CHIN 313 2002 Essay. Ray Brownrigg 14 August, 2002


What is ?: Some comments on Translation





It is generally considered that Lao Zi's Dao De Jing is one of the core texts of what eventually became labelled as Daoist philosophy and is in some sense an attempt to define Daoism. However the word Dao itself is essentially untranslatable in this context, leading to many different translations of the text. This essay analyses more than 60 different translations of the first six characters of the Dao De Jing, and attempts to justify yet another translation, different from all the others. In the process, some principles of translation are identified with particular reference to the translation of classical Chinese text into English. The primary conclusion is that new translations of any work must always be encouraged.



1. Introduction


There is no such thing as a 'uniformly best' translation of a particular piece of classical Chinese literature into another language. Certainly there are useful translations and poor translations, but the value of any particular translation can vary, depending not only upon the criteria against which it is measured, but also upon the inexorable passage of time. For this reason there is merit in encouraging further translations of pieces that may have been translated many times in the past. This essay identifies some of the many variables operating during the processes both of creating the original work to be translated, and of creating the translation. These many variables compound with each other to provide for a very wide range of possibilities in the resultant translation. This is not to say that most translations are valueless; on the contrary, most translations can offer something to the 'pool of knowledge and understanding' of a particular piece of classical Chinese literature in its original form.


A translation is a literary creation, a piece of literature in its own right. One might compare a translation to a musical arrangement, there is always the reference back to the original, but the performance (or reading in the case of a translation) stands alone and has the ability to evoke quite different emotions from the original.


Further, for any translation, correctness is in the eye of the beholder. The intended audience can make a big difference to how a particular passage should be translated, determining the particular mix of emphases that should be placed on the different criteria that can be taken into account when performing/creating a translation.


A utopian goal of literary translation could be stated that the aim of translation is to convey the same information to and to evoke the same emotions in its readers as did the original to and in its intended audience. While the information intended by the author to be conveyed by the original is difficult enough to determine accurately, the intended emotions are even more difficult to identify. These emotions may not even be the same emotions as those evoked in current native readers of the original work - cultures do develop and change. Further the audience of the translation will almost certainly belong to a different culture from that of the original audience, so the best the translator can hope to do is to provide a window into the culture of the original author or his audience.


An oft-stated corollary of this utopian goal is that only a poet can translate poetry well and, by implication and for example, only a philosopher can translate philosophy well. There are arguments for and against this but if one accepts the arguments in favour, then one must also accept that good translations will be very rare indeed. A translator must be a good linguist primarily, and (in the case of classical Chinese literature) a well-versed Sinologist. That such a person is also a good poet, or philosopher, or scientist, or historian is such a requirement as to be an extreme rarity.


To consider a practical example, we will start by analysing a selection of the existing translations into English of the first 6 characters of the Dao De Jing. Next, an attempt is made to justify a new translation of these first 6 characters. Finally, some further general observations and comments about translation are presented.



2. The Dao De Jing


The Dao De Jing is one of the core texts of Daoism. It is said to have been written around 500 BCE by Lao Zi (also known as Li Er). There exist many full or partial translations of this text into English. Galambos in the year 2000 comments that there were already then as many as 300 translations of the Dao De Jing, although this number includes translations into all other languages. Here we will analyse just those translations into English that are readily accessible via the World Wide Web of the Internet.


The first part of the Dao De Jing starts with the sequence 道可道非常道. Most translations stay close to what could be considered to be a literal translation, such as "The Way that can be 'Wayed' is not the constant Way". This form, namely "The <noun> that can be <verb> is not the <adjective> <noun>", where the two nouns are identical, occurs in 22 of the 64 different translations analysed here (in fact when punctuation and different romanisations are ignored, there are only 62 different translations). A further 23 translations exhibit very minor variations such as in capitalisation and the use of articles, but with essentially the same English meaning. Thus more than two thirds of the translations have the same structure, with the primary differences being in the choice of the nouns, the verb and the adjective. The following analyses firstly these 45 different translations.


Considering the nouns, the untranslated "Dao", more commonly appearing in its earlier romanisation of "Tao", is the most frequently occurring noun (31/45), with "Way" the next most common (11/45). These two account for all but three of the nouns.


The verbs used are much more diverse, but can be classified into three meaning-related groups. The most commonly used group contains "spoken of", "told of", "described", "expressed", "talked about" and other synonyms, together representing about two thirds of the cases. The other two groups are represented by "trodden/walked/followed/taken" and "experienced/known/conceived".


Finally, the adjective mostly used is "eternal" (20/45), with "constant" (5), "absolute" (4) and "true" (4) being the only others used more than just once or twice.


Thus to summarise this analysis of the 45 'literal' translations, the most representative translation would be "The Dao that can be spoken of is not the eternal Dao". This could be viewed as a kind of 'centre of gravity' of the set of translations under consideration.


The above analysis does not include the other 19 different translations that do not conform to the general pattern of a literal translation. These can be classified into two broad groups: those that conform to the basic meaning of defining what Dao is (or is not), and a small minority that branch off in different directions. Examples from the two groups are Blackney's 1955 "There are ways but the Way is uncharted" or Jesse Garon's 1994 "If you can talk about it, it ain't Tao" (both from the larger group) and Tom French's more recent 2001 "Any road or path is not forever". While none of these individual translations has enough 'weight' to alter the 'centre of gravity' of the set as a whole, collectively the larger group at least reinforces the basic meaning therein.



2.1 A New Offering


While the most representative translation derived above does seem to be a good representation of the intention of most translators, some improvements can be made.


It is quite clear that most of these translations have been influenced by the pioneers - two of the earliest well-known translations are James Legge's 1891 "The Tao that can be trodden is not the enduring and unchanging Tao" and Arthur Waley's 1934 "The Way that can be told of is not an Unvarying Way". Without delving into individual rationalisations for the preceding translations, there are four modifications to the most representative translation that may be considered. Three of these ideas are manifest in some of the earlier translations, but the fourth seems to be somewhat original in the context of a 'close to literal' translation.


Firstly, consider the two nouns. In the original, they are identical characters, but it does not necessarily follow that the meanings are identical. It is clear that the first occurrence of is referring to something ordinary, while the second (occurrence of as a noun i.e. the third occurrence of the character in the original), together with its adjective, is referring to Daoism itself in some sense (the religion, the philosophy, or the 'way of life'). Hence in translation into English, only the second occurrence should be capitalised.


Secondly, for the same reason, the definite article should not be used for the first occurrence, since it is referring to any "way" or "path" or "doctrine".


Further, quite apart from capitalisation or prepended articles, the same argument is good reason to use different English words for the translations of the two nouns. In fact the second noun is essentially untranslatable, and so should remain as a pure romanisation, but the first is free to be translated into some English equivalent. Further, if we do leave the second noun untranslated but capitalised, then it is operating as a proper noun and so we do not need to attach any article to it.


Finally, there is the role of the adjective to consider. Now that we have a proper noun, it can be argued that there is no need for the adjective, since its main purpose was to 'specialise' the following noun in the original.


Combining these ideas while still following the general form of a literal translation results in the translation: "Any way that can be described is not Dao".


There is only the weight of popular opinion that prefers one translation or class of translation to another. Indeed, any translation, however obscure, may well have merit when judged in its full context. The context of a translation includes aspects not only of the original text and author, but also those of the intended audience.


This new translation exhibits the following characteristics:


a) It does not attempt to be too literal. Since English has the ability to convey special meaning by capitalisation, the adjective that appears in most other translations is not necessary to highlight the special meaning of the second noun. Further this translation recognises that the third occurrence ofis untranslatable, breaking the repetition for the sake of enhanced meaning.


b) It does not attempt to create a translation 'from first principles' but uses the valuable context of other translations as a starting point.


c) It takes into account the context of the principal intended reader, namely the examiner of this essay. In particular, it assumes that the reader is familiar with the original phrase and its general meaning. It also assumes the reader is fluent in the target language.



3. Some General Observations and Comments on Translation


A translation in general is a product of two, perhaps very different, environments, that of the original author and that of the translator. The environment of the reader also affects how the result is interpreted. This mixture of environments can be beneficial to the final result, in the same way that condiments can enhance the flavour of a tasty culinary dish. Pursuing the analogy, it is also true that if the environment of the translator is applied too liberally, then the author's original flavour can be diluted or masked.


The narrator, some would say performer, of a poem or the actors and production team of a play greatly influence the ideas and emotions of an audience. In a similar way, a translator can influence the audience of an original piece of classical Chinese literature, which would otherwise be inaccessible to that audience.


Every piece of classical Chinese literature can be considered to be associated with its own unique context. This context includes much more than the complete document itself. There are many external influences which can come to bear on all classical Chinese literature, a large number of which are related to when the document was written. For example, it is common for classical Chinese literature to include - unattributed - excerpts from other documents. Previous knowledge of the excerpted document would provide a wealth of context and subtleties of meaning for the reader of the document containing the excerpt. Also, it was 'forbidden' for a document to contain the character(s) representing the personal name of the currently reigning ruler. Various means were used to comply with this requirement, including the use of synonyms and homonyms. A confounding issue is that this restriction was reapplied each time a document was copied or reproduced, but it was not necessarily the case that all previous resultant workarounds were reinstated. Thus there have been many potential occasions for mistakes to be made in transmission. Other external influences that are related to when a document was written include those, which still apply nowadays, such as the political climate, the state of mind of the author, and current events. Thus accurate knowledge of when and by whom a document was written can contribute enormously to the ability to determine accurately the meaning intended by the author. The translation of classical Chinese literature must take into account this unique context.


Further, the concept of context extends beyond that of the original work, and applies also to any translation. In the same way that every piece of classical Chinese literature has its own unique context which includes all preceding classical Chinese literature, so does every new translation of a particular piece of such literature have a unique context which includes all previous translations and analyses of that piece (and often also includes recent translations of other pieces of classical Chinese literature).



4. Conclusion


While a 'correct' translation of a particular piece of classical Chinese literature into a particular language may well exist in theory (although not always, because meaning may be intentionally ambiguous, and ambiguities are notoriously difficult to preserve in translation), there will always be a large number of candidates (some not yet realised), with there being no way of knowing with certainty which, if any, of those available conveys the exact meaning or feelings intended by the author. This does not mean that there is no point in attempting to translate classical Chinese literature; on the contrary a new translation can never reduce the understanding of or value obtained from a particular piece of classical Chinese literature, and may well provide insight to inspire others to take up the challenge.


There is always value to be obtained from one more (new or refinement of an existing) translation of any significant piece of classical Chinese literature. Firstly it can never be determined finally which of all existing translations is the overall best rendering of the meaning and feelings of the original author in the target language. More importantly though, because changes in language usages occur over time, the current value of each of the extant translations diminishes with time, leaving room for the creation of refinements which may be more valuable for the present target audience. So take a step towards the present, let your perspective be malleable, and translate, translate, and translate again.



Appendix 1: The Translations


These are the 67 translations analysed in this essay with authors and dates where known. The intention is to record just the translation of the first 6 characters, but the nature of some translations require more to be recorded. All but a very few of these were found through searches of the World Wide Web. Attributions where provided have also been taken from the World Wide Web. It must be borne in mind that such information can be inaccurate, and the association of a name and date with a particular translation cannot be taken as a definitive statement of authorship.


Stephen Addiss, Stanley Lombardo: 1993

TAO called TAO is not TAO.


Archie J. Bahm: 1958

Nature can never be completely described, for such a description of Nature would have to duplicate Nature.


Sanderson Beck: 1996

The Way that can be described is not the absolute Way;


Alexander J Beecroft:

The Way (Dao) that can be "Wayed" is not the constant Way.


Alexander J Beecroft:

The Tao that can be expressed is not the eternal Tao


R. B. Blakney: 1955

There are ways but the Way is uncharted;


Witter Bynner: 1944

Existence is beyond the power of words To define:


Tormod Byrn: 1997

The way that can be told is hardly an eternal, absolute, unvarying one;


Wing-tsit Chan: 1963

The Tao that can be told of is not the eternal Tao;


Ellen M. Chen: 1989

Tao that can be spoken of, Is not the Everlasting Tao.


Jim Clatfelter:

Words and names are not the way They can't define the absolute


Thomas Cleary: 1991

A way can be a guide, but not a fixed path;


Aleister Crowley: 1918

The Tao-Path is not the All-Tao.


Eugene Chen Eoyang: 1993

The Tao (Way) that can be told of is not the commonplace and eternal Tao



The Tao that can be expressed is not the eternal Tao;


Gia-Feng and Jane English: 1972

The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.


Tom French: 2001

The Tao that becomes a Tao is not the Eternal Tao


Tom French: 2001

Any road or path is not forever


Fung Yu-lan:

The Tao that may be called Tao is not the invariable Tao;


Imre Galambos: 2000

The Tao that can be spoken of is not the enduring and unchanging Tao.



Ray Grigg: 1995

The Tao that can be named is not the nameless Tao.



C. Ganson:

The Tao described in words is not the real Tao.


Tam Gibbs:

The tao that can be talked about is not the Absolute Tao.


Tienzen Gong:

Tao that can be spoke of, not the eternal Tao.


Chad Hansen: 1999

To guide what can be guided is not constant guiding.



The Tao that is utterable Is not the eternal Tao;


He Guanghu, Gao Shining, Song Lidao, Xu Junyao: 1993

The Tao that can be spoken of is not the eternal Tao;


John Heider: 1985

Tao means how: how things happen, how things work.

Tao is the single principle underlying all creation.

Tao is God.

Tao cannot be defined, because it applies to everything.

You cannot define something in terms of itself.

If you can define a principle, it is not Tao.


Robert G. Henricks: 1989

As for the Way, the Way that can be spoken of is not the constant Way;


adapted by Ron Hogan, originally attributed to Jesse Garon: 1994

If you can talk about it, it ain't Tao.


Tom Kunesh:

The atheism that one can come to by argument is not true atheism.


Man-Ho Kwok, Martin Palmer, Jay Ramsay: 1993

The Tao that can be talked about is not the true Tao.



The Tao that can be told is not the invariant Tao


D. C. Lau: 1963

The way that can be spoken of Is not the constant way;


James Legge: 1891

The Tao that can be trodden is not the enduring and unchanging Tao.


Lin Yutang:

The Dao that can be told of Is not the Absolute Dao;


David Lindauer:

A tao that one can tao Is not the entire tao


Ned Ludd:

The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.


John R. Mabry: 1995

The Tao that can be described in words is not the true Tao

Tolbert McCarroll: 1982

The Tao that can be spoken of is not the eternal Tao.


John H McDonald:

The tao that can be described is not the eternal Tao,


Frank J. MacHovec: 1962

The Tao described in words is not the real Tao.


Victor H. Mair: 1990

The ways that can be walked are not the eternal Way;


Victor H. Mair:

The Finite cannot be all of the Infinite!



If Tao can be Taoed, it's not Tao.


Spurgeon Medhurst: 1972

The Tao which can be expressed is not the unchanging Tao;


Peter A. Merel: 1995

The Way that can be experienced is not true;


Peter A. Merel:

The Tao that can be known is not Tao.


Maury R. Merkin:

The way that can be trod/followed/taken/shown is not the Eternal Way.


Thomas H. Miles: 1992

The tao that can be described is not the Constant Tao.


Stephen Mitchell: 1988

The tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.


Patrick E. Moran:

A way (Dao) that one can be directed along is not the constant Dao.


Charles Muller: 1997

The Tao that can be followed is not the eternal Tao.



A way that can be described is not the Eternal Way:


Jeff Rasmussen: 2001

Spoken Tao is not eternal Tao


Stan Rosenthal:

Even the finest teaching is not the Tao itself.


Octavian Sarbotoare: 2000

The Way (Tao) that can be named, is not the Ultimate Way.


Tang Zi-chang: 1969

Dao that can be talked about is not the eternal Dao itself;


Arthur Waley: 1934

The Way that can be told of is not an Unvarying Way;


Henry Wei: 1982

The Tao that can be stated is not the Eternal Tao.

Richard Wilhelm, H. G. Oswald: 1985

The DAO that can be expressed is not the eternal DAO.


R. L. Wing: 1986

The Tao that can be expressed Is not the Tao of the Absolute.


Ted Wrigley: 2000

A path is just a path, a name is just a name


John Worldpeace:

The infinity that can be conceived is not the everlasting Infinity.


John C. H. Wu: 1961

Tao can be talked about, but not the Eternal Tao.



The spirit one can talk about is not the eternal spirit,



The dao that can be expounded is not the real dao,





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Fu, Daiwie, "On Mengxi Bitan's world of marginalities and "south-pointing needles" Fragment translation vs. contextual translation" in Viviane Alleton and Michael Lackner, directors, De l'un au multiple (Paris: Editions de la Maison des sciences de l'homme, 1999)


Galambos, Imre, "Pathless path, nameless name" (, 2000)


Golden, Sean, primary contact, On-line Translation Colloquium website (http:/, 1997)


Huang, Parker Po-fei, "On the Translation of Chinese Poetry", in Rosanna Warren, Ed., The Art of Translation: Voices from the Field (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1989), pp. 84-97


Kennedy, Brian, "Chinese Boxing Classics in Translation: Problems and Perils" (, 2002)


Lackner, M., primary contact, Modern Chinese Scientific Terminologies website (, 1997)


Morgan, Bayard Quincy, "A Critical Bibliography of Works on Translation", in R.A. Brower, Ed., On Translation (NY: Oxford University Press, 1966)


Needham, Joseph, "The Translation of Old Chinese Scientific and Technical Texts", in A.H. Smith, Ed., Aspects of Translation (London: Secker & Warburg, 1958)