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There is no clear modern correspondence to this aspect of Chinese imperial ceremony, much less one that would make sense to a general audience. It is remarkable that Open Source works so well in its place (although critics will happily ascribe a religious nature to some of its supporters).

This correspondence has been used extensively to manipulate the original, rather than as any kind of consistent analogy. The best connections are (Heaven -> Net) [Heaven as a transparent medium], and (Earth -> Market) [the Market as a worldly enterprise].

Frequently, tiandi is translated to its original idiomatic meaning: “the world”, with connotation “the entire world”.

These translations all connote some form of energy (although this is not the only source for “effort”). This is the conventional Western translation of the Eastern concept, and although it becomes a bit wearing on repeated exposure, I admit I cannot come up with a better option.

What makes it particularly irksome to me is that I was a physics major in college. Trying to answer lay physics questions is a lot harder when people consistently conflate the Eastern philosophical concept with the scientific one…

Since capital punishment is not generally a management option these days, I have converted such references to being fired, instead.

Alternately, I have sometimes contextualized “life” in the modern colloquial sense, as in “get a life!”.

At the risk of stating the obvious: note that, in the original context of the Dao De Jing, capital punishment was very much a management option. So much so that an entire chapter (#74) was basically a reminder than any threat, even the threat of death, loses power if it is overused.

In the original text, this is not a “wu-” form, but it is frequently used in parallel to “wuwei”; I have chosen to render it with an English phrase analogous to “action without force”.

This treatment may have distorted its meaning somewhat more than that of “wuwei”. “Teaching without words” is at least more plausibly literal than “no-action”; my best guess is at a primary intent was teaching by indirection (as in “by avoiding the one, he chooses the other”), and possibly teaching things that can’t be readily explained. Note that, as the original text is poetry, it is more likely than not to have more than one intended meaning.

At any rate, the meaning I have chosen to emphasize is that of communicating without ego. Whether or not this was a connotation of the original text, this meaning does seem to fit readily into many of the places where the phrase occurs. Also, it is a genuine problem that is hard to solve if you don’t have the knack, and one where a Daoist attitude seems likely to be effective.

As an over-literal interpretation of the original term tends to lead to a common misunderstanding of the original philosophy, I have chosen a more concretely specific phrase for the mistranslation. I am still not entirely happy with it, but I have not found anything I like better.

The philosophical error to avoid is to interpret this phrase as a recommendation to withdraw from the world, sit there like a lump, and do nothing, unconditionally; I think it is safe to say that this is not what Daoism is all about.

Viewing the Dao De Jing as a whole, one striking aspect is the amount of advice it gives for those engaged with the the world: hermits have little need for political philosophy, military advice, or social recommendations. While reserving action is certainly appropriate in many situations (and it seems clear that identifying such cases is an aspect of the particular Daoist virtue represented by this term, “wuwei”), it is not appropriate for all situations, and any philosophy that claims it is would be both foolish and boring.

Rather than translating the term over-literally, I have chosen a phrase that suggests working with the nature of that which you are engaged with, as opposed to bringing brute force to bear on a potentially uncooperative reality.

I have added a new entry to the static site: an “about” page, which explains a bit about how I went about mistranslating the Dao De Jing. However, it still doesn’t entirely explain why. So, here goes:

Years ago, when I first read the Dao De Jing, I picked a version more or less at random off the shelf. Since it is quite short, I finished the book proper quickly, and thought something like, “Huh, that’s interesting; I think I see what they’re getting at.”

It was clear from the beginning that the translator was being pretty liberal with his translation — the likes of the line in chapter 32, about the Dao being “smaller than an electron”, were a dead giveaway — and irritating though that might have been, on the whole I was OK with it.

Later, though, I was thumbing through the notes in back, and reviewing the chapters they referenced, and discovered that this liberality went far beyond simple translation. It was not just a matter of paraphrasing, nor even just dropping bits that didn’t agree with him — the translator (one Stephen Mitchell) had simply dropped entire chapters, and written something he liked better! I learned to fear the term he used in his notes to indicate this kind of behavior: “I have improvised here…”.

Frankly, I was pissed off. You just can’t *do* something like that, not without warning people ahead of time. Change the title, stamp “pastiche” on the cover, do something to keep unsuspecting folks like me from assuming they’ve got the genuine article.

Over the next several years, I collected a few other translations, which seemed to be much more literal, and eventually I did a close reading, of all the versions in parallel: each chapter in turn, from beginning to end. My goal was to try and gain an understanding of the gist of the original, as much as is possible for one not schooled in ancient Chinese, anyway. In the end, I was reasonably happy with what understanding I had achieved.

However happy I might have been, though, I was also still pissed off. So, I set about an exercise that had occurred to me during this reading… and, although the project took on a momentum of its own after that, I have to credit Mitchell with being the biggest single inspiration for The Way of the Consultant.

This is one of the more obvious ways to retarget the text towards a software developers’ perspective. I have not been entirely consistent in this translation — there are a few variations, the most common of which is to leave the translation as “things.

Idiomatically, the proverbial ten thousand things means “everything in the world” — more things than can reasonably be counted, much less individually handled, managed, or followed.

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Translating this second fundamental term to “Virtue” has worse problems with connotations than “Dao” does, but many translations that avoid translating “Dao” make free use of this term.

Again, the match is still good for my purposes, especially if you consider the full range of definitions of “virtue”, which include peculiar efficacy, power and strength, and generic excellence, in addition to the conventional connotation of moral excellence (and sexual chastity in particular, which is irrelevant here).

Since all these uses (including the last) are somewhat dated, this also helps contribute an archaic gloss to the overall text. I have similarly capitalized “Virtue” when used in the sense of the “higher virtue” of the title.

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Many translations choose to leave “Dao” untranslated, due to the complicated connotations of the term. Arguably, these connotations are complicated in part due to 2300 years of exposure to the Dao De Jing.

In any case the match is quite good enough for my purposes. I have been pretty consistent about capitalizing “Way” in this sense, which seems to give the result a nice archaic feel, as well as labelling it properly as a term of art.

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January 2023

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