the face of it, would have had less to say to each other at a dinner party?” asks NPR’s Maureen Corrigan, reviewing Last Interview volumes on Ephron, Ernest Hemingway, and Philip K. Dick.




“Hemingway would have knocked back the booze and gone all moody and silent; the notoriously paranoid Dick would have been under the table checking for bugging devices and Ephron would’ve channeled what she called ‘the truly life-saving technique’ taught to her by her Hollywood screenwriter parents to get through a rough time: the mantra, ‘Someday this will be a story!'”

With a range of deceased icons, including Marilyn Monroe and Martin Luther King, Jr., Julia Child and Jorge Luis Borges, Fred Rogers and Frida Kahlo, the Last Interview books cast a wide net for such an aesthetically and intellectually unified project. “Each volume offers, besides useful insights into its particular author’s work, what an old friend would call ‘civilized entertainment,'” writes Michael Dirda in The Washington Post. “Nearly all the titles actually contain several interviews, and some add introductions. For instance, the Roberto Bolaño opens with a 40-page critical essay.” In some cases the interviewers are as notable as the interviewees: “Two of Lou Reed’s questioners — the multi-talented novelists Neil Gaiman and Paul Auster — are now probably as well known as the legendary co-founder of the Velvet Underground.”

From the world of music the series includes not just Reed but David Bowie and Prince, two other one-man cultural forces who left us in the past decade, as well as their equally irreplaceable predecessors Johnny Cash and Billie Holiday. At the moment you can buy the entire Last Interview collection on Amazon (in Kindle format) for USD $344, which comes out to about $10 per book with 34 volumes in total. You may find this an economical solution, a way to explore the final thoughts of figures featured more than once here on Open Culture.

Related Content:

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Maurice Sendak’s Emotional Last Interview with NPR’s Terry Gross, Animated by Christoph Niemann

Carl Sagan Issues a Chilling Warning to America in His Final Interview (1996)

Janis Joplin’s Last TV Performance & Interview: The Dick Cavett Show (1970)

Watch Johnny Cash’s Poignant Final Interview & His Last Performance: “Death, Where Is Thy Sting?” (2003)

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Where Did the Metal Scream Come From? And How Do Metal Vocalists Avoid Destroying Their Vocal Cords?

Do metal singers take vocal lessons? Surely not the greats of old! Did Bruce Dickinson, Rob Halford, and Ozzy Osbourne take lessons? Or did they dive into the debauchery headfirst, screaming?

Iron Maiden’s Dickinson has been rumored to have received opera training. This is not true. Instead, he stole his vocal technique from his “dentist ex-girlfriend,” he says. “As an ex-pupil of the very prestigious Cheltenham Ladies’ College, she’d had quite extensive singing lessons, and she kept a notebook.” It changed his life.




Ozzy’s guitarist Zakk Wylde tells a funny story of the Black Sabbath legend’s wife Sharon ordering him up a coach… just once… a “man with a briefcase,” says the burly shredder, sent to take care of “our Joe Montana.” But Osbourne did end up working with a vocal coach, Kathleen Riggs, more regularly in later years.

Judas Priest’s Halford? He doesn’t mention a coach, but he does talk a lot about care and training. “My form of extreme singing,” he says, “it’s like a workout, you know…. Your vocal cords are muscles — they get burned out, they get tired.” As for his pioneering screams of over 40 years ago, he muses, “I sometimes think that’s a bit of a curse that I sang and recorded those certain songs so long ago, when I was a younger guy with a younger set of vocal cords.” He nearly wrecked his voice, he says, with cocaine and Jack Daniels.

It’s not opera, but metal singing is a seriously athletic activity and has only become more so as its vocals have grown more extreme, even if its fashion sense has not. As classically trained singer and actress Melissa Cross — the “Queen of Scream” — relates in the video at the top, she first became a metal vocal coach when a producer friend called her in dismay: the singers he was recording couldn’t get through a session without coughing blood.

Where did the metal scream come from, and why is it so prevalent if it’s such an unhealthy way to move one’s vocal folds day after day without training and technique? Vikings, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You,”; Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, AC/DC, and Judas Priest, of course… babies…. These are all points of origin for today’s extreme metal singing, say hosts LA Buckner and Nahre Sol in the PBS video further up.

The two talk to Cross about screaming without bleeding, and metal vocalist Natalie Kreuger talks about how warmups and opera-like breathing techniques are essential to maintaining vocal fitness. And if you need more convincing that metal singing requires serious power and stamina, take a look at the 10 longest live screams in metal, above. Let’s hope they all heed the example of the elder metal gods.

Related Content: 

The Origins of the Death Growl in Metal Music

Scientific Study Reveals What Made Freddie Mercury’s Voice One of a Kind; Hear It in All of Its A Cappella Splendor

96-Year-Old Holocaust Survivor Fronts a Death Metal Band

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Why the Flood of Musician Memoirs? An Exploration by Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast #84

There’s been an explosion of rock and roll autobiographies in recent years, with pretty much every music legend (and many others) being invited by some publisher or other to write or dictate their story. What’s the particular appeal of this kind of recounting, what’s the connection between writing and reading these books on the one hand and producing and listening to the actual music on the other? Do we get a roughly equivalent benefit from a biography, documentary, or film depiction of the person’s life?

Your hosts Mark Linsenmayer, Erica Spyres, and Brian Hirt along with guest Laura Davis-Chanin, author of her own music memoir, each picked a book, covering Elvis Costello, Carrie Brownstein, Ozzy Osbourne, and Debbie Harry respectively. Reflecting on these reading experiences we compare the author’s purposes in writing the book, how confessional or drug-addled or twisted the story is, what is emphasized and what’s not, and what resonated in the story beyond the idiosyncratic recounting of that person’s life.

Check out Laura’s two books, hear her talk about her musical adventures on Nakedly Examined Music, and hear her discuss classic literature on Phi Fic.

Some of the NEM episodes where Mark talked with guests about their auto-biographies featured Chris Frantz of Talking Heads, Jim Peterik of Survivor, Andy Powell of Wishbone Ash, Danny Seraphine of Chicago and John Andrew Fredrick of The Black Watch.

We didn’t use much research for this episode, but you can read lists of particularly good music memoirs from Rolling Stone and The Guardian. The Oakland Press has an article about music biographies and autobiographies emerging at the end of 2020.

Hear more of this podcast at prettymuchpop.com. This episode includes bonus discussion that you can access by supporting the podcast at patreon.com/prettymuchpop. This podcast is part of the Partially Examined Life podcast network.

Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast is the first podcast curated by Open Culture. Browse all Pretty Much Pop posts.

The Little-Known Female Scientists Who Mapped 400,000 Stars Over a Century Ago: An Introduction to the “Harvard Computers”

Image via Wikimedia Commons

As team names go, the Harvard Computers has kind of an oddball ring to it, but it’s far preferable to Pickering’s Harem, as the female scientists brought in under the Harvard Observatory’s male director were collectively referred to early on in their 40-some years of service to the institution.

A possibly apocryphal story has it that Director Edward Pickering was so frustrated by his male assistants’ pokey pace in examining 1000s of photographic plates bearing images of stars spotted by telescopes in Harvard and the southern hemisphere, he declared his maid could do a better job.

If true, it was no idle threat.




In 1881, Pickering did indeed hire his maid, Williamina Fleming, to review the plates with a magnifying glass, cataloguing the brightness of stars that showed up as smudges or grey or black spots. She also calculated—aka computed—their positions, and, when possible, chemical composition, color, and temperature.

The newly single 23-year-old mother was not uneducated. She had served as a teacher for years prior to emigrating from Scotland, but when her husband abandoned her in Boston, she couldn’t afford to be fussy about the kind of employment she sought. Working at the Pickerings meant secure lodging and a small income.

Not that the promotion represented a financial windfall for Fleming and the more than 80 female computers who joined her over the next four decades. They earned between 25 to 50 cents an hour, half of what a man in the same position would have been paid.

Image via Wikimedia Commons

At one point Fleming, who as a single mother was quite aware that she was burdened with “all housekeeping cares …in addition to those of providing the means to meet their expenses,” addressed the matter of her low wages with Pickering, leaving her to vent in her diary:

I am immediately told that I receive an excellent salary as women’s salaries stand.… Does he ever think that I have a home to keep and a family to take care of as well as the men?… And this is considered an enlightened age!

Harvard certainly got its money’s worth from its female workforce when you consider that the classification systems they developed led to identification of nearly 400,000 stars.

Fleming, who became responsible for hiring her coworkers, was the first to discover white dwarfs and the Horsehead Nebula in Orion, in addition to 51 other nebulae, 10 novae, and 310 variable stars.

An impressive achievement, but another diary entry belies any glamour we might be tempted to assign:

From day to day my duties at the Observatory are so nearly alike that there will be little to describe outside ordinary routine work of measurement, examination of photographs, and of work involved in the reduction of these observations.

Pickering believed that the female computers should attend conferences and present papers, but for the most part, they were kept so busy analyzing photographic plates, they had little time left over to explore their own areas of interest, something that might have afforded them work of a more theoretical nature.

Another diary entry finds Fleming yearning to get out from under a mountain of busy work:

Looking after the numerous pieces of routine work which have to be kept progressing, searching for confirmation of objects discovered elsewhere, attending to scientific correspondence, getting material in form for publication, etc, has consumed so much of my time during the past four years that little is left for the particular investigations in which I am especially interested.

And yet the work of Fleming and other notable computers such as Henrietta Swan Leavitt and Annie Jump Cannon is still helping scientists make sense of the heavens, so much so that Harvard is seeking volunteers for Project PHaEDRA, to help transcribe their logbooks and notebooks to make them full-text searchable on the NASA Astrophysics Data System. Learn how you can get involved here.

Related Content: 

“The Matilda Effect”: How Pioneering Women Scientists Have Been Denied Recognition and Written Out of Science History

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Real Women Talk About Their Careers in Science

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

A List of 132 Radical, Mind-Expanding Books from Rage Against the Machine

If you like Rage Against the Machine, but don’t like their “political bs,” you haven’t actually listened to Rage Against the Machine, whose entire raison d’être is contained within the name. What is “the Machine”? Let’s hear it from the band themselves. Singer Zack de la Rocha pointed out that the title of their second album, 1996’s Evil Empire, came from “Ronald Reagan’s slander of the Soviet Union in the eighties, which the band feels could just as easily apply to the United States.”

The Machine is capitalism and militarism, what Dwight D. Eisenhower once famously called the “military-industrial complex” but which has folded in other oppressive mechanisms since the coining of that phrase, including the prison-industrial complex and immigration-industrial complex. The Machine is a mega-complex with a lot of moving parts, and the members of RATM have done the work to critically examine them, informing their music and activism with reading and study.




Evil Empire, for example, featured in its liner notes a photo of “a pile of radical books,” “and the group posted a lengthy reading list to complement it on their site,” declares the site Radical Reads. Debates often rage on social media over whether activists should read theory. One answer to the question might be the commitment of RATM, who have steadfastly lived out their convictions over the decades while also, ostensibly, reading Marx, Marcuse, and Fanon.

There are more accessible theorists on the list: fierce essayists like former death row inmate and Black Panther Mumia Abu-Jamal and Henry David Thoreau, whose Walden and “Civil Disobedience” both appear. The Anarchist Cookbook shows up, but so too does Dr. Suess’ The Lorax, biographies of Miles Davis and Bob Marley, Taschen’s Dali: The Paintings, James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist of a Young Man, and Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer. This is not a list of strictly “political” books so much as a list of books that open us up to other ways of seeing.

These are also, in many cases, books we do not encounter unless we seek them out. “I certainly didn’t find any of those books at my University High School library,” de la Rocha told MTV in 1996, “Many of those books may give people new insight into some of the fear and some of the pain they might be experiencing as a result of some of the very ugly policies the government is imposing upon us right now.” Doubtless, he would still endorse the sentiment. The workings of the Machine, after all, don’t seem to change much for the people on the bottom when it gets new management at the top.

Read the full list of Evil Empire book recommendations on Good Reads. And as a bonus, hear a Spotify playlist of radical music just above, compiled by RATM guitarist Tom Morello. The 241 song list runs

via Radical Reads

Related Content: 

Tom Morello Responds to Angry Fans Who Suddenly Realize That Rage Against the Machine’s Music Is Political: “What Music of Mine DIDN’T Contain Political BS?”

Hear a 4 Hour Playlist of Great Protest Songs: Bob Dylan, Nina Simone, Bob Marley, Public Enemy, Billy Bragg & More

The Entire Archives of Radical Philosophy Go Online: Read Essays by Michel Foucault, Alain Badiou, Judith Butler & More (1972-2018)

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness





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