Translating the Tao

Chinese character for Tao: The Way

Some years ago I decided to try and translate the Tao te Ching (Dao de Jing), known in English as “The Book of the Way and Virtue.” Not because I felt the world needed yet another of this classic work, one of the oldest books in the world. Rather, I wanted to learn about Chinese characters and gain a better understanding of the book.

It’s not that hard. You find the radical in the character and then look it up in a dictionary. Not that hard, but time consuming, especially if you’re a rank amateur like me. So, I didn’t get too far along.

Here are the first eight chapters. It’s nothing very different from the many other versions out there. However, in a couple of places I opted for a very literal translation to give the words a slightly new flavor.

One of these days I’m gonna finish it . . .


The way that can be a way is not the infinite way.
The name that can be named is not the infinite name.
The unnamable is the beginning of heaven and earth.
The named is mother to ten thousand things.
Without constant desire one sees into its subtlety.
With constant desire, one sees only its limit.
These two have the same origin
but are given different designations.
We call them both dark.
Darkness within darkness:
the mystic gate.


If everyone in the world knew the virtue of goodness
then evil would stop.
If everyone in the world knew the virtue of kindness
they would cease to be unkind.

Being and non-being dependently arise.
Difficult and easy are mutually accomplished.
Long and shot are jointly formed.
High and low equally bend.
Voice and sound find harmony.
Front and back follow each other.
It is consistently so.

Thus, in the management of affairs,
the sage practices doing nothing,
and when teaching, uses no words.
Myriad things are accomplished and yet
nothing is ever begun.
There is creation and yet nothing created is possessed.
There is being and yet no reliance on being.
There is achievement and yet no completion.
In this manner, all things endure.


Do not exalt the virtuous
and people will not compete with each other.
Do not cherish possessions
and people will not steal.
Do not see desirable things
and the heart will not be disturbed.

The sage leads by opening the mind of people,
And helps them to satisfy their needs
by weakening their attachments
and strengthening their spirit.
The sage helps all people to let go of their desires,
And then, confounds those who think
they possess superior knowledge.

By practicing doing nothing,
Everything is in harmony.


The Tao is like a cup that is filled but never full.
It is deep, seemingly the ancestor of all things.

Hone its keen edge and it will cut through all entanglements.
Its soft light is one with the dust.
It is profound and constant.
Its origin is not known,
but it has always existed.


Heaven and earth are not kind,
they regard the myriad creatures as inferior.
The clever of mind are cruel,
they treat people like straw dogs.

As for the divide between heaven and earth,
it is like air rushing through a hollow log;
empty but not submissive,
active but not exhausted.
More words often mean less,
so hold fast to the middle.


The deepness of woman is called
the spirit of the valley which never dies.
The gate to woman’s deepness
is the root of heaven.
It seems to exist continuously,
don’t be anxious when employing it.


Heaven is infinite, earth is long lasting.
Heaven and earth endure
because they do not exist for themselves;
this is why they continue to endure.
Be like the sage and think of yourself last,
and you find yourself first.
The sage stands outside of life,
and yet is fully involved in it.


The highest good is like water.
Water is pleasing and beneficial
to the ten thousand things,
and yet it does not strive to achieve anything.
It dwells in places that people hate,
which is why it is close to the Tao.

Be on good terms with the earth.
Be good at having a heart that is deep.
Give good love, and speak with words
that can be trusted.
In politics, be fair,
and in daily affairs be skillful.
Act with goodness at all times.
A person who does not struggle,
commits no error.


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