No-Gate Gateway: The Original Wu-Men-Kuan is David Hinton’s new translation of a classical work of Chan (Zen) Buddhism. The book’s summary references it as being a more approachable version than previous translations. While it would be difficult to compare translations, contemplating whether or not the book is approachable is useful. Each section contains a kung-an (kōan in Japanese), a short comment by the original author, and then a gatha poem connected to the chapter. Apart from the introduction, the book is entirely bereft of translator commentary.
Similarly, the supplementary notes to each chapter are neither displayed on the page, nor numbered in text. Instead, they are placed at the end of the book, clearly marked with their associated chapter. While this was done to make the experience of reading the book non-intrusive, as endnote numbering can distract the reader from immediately pondering what they read, it can also leave readers flipping to the back of the book in search of notes which sometimes do not exist. As the status of the notes is mentioned in the reading guide after the introduction, readers will not likely start the book unprepared for this design quirk. The notes are also not extensive and therefore could easily be skipped entirely, if the reader is so inclined.
Many of the kung-an take up only a few lines, with the longest one being two pages. While the book could be read fairly quickly, Hinton does include a recommendation in the introduction that the reader take their time. One could, then, easily consider this to be something of a bathroom reader of Chan Buddhist thought. As one kung-an does refer to Buddha as a, “Dry shit-stick!” (50), this may even be one of the more apt methods for taking the proper time to read the book.
There are two details within Hinton’s translation style which will either seem entirely insignificant to readers or make the reading experience unpleasant:
The first is that most names, specifically chosen names of Buddhist monks, are translated, rather than left in Romanized Chinese. Chuang Tzu and Wang Pi’s names are left as they are, while monks, such as Master Visitation Land and Master Hundred-Elder Mountain, have their meanings spelled out. Though many of these monks took on the names of the mountains where they practiced, knowing the Romanized Chinese (and even the Chinese characters) for their names would have been useful for further research. One chapter, with a monk named Dharma-Eye, says, “Eye pointed at the blinds…” (62), which could potentially cause confusion as to whether he was looking or pointing his finger. One exception to Romanized names of monks is that Hinton goes into depth to explain the name of the author, Wu-men, in the introduction as “No-Gate.” Why Lao Tzu, a figure generally accepted as fictional, is left as Lao Tzu instead of translated to Old Master, is not explained.
The other concern for readers could be periodic informality of language. Words such as “stuff” and “zany” are used at times throughout the text. While not incredibly common, there are likely many who would find this inappropriately anachronistic and informal. Other readers will skip over this without a second thought. Both of these words conveniently fit into where they were placed, so most readers might pass by them without taking notice.
Overall, the editing is very well done and there are neither excessively long sentences nor many places where the translation itself is hard to follow. While the meaning of the text itself is oftentimes unclear, the way in which it is presented is fine. As the author’s goal was to be obscure and thought-provoking, Hinton could hardly be blamed for the paradoxical nature of much of the book.
In naming this translation No-Gate Gateway, Hinton is separating this from previous editions through the focus on the author. Rather than simply leave the title as being paradoxical, in line with the subject matter, as “A Barrier with No Gate,” it also includes the meaning of “The Gateway of Master No-Gate.” As an entryway into Chan teachings, all of these translations are certainly valid, though some readers might take issue with the departure from more traditional renderings.
The question remains, did Hinton succeed in making this translation approachable for new readers? “Yes” is the simple answer, as both the sentence structure and word choice in this book are clear enough to not turn this into a convoluted tangle of letters. While the book itself might not be the most approachable, the writing style certainly is. Some people may be turned away by the style, but, those new to Chan Buddhism especially will likely find this book interesting and easy to read.
Kenneth J. Valencich is an Independent Scholar.
Kenneth J. Valencich
Date Of Review:
October 18, 2018
David Hinton, through his many translations of classical Chinese poetry, has earned wide acclaim for creating compelling contemporary poems that convey the actual texture and density of the originals. He is also the first translator in over a century to translate the four seminal masterworks of Chinese philosophy: the Tao Te Ching, Chuang Tzu, the Analects, and Mencius. He has been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, numerous fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, and both of the major awards given for poetry translation in the United States: the Landon Translation Award from the Academy of American Poets, and the PEN Translation Award from the PEN American Center.
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