2015-02-07

名可名,非常名

My conversation with good old 老子 is a neverending story, and I had to revisit him with the untranslatables paradigm in mind. I discovered long ago the extreme difficulty of translating the chinese characters and singularly in ancient writings through the excellent introduction I already mentioned here some years ago, this "Idiot chinois" by Kyril Ryjik. This book had sold out long ago, my exemplar was lost in a former life, fortunately a few years ago on some obscure blog I stumbled on a PDF copy I was preciously keeping safe ... but I can now forget about all those. After thirty years of dark ages, L'Idiot Chinois is now republished, and this new edition should land on my bookshelves anytime soon ...
The infamous and cryptic first chapter of the 道德經 would certainly be easily short listed in any challenge of the best untranslatables ever. It is an example Ryjik is presenting, because it's both too well known and too much translated, and certainly deeply misunderstood by most western translators.
Here goes the first part, which even if you don't read Chinese will strike you by the rhythm and sheer graphical refinement of its 24 characters. Note that the character 名 (míng, "name") is repeated five times, a hint at this story being about names and naming, mainly. 

道可道,非常道
名可名,非常名
無名天地之始
有名萬物之母

Ryjik holds that all but a few western translations and interpretations project a transcendental interpretation of  which does not make sense in the historical/political/cultural context where this text was produced. This is still the case of many available translations, for which the Dao has too much the look and feel of our western monotheist God. If nothing else, the initial caps everywhere are suspicious, there is no upper-case in Chinese.  should certainly be taken with a more mundane meaning : the way the world is going, and that human beings should try to follow, individually and collectively, in order to live in harmony with the general flow. Only physics, no metaphysics.
With this in mind, Ryjik posits that the negative  in the first sentence should be certainly read as a determinant of 常 (constant, unchanging, regular, in one word steady), rather of the whole group 常道. 
In other words, where most translators read 非(常道) not (steady way) one should rather read (非常)道 (not steady) way. Which makes the whole sentence read  something like (a) way really way is not a steady way. In other words : if you want to conform your way to the way (of the world at large) you have to adapt and change (as the world does). In the historical context, Ryjik holds that this is a moral and political recommandation not to stick to a rigid application of ancient rules despite the situation is everchanging. But this is a general consideration, just put there to introduce the main point of the story : the role of names.
Reading in the same spirit 名可名,非常名 yields name really name is not a steady name. Since things as the world flows are everchanging, the names you give to things are also bound to change to keep their accuracy. And in this spirit I just changed the title of this blog ...
As for the following two sentences which seem more mysterious, I've not been fully convinced by any translation so far, even the one by Ryjik. I'm pushed towards proposing my own translation by a beautiful edition entitled "La Danse de l'Encre", illustrated by Lassaâd Metoui, a tunisian calligraph. Thomas Golsenne writes in the introduction (in French, my translation)
"To read the Tao Te King against the grain, out of context is not only a right granted to the reader, it's a sort of duty  ... Understanding or translating [it] "faithfully" does not make any sense, because there is nothing to be faithful to, nothing but emptiness"
So be it, here goes my own unfaithful version of the two following sentences

無名天地之始  : there is no name at the origin of the universe
有名萬物之母  : having a name is the mother of all things

Which I read : the world as a whole 天地 (sky and earth) exists before and beyond any name, and does not need any name to exist, but with names come the separation in things, this and not-this, one, two and the ten thousand beings like said further on in chapter 42. 道生一,一生二,二生三,三生萬物. Dao is father of one, one is father of two, two is father of three, three is father of the multitude of beings.
I'm not sure we need another subject than 無名 and 有名 in those two sentences, a subject which would be implicitly 道, as most translations have it, like "Without name the Dao is the origin of the Universe" etc ... here comes the Holy Ghost, the Logos and the heavy monotheist capitalization. But the dao has nothing to do with the Holy Ghost. There is no metaphysics in the dao, only physics. 
This is actually somehow akin to the (too noisy) recent thesis of Markus Gabriel "Warum es die Welt nicht gibt". Things exist insofar as they are named, but the world cannot be named as a separate entity because there is nothing from which it could be separated from.

Amazingly enough, there is no entry for name in the Dictionary of Untranslatables. Not even a small entry in the index. This is certainly food for thought to expand in a future post.