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There is an often quoted poem by a famous Japanese poet Matsuo Bashō which is translated to English in either of two ways:

Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise; seek what they sought.

or

Do not follow in the footsteps of the wise; seek what they sought.


However word-by-word literal translation from Japanese is:

Do not seek the footsteps of the wise; seek what they sought.

Question: I wonder how much "to seek to follow in the footsteps" changes the meaning from simple "to follow in the footsteps", in what way and even if the phrase "seek to follow" is linguistically correct?

The majority of results when googling the phrase "to seek to follow in the footsteps" points to this poem and that makes me a little bit suspicious that a compromise has been made between adhering to the Japanese wording and having to create a comprehensible sentence in English.

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  • 1
    There is a road, no simple highway, Between the dawn and the dark of night, And if you go, no one may follow, That path is for your steps alone Thank you, Grateful Dead.
    – bib
    Commented Oct 14, 2015 at 13:55
  • *Seek to follow" rhymes better with "seek what they sought" than just "follow". Translation of a poem is very difficult as a translator has to take rhyme into consideration.
    – user140086
    Commented Oct 14, 2015 at 14:11
  • Actually I am trying to ask a specific question here, not evaluate poetic translations. I am interested in how adding a word "to seek" and making it a predicate changes the meaning compared to the phrase with "to follow" as a predicate. For me a "to seek to follow" with both words being verbs close in meaning is a little too much.
    – macraf
    Commented Oct 14, 2015 at 14:30
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    Is there a case for replacing 'footsteps' with 'footprints' then? I guess it depends on the Japanese text, but it seems more natural to seek a footprint than a footstep (and vice versa for follow). You'd end up with *"Do not seek the footprints of the wise; seek what they sought." Hmm. Now I'm not so sure. Translation is indeed difficult.
    – JHCL
    Commented Oct 14, 2015 at 14:32
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    Your first 'interpretation' takes liberties by introducing the second sense of 'seek', but doesn't mangle the overall intention, and sounds pithier. Commented Oct 15, 2015 at 11:20

4 Answers 4

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This is subjective of course, but I think the first translation captures the meaning better than the second.

If the most efficient path to the goal sought by the wise is to take the same path that they took, this would be expressly forbidden by the second translation.

However, I also think the literal translation is both the clearest in meaning and the most poetic.

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How about this:

Do not seek the path the wise took; instead, seek what they sought.

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Seeking an awakened state, as a journey beginning to end, is and must be a personal and original experience. It's best if one seeks and experiences what the wise sought than to follow their footsteps and merely verify where they arrived. In this I will have an understanding of their journey but no journey of my own ... I will not have even taken my first step. Therefore: Do not seek the footsteps of the wise; seek what they sought.

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The phrase "to seek to follow" is a better, closer translation than "to follow" in this quote. I think the greater difference is in using "follow" in the first place, it makes for a quick, simpler translation, but one that is different than simply using "seek" for both.

So, the phrase "to follow in the footsteps" can have the narrow, precise meaning that the quote calls for - to follow very literally and inflexibly, footstep by footstep - but it can, and often does have a broader meaning of generally following the example of (whoever)... which can mean even something like suggesting to the listener to (or negated in this quote, suggesting not to) find their own path [as the original did]. Or to become great, or to choose the path of greatness - following in someone's footsteps might mean making it successfully, after all. This is the literal opposite of what the quote needs it to mean.

On the other hand, the phrase "to seek to follow in the footsteps" suggests that the focus is on following for the sake of following - which ties into the quote's meaning a lot better. It's about the difference between following someone's example and following their procedures, if that makes sense. This phrasing also emphasizes the difference between an attempt and a success - someone successfully "following in the footsteps" doesn't need the quote, after all. But "try to follow" suggests strongly that the one attempting may already not succeed, and then the quote continues that even if they do succeed, it may not be the result they wanted if they were focusing on the wrong goal. So they may try to follow and fail, try to follow and succeed (at being a follower), or they can focus on the goal, and perhaps become great in seeking it.

So, going back to the beginning, the phrase "to seek to follow" is a better translation, it highlights the focus on following and re-emphasizes the uncertainty, the possibility of failure. The word-for-word translation is actually a better quote... to "seek the footsteps", or even better, "seek the footprints" (as JHCL mentioned) adds a connotation of focusing in on little details and suggests a much narrower focus, which is much more strongly contrasted by "seek what they sought". "Don't seek for their footprints" conveys an image of someone crawling around obsessing over the little evidence "the great" leave behind, instead of looking up and around to see where they might be going. Like I said, it is a stronger contrast, and, I think, a better quote.

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