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I asked this a while back before I had a better grasp as to how Chinese structures sentences (even though I still don't speak Chinese). So instead of coming at this from English back to Chinese, I will go from Chinese to English according to Yabla:

  • 道 dào direction; way; road; path; CL:條|条[tiao2],股[gu3]; principle; truth; morality; reason; skill; method; Dao (of Daoism); to say; to speak; to talk; classifier for long thin things (rivers, cracks etc), barriers (walls, doors etc), questions (in an exam etc), commands, courses in a meal, steps in a process; province (of Korea or Japan)
  • 可 kè see 可汗[ke4 han2]
  • kě can; may; able to; to approve; to permit; to suit; (particle used for emphasis) certainly; very
  • 道 dào direction; way; road; path; CL:條|条[tiao2],股[gu3]; principle; truth; morality; reason; skill; method; Dao (of Daoism); to say; to speak; to talk; classifier for long thin things (rivers, cracks etc), barriers (walls, doors etc), questions (in an exam etc), commands, courses in a meal, steps in a process; province (of Korea or Japan)
  • 非 fēi to not be; not; wrong; incorrect; non-; un-; in-; to reproach or blame; (colloquial) to insist on; simply must Fēi abbr. for 非洲[Fei1 zhou1], Africa
  • 道 dào direction; way; road; path; CL:條|条[tiao2],股[gu3]; principle; truth; morality; reason; skill; method; Dao (of Daoism); to say; to speak; to talk; classifier for long thin things (rivers, cracks etc), barriers (walls, doors etc), questions (in an exam etc), commands, courses in a meal, steps in a process; province (of Korea or Japan)

Looks like it left out 恆, persistent, héng.

dào kè dào fēi héng dào.

How can you possibly get what might be deemed to be a "correct" meaning out of this? It could mean:

  • Paths can speak not consistently direct (This is insightful in one way)
  • Paths can direct not persistently speak (This is insightful in another way)
  • Speaking can direct not persistently reason
  • Way permits direction not persistent speech
  • Way permits speech not persistent direction
  • Speech permits ways not persistent ways.

How do you arrive at what might be deemed a suitable translation? I am in the middle of learning how to translate meaning between languages cross-linguistically, but just the beginning.

It is typically translated:

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

I don't see how it's possible to arrive at that given these 6 words. How do you do this?

It seems like you must have heard the author speaking and knew their intentions to understand the meaning of this verse.

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4 Answers 4

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Many Chinese characters have multiple meanings. The second 道 in this phrase is a verb for "tell" (--> describe); The first and third 道 is a nouns for "Dao"

Dao (the way) is a philosophy

道 - Dao

可 - can

道 - tell

非 - not

恆 - constant

道 - Dao

The Dao that can be told (described) is not the constant (true) Dao

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  • How do you know this?
    – Lance
    Commented Nov 9, 2022 at 15:52
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    How do you know the difference between the first and second saw in " I saw the saw"? When a word is in the verb position, it is most likely a verb, 可(can) is always followed by a verb
    – Tang Ho
    Commented Nov 9, 2022 at 17:37
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道可道非恆道 is the most famous sentence in Tao Te Ching in my view, and this sentence is the essence of the LaoZu's philosophy.

The first 道 (noun) states the most prominent and profound rule/reason/principle of nature in LaoZu's philosophy.

可道(verb) means such the deepest principle 道(noun) can be described in some way [1].

非恆道(noun) states such a principle is variant, not eternally fixed, from time to time in response to constant changes.

So, the whole sentence elaborates an idea: This most profound, most prominent principle can be described in some way; however, it is not eternally fixed (and will change in response to time and society).

[1]: Another related sentence of 道可道非恆道 is 道可道非道. It means that such a principle can be described in some way, but not the usual way, such as language, words, etc., due to the enormousness and profoundness of the principle(道). In my view, this sentence is essential when reading Tao Te Ching, since it states the status of the principle of nature: it's beyond our language and the human conception.

Hope this help! I've read and learned Tao Te Ching for years, and I am sincerely obsessed and fascinated in the world and philosophy described by LaoTu. You can discuss it with me if you have questions.

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This problem is not translation from English to Chinese because many Chinese native speaker do not know its meaning. 文言 is the written Chinese before and is now not used in modern society and most Chinese could not use it. 文言 also have changes and this one is one of the most oldest one which is also far from what is used 2000 years later. 文言 is complex partly because it is expensive to write before so people must compress words as small as possible so it is very often that people have different understanding on same words that there are many books that make explanation on 文言 articles. To understand 文言, just the words itself is not enough. The author's idea and the written environment is also important.

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The "Dao(道)" that "can be(可)" stated(道) "is not(非)" the "eternal(恆)" "Dao(道)";

Note 道 can be a noun or a verb.

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  • I suppose OP's "problem", being "...still don't speak Chinese", is he finds it difficult to know when and where 道 morphs from noun to verb and back again in one short sentence, like some epizeuxis, e.g, "But you never know now do you now do you now do you." Commented Nov 10, 2022 at 2:24
  • @WayneCheah Yes, the OP is on the learning curve, a hint might work :)
    – r13
    Commented Nov 10, 2022 at 13:13

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