Saturdao 1

Dao De Jing, verse 1a

16 translations

1. James Legge:
The Dao that can be trodden is not the enduring and unchanging Dao. The name that can be named is not the enduring and unchanging name.
(Conceived of as) having no name, it is the Originator of heaven and earth; (conceived of as) having a name, it is the Mother of all things.
2. Archie Bahm:
Nature can never be completely described, for such a description of Nature would have to duplicate Nature. No name can fully express what it represents.
It is Nature itself, and not any part (or name or description) abstracted from Nature, which is the ultimate source of all that happens, all that comes and goes, begins and ends, is and is not.
But to describe Nature as “the ultimate source of all” is still only a description, and such a description is not Nature itself. Yet since, in order to speak of it, we must use words, we shall have to describe it as “the ultimate source of all.”
3. Frank MacHovec:
The Dao described in words is not the real Dao.
Words cannot describe it.
Nameless it is the source of creation; named it is the mother of all things.
4. D.C. Lau:
The way that can be spoken of is not the constant way;
The name that can be named is not the constant name.
The nameless was the beginning of heaven and earth;
The named was the mother of the myriad creatures.
5. Gia-Fu Feng:
The Dao that can be told is not the eternal Dao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth.
The named is the mother of ten thousand things.
6. Stan Rosenthal:
“The Embodiment of Dao”
Even the finest teaching is not the Dao itself.
Even the finest name is insufficient to define it.
Without words, the Dao can be experienced, and without a name, it can be known.
7. Jacob Trapp:
“The Eternal Dao”
The Dao men describe Is not the eternal Dao.
The names men give Are not the absolute name.
The named is the inexhaustible Mother
Of the myraid things and beings of this world.
These point beyond themselves
To the nameless, all-pervasive Unity.
8. Stephen Mitchell:
The Dao that can be told
is not the eternal Dao.
The name that can be named
is not the eternal Name.
The unnameable is the eternally real.
Naming is the origin
of all particular things.
9. Victor Mair:
The ways that can be walked are not the eternal Way;
The names that can be named are not the eternal name.
The nameless is the origin of the myriad creatures;
The named is the mother of the myriad creatures.
10. Michael LaFargue:
The Dao that can be told is not the invariant Dao
the names that can be named are not the invariant Names.
Nameless, it is the source of the thousands of things
(named, it is 'Mother' of the thousands of things).
11. Peter Merel:
“The Way”
The Way that can be experienced is not true;
The world that can be constructed is not true.
The Way manifests all that happens and may happen;
The world represents all that exists and may exist.
(GNL 4.1
Flow courses within the world
Like poetry within a text,
Reflecting the distinctions
That shape reality.
Unconsciously, distinctions are sensed;
Consciously, distinctions are anticipated.)
12. Ursula LeGuin:
The way you can go
isn't the real way.
The name you can say
isn't the real name.
Heaven and earth
begin in the unnamed:
name's the mother
of the ten thousand things.
13. Ron Hogan:
If you can talk about it, it ain't Dao. If it has a name, it's just another thing.
Dao doesn't have a name.
Names are for ordinary things.
14. Ames and Hall:
Way-making (dao) that can be put into words is not really way-making,
And naming (ming) that can assign fixed reference to things is not really naming.
The nameless (wuming) is the fetal beginnings of everything that is happening (wanwu),
While that which is named is their mother.
15. Yasuhiko Genku Kimura:
The Dao Eternal is beyond definition
No name given can capture its eternality.
Nameless, it is the origin of the Kosmos.
Named, it is the beginning of all things.
16. Addiss and Lombardo:
Dao called Dao is not Dao.
Names can name no lasting name.
Nameless: the origin of heaven and earth.
Naming: the mother of ten thousand things.
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Sixteen versions. Which one is your favorite? Can you look these over and construct your own?

If you can't speak it or describe it, that's one thing -- but if you can't walk it (Mair, Legge, LeGuin) or even experience it, then why should anyone say there is such a thing? I like "way-making" (Ames-Hall) over the usual "way" precise
ly because it makes dao into something one does.

If the Dao is "invariant" (LaFargue), "eternal" (Feng, Trapp, Mitchell, Mair), and "enduring and unchanging" (Legge), then is this opening line denying Buddhism's claim that all things are impermanent? Or is Dao the flow of change (GNL), in which, just as Buddha says, nothing is constant?

Archie Bahm's deadpan rationality seems comic, yet sweet and endearing, doesn't it? I wonder if we will feel this way after 10 or 20 weeks of it . . . Yet, he does offer a springboard, which some of us need sometimes, from which to plunge into the mysticism of the other translations. Rational mind, having been reassured (assuaged, we might say, with Archie's "Bahm"), can then step aside to allow us to go to the strange places Rosenthal, Trapp, and most of the others point to. Except that maybe your rational mind is saying, "No, Archie, that's not what this part of the verse is saying."

Hogan makes the self-contradiction most blatant: He flatly names it "Dao" in the very moment of saying it has no name.

One might be tempted to suppose an ontological dualism, something neoplatonic perhaps, between, on the one hand, some realm of the eternal, the unchanging, the oneness, and, on the other hand, this earthly veil of flesh, corruption, change, particular things. If there is a dualism, it is not ontological but epistemological: it is we, in our act of naming, that create conceptions of "the ten thousand things" -- so I like that Mitchell and Addiss-Lombardo reference the action of "naming" rather than the being of the "named." (Or am I now being the comically rational explicator?)

I appreciate Trapp's attention to how the myriad things "point beyond themselves" -- though, again, we must take care to avoid the Trap(p) of believing there are two ontologically separate realms, the one pointing to the other. The myriad things point beyond themselves precisely by pointing to exactly themselves.

Which translation do you prefer?
* * *
Next: Saturdao 2.

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