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  • Margaret

the way that can be named is not the eternal way

The other day my friend Katie sent me this beautiful quote, attributed to Lao Tzu:

those who flow as life flows know they need no other force.

Thinking back to a semester in college I spent learning classical Chinese, I wondered about this translation. Where did it come from? How else could this line be rendered? I remembered the text of the Lao Tzu being open, mutable.

A little research revealed the source of the quote, a translation by Witter Bynner from1986:

Because when a man is in turmoil how shall he find peace

Save by staying patient till the stream clears?

How can a man’s life keep its course

If he will not let it flow?

Those who flow as life flows know

They need no other force:

They feel no wear, they feel no tear,

They need no mending, no repair.

I also found this version by D.C. Lau from 1963:

Who can be muddy and yet, settling, slowly become limpid?

Who can be at rest and yet, stirring, slowly come to life?

He who holds fast to this way

Desires not to be full.

It is because he is not full

That he can be worn and yet newly made.

And here, James Legge,1891, this one in prose (parentheses are his):

Who can (make) the muddy water (clear)? Let it be still, and it will gradually become clear. Who can secure the condition of rest? Let movement go on, and the condition of rest will gradually rise.

They who preserve this method of the Tao do not wish to be full (of themselves). It is through their not being full of themselves that they can afford to seem worn and not appear new and complete.

Each Chinese character in the ancient text has multiple meanings. A series of them can be interpreted and connected in different ways, yielding, as you can see, dramatically different results. Translation therefore requires not just a knowledge of grammar, meaning, and context, but also a poetic and philosophical sense, and a certain enterprising, risk-taking spirit.

Interpreting a piece of music — often written centuries before we set eyes on it — is in some ways similar. Although the markings on the page appear to indicate something specific and definite, we know that there is much that is not on the page. Also, that which is on the page often gives us only a rough idea of actual execution. Depending on the composer and the period it comes from, a written document might only be an outline of what the performer needs to do in order to create the music: we might add dynamics, articulation, vibrato; we might improvise a section, add ornamentation, or flesh out a harmonic progression; we decide how soft piano is, or how much to slow down for a ritardando.

Therefore what any of us ultimately plays when looking at a written document of a composition is shaped by what we bring to that process of adding to and interpreting the text. Our personal taste, knowledge, experience and training, what we’ve taken on as assumptions, conscious and unconscious, as well as the nature of the specific text we’re working with (whether a pedagogical text such as the Suzuki books, a performer’s edition, a scholarly edition or urtext) all play a part, as does the nature of our approach: how we see our role vis-a-vis the text.

A written piece of music is less like an instruction manual - I'm thinking, for example, of a Lego brick assembly booklet - and much more like a text such as the Lao Tzu. With the first, the hope is that the document will guide everyone toward the same (or as close to the same as possible) result. With the second, each person is called on to engage with a shimmering, elusive, never-completely-definable text, and bring forth something uniquely their own.

The very possibility of dipping into the well of such a text again and again and coming up with new meanings each time is part of the beauty of the text itself, and of the endeavor.

1 Kommentar

15. März

You blow my mind with your writing *_* and the beauty with which you describe musical engagement (that phrase sounds too flat to capture it!)!

I love the sense of magical alchemy you evoke. It helps me see, too, how thinking of a musical piece more like an instruction manual not only changes the output but, even more fundamentally, the process. Music then becomes not about creation or expression but about re-rendering a "static" (so the story goes) object - like tracing someone's drawing of a dog instead of drawing your own.

I love your exploration of the Lao Tzu translations, too. It reminds me that, even when we speak the same language, we still translate each other's words into…

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