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 paraversing the tao te ching after alan watts


In his autobiography Cloud-hidden, Whereabouts Unknown, Alan Watts claims there are at least eighty translations for the first six characters of Lao Tsu's taoist tract,


Note: The fifth Chinese character is problematic. It usually means "regular" but, in contrast to the transient world of appearances, becomes "eternal."   For example, our Rock of Ages turns into a "regular-rock" – tokiwa in Japanese pronunciation.)   Chinese is so skeletal, the sentences may be fleshed out pretty much as we please. Watts found such freedom exhilarating. While he provided only a score of examples, "eighty" in the sinosphere means very many, so he can't be faulted on quantity.  But most of Watt’s translations are not interesting enough to show the potential of paraversing and the attraction of what I call the paraverse.  Here are the six best ones and one bad one:


The Way that can be described is not the eternal Way.

The Course that can be discoursed is not the eternal Course.

The Go that can be gone is an emergency go.

The way that can be weighed is not the regular Way.

The flow that can be followed is not the real Flow.

Energy which is energetic is not true energy.

Force forced isn't force.


The first translation is straightforward and boring.    The second is clever, but uses a big word, something far from the spirit of the original  (if only "discourse" were not a high-brow word!).  The third,  by Watts himself,  is the bad one  --  the last three Chinese characters, as a unit in modern  Chinese and Japanese,  mean an "emergency exit"  --  for he is punning in the wrong language.  The "weighed", on the other hand is a meaningful pun.  If "regular" were changed to "Real" it would almost make it; but, unfortunately, "weighed" is always used in set phrases like "weighed the possibilities," and sounds unnatural here.   The "flow" is good too, but flows are not "followed" to begin with. I agree about "energetic" "energy" but these polysyllabic words betray the Way. Force? Nowadays it would be "empowered power isn't power."   Be that as it may, it loses rhetorical force by failing to take advantage our way, the way of English, where we have definitive articles, italics and capitalization to signify not only proper nouns but the sacred nature of something:


Force forced is not The Force.

The discoursable course is not the course.



We cannot match the original. Chinese is just too compact for us.   If brevity is wit, we don't have it.   But we can achieve a sort of parity by following the natural rhymes and rhythms of our tongue, and, most important, not forgetting to use things Chinese lacks.   For example, some of my paraverses:


Out of the way of ways is the Way.

Give way to all ways: that's the Way!


No way is the Way of Ways.

The Way of Ways is never a way.

Wayless is the Way of Ways.

The Way is not this way or that.

The Way is all ways and none.


The way you say is not the Way!

All ways lie in the way of the Way!

No ways lie in the way of the Way!

The Way of Ways lies out of the way.


No way is a way to the Way.

The Way is away from any way.

To choose a way is to lose the way.


There is no way to find the Way.

All ways stray from the Way that stays.

All ways stray from Always

To take a way is to lose It.

All ways lead away from The Way.

All ways never lead to Always.

Forget all ways to find Always.

All ways lost means Always found!

No way but the Way is all ways.

No way is Always.

No way is always the Way.

The Way is always --- all ways are not.

The Way of always, all ways is not.

All ways are not the Way of Ways.

The Way of Ways is weigh enough!

[a nautical term for "put up your oars']


The Way is every which way but.

Every which way but is the Way.


Only the Way is not in the way.

That-a-way-to-go-man! ain't no Way, no way.

Ain't no way, that-a-way-to-go-man is the Way!

Get out of the way, if you would find It!


It has been about ten years since I did this exercise in what might be called exhaustive paraversing; and I can still remember the pleasure it gave me.  I am not one to sit and meditate (unless composing haiku poetry is such), but I feel like I meditated on that first line of the Tao and came away refreshed.  Paraversing taught me how important it is to stick with the Way of our native tongue in order to gain a deep understanding of what is written in another one.