I am tinkering with learning Chinese and am messing around with the Tao Te Ching. The first sentence in Chinese is this:


The way this is typically translated is this:

The Dao that can be told, is not the eternal Dao;

If I were try to reflect the English version back into Chinese without knowing any Chinese yet, I would do something like this:

<dao><can be><told>,<not><the eternal><dao>

However, this is not the way the Chinese sentence is structured. It is structured more like this:

<dao><can><dao>, <not><permanent><dao>

Two questions. First, can you generically explain at a high level how they got the translation with all the words like "that" and "the". Second, how is <dao><can><dao> equal to "the dao that can be told". Is this some sort of convention in Chinese? Or how did they come up with this?

If I were to translate it given my zero knowledge of translation or Chinese, I would do:

Dao permits Dao, negating a permanent Dao

Am I just way off, or is this part of the fun in translating?

  • 道 is a commonly used word (in older times) for to say; to utter, so here the character 道 is used for two different meanings: "Dao" (first 道) and "to speak" (second 道). Check definition (9) on en.wiktionary.org/wiki/%E9%81%93.
    – dROOOze
    Commented Sep 8, 2019 at 14:22
  • Needless to say, the translator arrived at his variant having read the whole text (probably, not once). It would be rather difficult to come up with this translation if one were given just a single Chinese sentence that you quote.
    – tum_
    Commented Sep 8, 2019 at 19:41
  • You will find that trying to translate ancient Chinese texts requires a deep understanding of the philosophy/history the actual text is trying to convey. In Taoism, there is an emphasis on coming to terms with the boundaries of knowledge: that in creating definitions and naming things etc, we invariably will be forced to leave out aspects of the very definitions and names we create. In some sense, if you have put a name to something, you have not captured its entire essence. Now, given this context, how would you translate 道可道,非常道;名可名非常名 ?
    – Marko
    Commented Sep 11, 2019 at 9:01

1 Answer 1


The word 道 (dào) has several different meanings. One of these is "road/path/way"; another is "speak/utter". This is where Wikisource's translation comes from: the first 道 means "road", and the second means "speak".

Chinese also has much less verbal morphology than English does. Where English uses the whole verbal phrase "is able to be spoken", Chinese just uses two words, 可 ("able to") and 道 ("speak"). The time of the action isn't relevant (it's a "gnomic" sentence), and the voice of the verb is clear from context: it's not a road speaking, it's a road that's able to be spoken/explained. Similarly, Chinese doesn't generally use anything equivalent to English "a" or "the", but English requires them, so the translator adds them in.

A big part of translation is knowing what needs to be stated in each language. This translation…

Dao permits Dao, negating a permanent Dao

…isn't a very good one, in my opinion, because it's ignoring the context. Sure, 道可道 could mean "speaking permits a road". But contextually, that doesn't make much sense at all. Out of the hundreds of possible interpretations, adding tense and voice to the verb (because English requires that), "the path which is able to be spoken aloud" seems like the most reasonable one.

For some more examples, here are how some professional translators handled this first sentence.

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. (Legge)

The Reason that can be reasoned is not the eternal Reason. The name that can be named is not the eternal Name. (Susuki)

The Dao that can be understood cannot be the primal, or cosmic, Dao, just as an idea that can be expressed in words cannot be the infinite idea. (Goddard)

Note that all of them supplied many, many words that don't correspond to anything in the Chinese sentence! English is a somewhat verbose language, in that it needs to use a lot more words, and specify a lot more details, than Chinese does. So the translator has to add those in to get good, understandable English.

  • 1
    Instead of "different meanings" I'd suggest that words are polysemous (that is decidedly not different, but rather similar, overlapping). That is, whatever the eternal "dao" is, it would be naive to assume it had to do with "talk", and the naive assumption would be correct in many cases ("road" notwithstanding). I'd expect writers avoid a repition--I know I do--except in poetry, or where else the rhyme were reasonable. I don't think the intent was to confuse the hell out of people, even if in my view they appear cynical. A message about the message isn't the real message makes perfect sense.
    – vectory
    Commented Sep 8, 2019 at 23:51
  • in other words, a comment is not an answer >_<
    – vectory
    Commented Sep 8, 2019 at 23:52

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