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You see this:

道可道非常道
dào kě dào fēicháng dào 

Often translated as "The Dao that can be told is not the eternal and unchanging Dao". What is the literal translation?

What's missing is, we have dàodào, a mirroring, which isn't present in English, and the NOT in english, where is that in the Chinese?

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The Dao that can be told is not the eternal and unchanging Dao is already a literal translation.

道可道非常道

[The] Dao (道) [that] can (可) [be] told (道) [is] not (非) [the] eternal/unchanging (常) Dao (道)

A text that is written almost deliberately to be interpreted in multiple ways does not have a "the literal translation".

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  • So dao has the meaning "told"? – Lance Pollard Jun 24 at 7:07
  • @LancePollard 道 has a meaning to say, to speak. In idiomatic English, someone might phrase that meaning as be told. – dROOOze Jun 24 at 7:08
  • Darn, I was hoping there would be a deeper literal meaning with the mirroring. – Lance Pollard Jun 24 at 7:31
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    Real life example of 道 in the sense of "to say": 难道 "Don't tell me that...!" – blackgreen Jun 24 at 18:09
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    dROOOze, I think a good followup question is how 道 came to have the meaning of "to say" (given that the character originally just had the "path"/"road" meaning) – Stumpy Joe Pete Jun 24 at 22:49
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道可道・非常道

this streamlined version is edited by 王弼, in third century.

an older version “馬王堆帛書版” was unearthed in 1970s, in which, the verse is:

道可道也・非恆道也・名可名也・非恆名也

for comparison, this may be interpreted as:

the tao (道) that can (可) be said (道), is not (非) the permanent (恆) tao (道).

while all “也” are modal particles, for adjusting the mood / tone of the verse.

have fun :)

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I think this from the Diamond Sutra expresses the same notion.

金刚经 第七品 无得无说分

“须菩提!于意云何?如来得阿耨多罗三藐三菩提耶?如来有所说法耶?

”须菩提言:“如我解佛所说义,无有定法名阿耨多罗三藐三菩提,亦无有定法,如来可说。何以故?如来所说法,皆不可取、不可说、非法、非非法。所以者何?一切圣贤,皆以无为法而有差别。”

(7) "Tell Me, Subhuti. Has the Tathagata attained that Perfect Enlightenment which Transcends Comparisons? If so, is there something about it that the Tathagata can teach?"

Subhuti answered, "As I understand the teaching it cannot be attained or grasped nor can it be taught. Why? Because the Tathagata has said that Truth is not a thing that can be differentiated or contained and therefore Truth cannot be grasped or expressed. The Truth neither is nor is not.

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