The Tao Te Ching: Translation Theory and Semantic Variance

  • Alina Moore University of Winnipeg


Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching is a classic and fundamental Ancient Chinese philosophical, poetic, and religious text that dates back to 4th to 6th century BCE. This text is intrinsic to philosophical and religious thought in Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism, and is used as a source of inspiration for artists around the world. Because of its inherent poetic ambiguity, some of its translations have been criticized for appropriating Chinese culture for Western perspectives, while others have seen it as a way of making the spiritual text accessible to larger audiences. In this paper, I compare and examine four different English translations of the Tao Te Ching using linguistic frame semantic theory. I argue that semantic variance occurs in each because semiotics are frame dependent, and meaning changes depending on the cultural and temporal frames both the translators bring through their use of fidelity and license when translating, and that the audiences bring when interpreting the artefact. Although variances are present between source text and different translated texts, the translation of the Tao Te Ching has managed to continue to extend its life and bridge the language gaps between cultures, spreading interpretations of its philosophical teachings, and enriching not only the target language, but also the source text in the process.