Zhuangzi translations

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    this is slightly off-topic, but perhaps still close enough.
    I just finished reading a book by Jean-François Billeter (French title: Notes sur Tchouang-tseu et la philosophie; as far as I am aware there is no English translation, only a German one), a Swiss sinologue. It’s a series of lectures in which Billeter tries to introduce Zhuangzi’s philosophy; including/using a number of short stories that Billeter translated himself.

    I would like to read Zhuangzi myself, and now I find myself wondering which translation to go for. Any good English, German, or even French translation would do for me.

    As he writes in his introduction, Billeter seems unhappy with most translations available so far, and states the best is the 1968 translation by Burton Watson. He points out that the trouble with translations of Chinese texts into Western languages is that the terminology might be misleading, if/when we associate words (perhaps even unaware of our doing so, since it’s been with us always in our own cultural environment) with concepts out of context (or, to put it differently, fail to think about them more deeply because they feel familiar to us, thus barring us from really engaging/accessing the original text in its own right, like a native speaker would). Hence my question here :)

    Also, do any of you know if Bruce has ever translated or discussed any writings from Zhuangzi?

    Thank you,


    Dear Jeff,

    I would agree that the Burton Watson translation is still probably the best. It is also the most complete. The problem with many Zhuangzi translations is that they are very partial. Usually they just include the Inner Chapters, and a couple of other stories. Just as Bruce has said for the Daodejing, the Zhuangzi needs to be approached as a whole, not just a disparate selection of random stories. Unfortunately, many people including scholars treat the Zhuangzi in this random way.
    Burton Watson himself comments on this in his Introduction to his translation. He observes that the language of the later chapters is very difficult, and seems to lack structure, hence scholars assume these chapters “cannot really be by Zhuangzi”. Personally I am less convinced of this, as I have a suspicion that the difficulty of the language of the later chapters could be entirely intentional, part of Zhuangzi’s approach to mind/knowledge/language.
    Bruce and I have not done any translation work of the Zhuangzi as such, but we have done some discussions. They are not, however, very accessible yet. But I do have it in mind to revisit the Zhuangzi at some time in the future.

    I hope this helps.



    I’m glad someone mentioned this other-fork in the road.. ChuangTzu (Zhuangzi) -Teacher Zhou-
    I’ve been curious about how one might “Access” these portals (also TaoTe and Chou-I chings).. not just the ‘modern translations, but the context and applications- oral elaborations, as Bruce presents in the TaoTe session.. but also the key-characters that show up as kernels…
    ‘relaxing in to your being’ vs Sung Hsin..

    -but as there isn’t just a language-barrier, as the ‘ancientChinese’ phrasing seems to be distinct from modern usage, as well as the “sophisticated code” (as they phrase in rhetoric- for the particular use/context-meanings any area-of-expertise apply….

    for ex “turn’ and ‘twisting’.. as one gains a ‘socio-cultural type knowledge, one “gets” what is meant- within that skill-set).. so let alone it being Chinese, and not the modern-spoken (? I think..?), but also within philo/tao/martial/…mystic context (so those not of that learning, how grasp?) .. [in the same way a cook could say- not too much, not too little…? or an artist matches-colors ?] But further- just having access to the original materials… having these “classics” known, and avail via publishing (can order a copy, let alone an electronic file).. vs need to travel and find someone who has a copy- let alone being told what are the “sources”…

    I think oft in terms of Medevial Alchemy (whether European grouping, more Hellenic; or Middle-Eastern grouping, Arabic and that set of socio-cultural setting; or Asiatic grouping, espec Chinese… Tao-Alchemy as well).. anyway- whether the Art-Icon pictures that encapsulates an idea (eidolon of Icono-), or more poetic descriptions that evoked a state of mind (and yet for those ‘outside’ how to makes-sense, let alone follow?).. as well as the “Practical recipes” (which I think have more of the first-two as well as the overall schema-worldview gestalt-categories of interp.. how to see the “world” the parts…)

    -that came to mind, as in “alchemy’ the question of preservation, and which are to be included in the corpus (vs those ‘offshoots’ likely valid as well, but a different emphasis, perhaps a different path fully ie the puffers…)… and use of language, not to occlude, but perhaps to reveal itself (how concrete-express the ineffable?)..
    This came to mind in terms of another area of study where the question of what relates and how to interp (could this be what the Zhuangzi “later chapters” use of language in ways hard-to-follow? ( I don’t know, I’d always thought to try and read them, but I only take that from Alan’s comment– I really appreciate his response to this).

    this brings to mind something Bruce mentioned in the TaoTe lessons (forget wherein- but also elsewhere) about the spoken-vibrations.. not just knowing/intending a meaning.. but the sound of the language itself?

    (thus to speak aloud an “English” translation, or another.. even “modern Chinese” pronounciation.. wouldn’t have that resonance-tuning).. for Zhuangzi… TaoTe (even IChing)…
    how to find/work with the root-sounding- to speak-say the sound, perhaps as focusing eyes upon the shape of the char.. then the next (even if not knowing the meaning of- say/hear and seeing).. could be a side issue- but I have seen that as an issue related to above.

    ^ (for the first couple of chapters- Bruce spoke the Chinese wording.. but seemed to stop that at some pt…)

    In relation to the TaoTe chapters- if a ch per month.. it will be a while until finished :) (if about half-hour to 45mins per.. would result in quite an entirety… ) – I wonder if it wouldn’t be until that is completed that a comprendium (text with characters? – perhaps this characters appears most often, then this one.. etc.. thus not so much a “word-by-word” but in terms of most often used.. so listed in terms of foundational?)
    For Example (I hope this is an ok place to list this)

    -does anyone know the character-term (and implications of) used in the Iching (and elsewhere?) that Bruce refers to as
    “everything furthers”? (I think it is actually ‘via negativa’ -“There is nothing which does not further…” ) .. ?

    whether that character(s) -as a key phrase/idea- appears not only in Iching, but in TaoTe? .. would it be in ChuangTzu as well? even if translated via other words.. in different contexts- I wondered if that would be a way to link up different, less clearly related concepts, per the term use, which the translation makes hard to follow…
    ie “relaxing into your being” (as above ref- title of book).. as Sung? (thus compares “dissolving”/let-go, release, “Martial-Standing “sung” “.. to this shift in depths of mind… and mind/being as “Hsin” (heart-mind.. even the touch-sense of hoshin ~area between scapula/behind-spine…). thus other areas of teaching that refer to these concepts, link and yet seemingly unconnected.. (to settle &open to, as digests-germinating).


    I for one would love a Zhuang-Zi course from Bruce and Co.!
    Something about that Zhuang-fella really rubs me the right way…I think an Energy-Arts treatment would be a blast!!


    Hi Jeff,

    I have a Dutch translation by Rik or Kristofer Schipper. Don’t know if this one is also avaible in French or English. Might well be the case; have a look at his webstie: http://blog.sina.com.cn/schipper


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