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Pathless path, nameless name
Translating Laozi


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A silk manuscript from
the Mawangdui site


The tradition says that the book called Laozi was written around the 5th century BC by an ancient Chinese philosopher called Laozi (sometimes spelled Lao-tzu). The book is also refered to as the Book of the Way and Virtue (Dao-de-jing) or some other similar rendition. As it turns out, it is the most frequently translated Chinese book into Western languages. There is over 300 translations of this text and the number is constantly rising. Why? Apparently, all translators think that they can add something new what the ones before them were not able to convery into a foreign language. Well, to be honest, the text is difficult not so much grammatically as conceptually. Let's take a look at the first couple sentences. It was translated by James Legge, one of the greatest translators of the Chinese classics like this:

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



The Tao that can be spoken of...

Here we immediately have a problem. The simplicity of this phrase in Chinese is both amazing and beautiful: dao ke dao. Grammatically, it could be rendered into English as something like "the tao that can be tao-ed". Tao, or Dao, literally means "road, path, way". It also means "to speak, to say", which makes perfect sense if we insert it into the sentence. This is how Legge translated it. The problem is that this meaning appeared a thousand years later than the book was written, so it could not possibly mean "to speak" in this context.

Some commentators think that the second "dao" could mean "to lead" which was pronounced the same, although written with an extra radical. In Warring States China, when the book was written, it was fairly common to see such abbreviations and substitutions, and it is quite likely that the two characters were interchangeable. In fact, the two characters are obviously related to each other, since the meaning of leading or directing can be directly derived from the meaning of the original word "path".

If we accept this interpretation, then the line would go "the way that can lead", which constitutes a semantically valid phrase. However, the same structure is repeated in the second part of the first verse, saying "the name that can be named", in which case the same word is used both as a noun and a verb; because of this, we would expect that in the first half of the verse the same word is used too. It should be something like the "road that can be roaded", we just have to figure out what could "roaded" mean. According to classical Chinese grammar, the noun "road" could be understood as "to treat like a road" or "to view as a road". Then the correct interpretation would be to talk about the "path that can be viewed as a path" which also makes sense.

If, for example, we take the word "shu" which means "to write" and "writing, book" at the same time, we see that the noun meaning is the result of the verb meaning -- the book is formed by writing. In case of the word "dao" this would mean that the road is formed by "roading" it, making it more like a road. Indeed, there is a comtemporary Chinese proverb saying that "the path is formed by having people walking on it" (dao xing zhi er cheng), which is exactly the same idea. Thus a possible interpretation is to translate the second - verbal - instance of "dao" as "to walk on", resulting in the string "the road that can be walked on".


...is not the enduring and unchanging Tao

The problematic word in the phrase is "chang" translated here as "enduring and unchanging". It could also be understood, however, as "common, ordinary", which would reverse the meaning of the entire phrase. The "enduring and unchanging" way is the creator of the universe, while the "common or ordinary" way is a road leading from one village to the other. Clearly, the phrase wants to establish the difference between these two aspects of the word "dao" but it is vital to understand which one is which. There could be several possible interpretations:

"The path that can be regarded as a path is not the great eternal Path." - The road that is seen as a road under our feet is different from the great Tao I am going to be speaking about.

"The path that can be regarded as The Path is not an ordinary path." - The road that is understood as the Great Tao is different from the ordinary road where donkeys carry rice to the market.

"The Path that can be regarded as The Path is not the great eternal Path." - The Tao that can be conceived as the Tao cannot be the great Tao because that is inconcievable. The great Tao cannot be understood by the mind, cannot be expressed in words.

After 2500 years of debate and guessing, scholars of the book came across some new early manuscripts excavated on the territory of the ancient state of Chu. First a silk manuscript was found at Mawangdui dating to 168 BC, then thirty some years later some bamboo slips from 350-300 BC were dug up at Guodian. Both of these discoveries provided material that was way older than anything before. And all the material says that the word "chang" for "enduring" or "common" was actualy written as "heng" which means "constant". The substitution took place during the Han dynasty as part of putting into practice the name taboo for the emperor's personal name. In any case, the archaeological discoveries had cleared the ambiguity about the meaning of the word and we can be certain that it means "constant, eternal, unchanging" and refers to the great Tao.


The name that can be named is not the enduring and unchanging name.

The structure of this sentence is the exactly the same as that of the first one, only "dao" (path) was substituted with "ming" (name). It seems that grammatically we do not have a realy problem anymore, we can translate the sentence as "the name that can be used to name things, is not the constant Name." But what does it mean? What name? The book talks about the Way but it does not really talk about names. Maybe the book was not, but the entire country was talking about the importance of names. One of Confucius's great pursuits was to "rectify the names" (zheng-ming). This could be understood more as setting the terms right,a key issue before going into a heated debate. In those times a name was understood as a tag that was attached to an object, sort of like today's nouns.

So in the opening words of his book, Laozi is saying that the great unchanging Tao is something different from the everyday road. He sets his terminology straight, making sure that there is no confusion. Then, in the second sentence, he explains that although he is going to talk about this great Tao, there are no words (names) that can be used to name it. In other words, it is a disclaimer stating that despite the fact that the whole book is about the Tao, any discussion on the subject is pointless because words are not adequate to describe the truth.


Written by Imre Galambos, 2000



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