Chapter 28 – One Approach to Translating

If you are brave, be humble! And then the entire nation will follow you.
If you become a leader among people, let Great Te be your Guide.
And be a pure, gentle, and subtle soul, like a child!

 Abiding in good, do not forget about the existence of evil!
And be an example of righteousness for everyone!
The one who becomes such an example for everybody does not differ by the quality of the soul
from Great Te and moves then to Mergence with Eternal Tao.

 Such a person—though knowing about personal achievements and merits—stays unknown,
 and thus becomes a wise leader.
It is favorable that such a wise person be a leader among people,
then there will be order in such a country.

 Translation by Dr. Vladimir Antonov (2007)

Uncarved Block

Uncarved Block

Choosing a translation for this week’s Tao Te Ching Tuesday comments was difficult.  I reviewed many translations and found all of them different in subtle, and not so subtle, ways.  I settled on the above wording from Dr. Antonov because it seemed the most different of them all.  I look at this translation (which is available at almost every week, and find it  more a commentary than a standard translation.  In fact, I expect to find a commentary (with which I sometimes agree and other times do not) because Dr. Antonov states, “The work on creating this edition of the translation of Tao Te Ching was done at the personal request of Lao Tse and with His help.”


 Of course, all the translations of the Tao Te Ching are commentaries to some extent.  The actual Chinese text, at least as I understand it, is quite sparse and uses ancient characters that do not have exactly the same meaning as similar modern Chinese characters.  I understand from information on another website – – that this whole chapter may be rendered as:

(1) act (2) in heaven (3) below (4) as a river valley
(5) acting (6) in heaven (7) below (8) as a river’s valley
(8) the constant (9) Virtue (Te 德) (10) is consequently (11) sufficient
(12) to return (13) again (14) to (15) uncarved wood [original nature]

That’s it, just 15 characters.  Those few characters seem to make the meaning more clear than any of the more verbose renderings into English.  We are told that the sage understands and is able to act with the yang attributes that are often deemed important in this world, but knows that the receptive and yielding yin will lead to the true virtue (Te –as in Tao Te Ching) that exemplifies a life that follows the ways of nature.  The natural way returns us to the source of all.  In other words, following the flow of the nature surrounding us returns us to our true nature (the block of uncarved wood).

This is a recurring theme in the Tao Te Ching.  It may be helpful to refer back to Chapters 14, 16 and 25 as earlier instances of Lao Tzu presenting this principle.

To be fair, and more thorough, in discussing the translation difficulties, it should be noted that the website also has a longer set of Chinese characters which are shown to be rendered in English as:

Know-it–the masculine
Keep-it-the feminine
Act-in heaven-below-as a river’s valley

 Acting – in heaven-below-as a valley stream
Returning-home-again-to [being]-a newborn-infant

 Know-what-shines forth
Guard-what is-left out

 Act-in heaven-below-as a pattern
[If you] act-in heaven-below-as a pattern
Commonly-Te/virtue-will not-be wanting
So you return-home again-to-im-mortality
Knowing-what-glory is
But guarding-what is-humble 

Act-in heaven-below-as a river valley
Acting-in heaven-below-as a river valley
The constant-virtue (Te)-is consequently-sufficient
To return-again-to-uncarved wood [original nature] 

Uncarved wood-carved-consequently-creates-vessels
Sagely-people-use-the same-to create-officials-of senior rank
Just so-great-fashioning-[becomes] not-carving.

 Looking at the longer version of the Chinese characters makes it easier to see how the translation at the beginning of this essay was reached – especially since Dr. Antonov tells us he was fortunate enough have Lao Tzu’s help in interpreting the text.

That approach to translation is in complete accord with the material.  The translator is being receptive to the source and acting in accord with the true nature of his Way of rendering the words.

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