One of the most interesting things about the Tao Te Ching is the wildly divergent translations into English that are available. Perhaps because of the poetic language or perhaps simply because of the difficulties in translating the ideas of an Eastern language into a Western one, translations of the Tao seem to vary much more than, say, the Bible.
Overall that is probably a good thing. One of the worst modern movement is "fundamentalism," where people put more stock in what they think the words of their religious text are, rather than what they really mean. Frankly, I think that Christian fundamentalism could be pretty much eliminated if more of those folks would read different translations of the Bible side by side with scholarly commentary. But they seem to think that not only did God dictate to Matthew, Luke and John, but redictated the translation in 17th century England. But I digress.
Lookig for meaning is different than simply following the words. It seems that translators of the Tao do struggle with both the words and the meaning. Some idea of this struggle can be seen in translating the first line of the text. Or to get to the crux of the matter immediately, "what does 'Tao" mean?"
It is often translated as "Way." Charles Muller uses this: "The Way that can be followed is not the eternal Way." Unfortunately this translation negates even trying to follow the Tao. Why bother? If you can do it, it is not the eternal Tao!
Stephen Mitchell avoids translating "tao" at all, simply saying "The tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao." This is more hopeful. He (or any teacher) may not be able to tell the tao, but perhaps the tao can still be seen or followed.
Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D., has an extensive commentary on the Tao and his listing of differing translations is quite interesting.
Let's look at some translations, old and recent, of just the first six characters.
- Most venerable of all is that of James Legge in 1891: "The Tâo that can be trodden is not the enduring and unchanging Tâo" [Dover, 1962, p.47].
- Then we have D.T. Suzuki and Paul Carus in 1913 & 1927: "The Reason that can be reasoned is not the eternal Reason" [Open Court, 1974, p.74].
- Next let's see Archie Bahm (whom I knew at the University of New Mexico) in 1958: "Nature can never be completely described, for such a description of Nature would have to duplicate Nature" [Frederick Ungar Publishing, 1958, p.11].
- D.C. Lau in 1963: "The way that can be spoken of / Is not the constant way" [Penguin, 1963, p.5].
- Hua-Ching Ni in 1979, with what appears to be more an "elucidation" than a translation: "Tao, the subtle reality of the universe cannot be described" [Seven Star Communciations, 1979, 2003, p.7].
- Tam C. Gibbs in 1981: "The tao that can be said is not the everlasting Tao" [North Atlantic Books, 1981, p.20].
- More recently, we get Victor Mair in 1990, who switches Book I and Book II, displacing the 1st Chapter to the 45th: "The ways that can be walked are not the eternal Way" [Bantam, 1990, p.59].
- Michael LaFargue in 1992, who insists on completely rearranging the chapters, displacing the 1st to the 43rd, under the larger heading of "Knowledge, Learning, and Teaching," with ten other chapters: "The Tao that can be told is not the invariant Tao" [State University of New York Press, 1992, p.84].
- The science fiction novelist Ursula Le Guin in 1997: "The way you can go / isn't the real way" [Shambala, 1998, p.3].
- Moss Roberts from 2001: "The Way as 'way' bespeaks no common lasting Way" [University of California Press, 2001, p.27].
- Roger T. Ames and David L. Hall, who have a slightly different Chinese text, in 2003: "Way-making (dao) that can be put into words is not really way-making" [Ballantine, 2003, p.77]
- And finally let's try Charles Muller in 2005: "The Tao that can be followed is not the eternal Tao" [Barnes and Noble Classics, 2005, p.3].
So, if the Tao that cannot be named or followed is not the eternal Tao, perhaps you are disappointed to not find an blank page here. Perhaps the best Western approach to this kind of mystery is a quote from Noam Chomsky "A map is not the territory."
The writings of the Tao are but the map. Living a life is the territory.