Dàodéjīng 1 and 2: A more literal rendering


Ways that can be ways are not the constant way.

Names that can be names are not the constant name.

Without name, heaven and earth’s beginning.

With name, countless creatures’ mother.

Therefore be constantly without desire in order to watch its subtlety.

Be constantly with desire in order to watch its borders.

As for this pair, they emerge together, yet have different names.

Together, call them darkening: darkening’s further darkening.

Gate of crowded subtleties.


If all under heaven know beauty’s beauty, this is ugly.

If all know good’s good, this is not good.

Therefore being and absence give life to one another.

Hard and easy complete one another.

Long and short measure one another.

High and low upturn one another.

Voice and music harmonise one another.

Before and after follow one another.

Thus the sage’s role is to remain without action, practice teaching without words.

Countless creatures arise, but there is no utterance.

Live, but no there is no being.

Act, but no there is no expectation.

Work is completed, but there can be no rest.

It is always true that there can be no rest.

Thus, there is no departure.

I guess the main new divergence from the mainstream here is the ever-shifting first line of the first verse. Instead of the usual noun/verb/noun translation of dao (道), I have kept all three as nouns (and inserted ‘be’, which would not be written in classical Chinese anyway). So far as I can, I’m trying to preserve eight simultaneous meanings of Dao across it’s 3 appearances:

Dao1: Literal. A path or way.

Dao2: Metaphorical descriptive. A skill or art. The way someone actually does something. The gymnast’s way, the butcher’s way.

Dao3: Metaphorical normative. The proper way of doing something. The way someone should do something. A way that guides practice. ‘To follow the butcher’s way, you must cut between the joints’.

Dao4: Narrow political. The Confucian way. The ideal of social responsible gentleman who cultivates the appropriate virtues.

Dao5: Wide political. Any doctrine or body of teachings.

Dao6:  Narrow epistemic. To speak.

Dao7: Wide epistemic. To categorise or label.

Dao8: Metaphysical. Fundamental reality, the ineffable, etc

This is the best rendering I can find to keep all that. If the result is a bit mysterious, then maybe that is a good thing?

In the same line, there’s chang (), which I’ve given as ‘constant’. I think that’s better than the common ‘eternal’, which suggests some very questionable metaphysics. It still, however, loses chang as ‘commonplace’ or ‘everyday’, and there are valuable readings that rely upon that. For example, the ways that can be spoken of are not the commonplace ways. In other words, you can’t capture everyday human practices in words (with, I think, an anti-authoritarian tone). Or, even more strongly, the ways that can be doctrines are not the everyday ways. In my less literal rendering, I went for ‘lasting’; but, on reflection, I don’t think that really captures these meanings either, so I reverted to the more usual ‘constant’. I’d love some smooth way of combining these meanings, but am at a loss for now.


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