In a recent article entitled ”On inconstant ways” published in Culture China, vol. 1, 2015, p
Professor Edward L. Shaughnessy discusses the interpretation of the opening sentences in 道德经 Dao De Jing: 道可道非常道，名可名非常名，Dao ke dao fei chang dao, ming ke ming fei chang ming. The article is the author’s translation into English of his paper 非常道考，Fei chang dao kao, originally published in 国学学刊 Guoxue xuekan (National Studies Journal) 4 (2011), 39-45. The author shows that the most authoritative translations of the two sentences into Western languages all more or less agree with that proposed by Stanislas Julien in 1842:
La voie qui peut être exprimée par la parole n’est pas la Voie éternelle; le nom qui peut être nommé n’est pas le nom éternel. While it is generally agreed that the first occurrences of 道 dao and名 ming in these sentences serve as nouns and the second occurrences of the same forms serve as verbs, the interpretations of these morphemes show a fairly wide semantic range, the noun 道 being interpreted as la voie, the Dao, the Principle, the Way, and the verb道 being interpreted as passive forms of verbs like express, enunciate, tell of, call, speak of.
The eminent translators referred to in Shaughnessy’s paper all interpret the syntactical structure of these two sentences as NP fei NP, NP fei NP. What really surprises me is that none of these translators has appreciated that 道可道 Dao ke dao serves as a subordinated predication, as a conditional clause: “If the Dao (Way, Principle) can be spoken of”. The expression 道可道 Dao ke dao lacks a marker of nominal reference. The classical Chinese equivalence of the English expression “The Way that can be told” would be 可道之道 Ke dao zhi Dao, in which the verb phrase attribute 可道ke dao is linked to the nominal head 道 Dao by the marker 之 zhi.
It is generally agreed that a verb preceded by 可 ke has passive reference. The translation of 名可名非常名 Ming ke ming fei chang ming by Roger T. Ames and David L. Hall, quoted by Shaughnessy on page 70 (“And naming that can assign fixed references to things is not really naming”) is therefore inaccurate.
At the end of his paper Shaughnessy suggests that 道可道非常道 Dao ke dao fei chang dao should be translated as “Ways that can lead are inconstant ways” (page 79). I have four rather serious objections to this translation. In Chinese, both modern and classical, preverbal nominal expressions normally have definite reference (“Ways” ought therefore be translated as “The Way(s)”; as I have stated above, a verb preceded by 可 ke has passive reference (the translation “can lead” is therefore not permissible); the interpretation of 非常feichang as an unmarked attribute to nominal 道 Dao (“inconstant ways”) is highly eccentric. Serving as an attribute, the two-syllabic expression 非常feichang would need to be linked to the following nominal head by the marker 之 zhi; the function of 非 fei as copula is too firmly established in the 道德经 Dao De Jing to be so lightly dismissed.