The Tao Te Ching is a classic Chinese text written around the 6th century BC by Laozi, a Zhou-dynasty courtier. While its authorship is debated, the text remains a fundamental building block of Taoism and one of the most influential works of its time. Today it’s one of the most-translated works in the world.
The work itself is a series of 81 short poetic sections, each one written in a fluid, ambiguous style, leaving them open to wide interpretation. Subjects range from advice to those in power to advice to regular people and adages for daily living. Because of its ambiguous nature the Tao Te Ching is famously difficult to translate, and many, if not all, translations are significantly influenced by the translator’s state of mind. This translation is by James Legge, a famous Scottish sinologist and the first professor of Chinese at Oxford University.
More than five dozen translations of the Tao te Ching exist in English, making it questionable whether there is a need for yet another. But Stephen Hodge's Tao te Ching: A New Translation and Commentary is revisionist enough to warrant a look. He spends a good part of the introduction situating Lao Tzu's work in the context of the Warring States period (475-221 B.C.E.), even to the point of neglecting to tell the reader much about the content of the text itself. He also discusses the perplexing question of authorship and outlines various translation difficulties. The remainder of the book is more accessible, and is organized thematically to help the reader understand the Tao te Ching's key ideas. Hodge writes well, and the book is beautifully designed with more than 100 photographs and illustrations.