Monday, January 10, 2011

day ten - I translate the Tao Te Ching into Spanish

Ok, I need to calm down. Yesterday I learned a huge amount by learning the most important Spanish curse words. Some commenters were very helpful in providing some additional uses and also correcting my use of “joder”. I’ve also probably listened to that BeeGees video of “Staying Alive” about 30 times. I think Claudia’s lying unconscious in the other room after hearing the BeeGees so much. But "I'm a woman's man, no time to talk".

So today I’m taking a more serious route. I’m leaving the gutter for one day and one day only and going a different direction. Now that I’ve been learning Spanish for an entire ten days I figured I’m qualified to translate the ancient spiritual work, The Tao Te Ching, written by Lao Tzu in the 5th century BC. I feel its what he would’ve wanted.

First off, though, I think he was a bit wordy. His intended audience was a king, or emperor, or warlord, or whatever they called them back then. He was trying to impart spiritual wisdom that could also be interpreted as political wisdom. I think what he would do in each chapter (and each chapter was one poem) was come up with a concept and think of as many ways as possible to say it to get his point across. Because I suspect he believed he was writing for idiots.

So first I’m going to translate from English to English to take out all of the “extra” words. Then the result I’m going to translate into Spanish. Its good for me because I’d like to know these weighty concepts in Spanish. Like if I’m in a tough situation in Spain (bandits chasing me or whatever) and I need to use the concepts of the Tao Te Ching to save my life, I’ll be able to do it in Spanish.

I’m starting with the text from this site: simply because its the first thing that showed up on Google when I googled “tao te ching”. So it must be accurate.

Lets start with the first two stanzas, which contained about 50 ways of saying the same thing:

The Tao that can be trodden is not the enduring and
unchanging Tao. The name that can be named is not the enduring and
unchanging name.

(Conceived of as) having no name, it is the Originator of heaven
and earth; (conceived of as) having a name, it is the Mother of all

I don’t even understand that second paragraph so its out. But the first paragraph is basically the same as saying: “if you can name it, its not God.

“No es dios” = “its not god”.

I’m refusing to use google translate on this (Claudia stays its worthless anyway).

So basically I want to translate “if I can give it a name, its not God”

If = “Si”

“I am giving” == “Yo Doy” (learning the conjugations for “Dar” = To give: “Doy”, “Das”, “da”, “damos”, “dan” – simple. Its like the conjugations of “ir” – “to go”)

“nombre” = “name”

So how is

“Si le doy un nombre, no es dios”


So now the next two stanzas of chapter 1:

“Always without desire we must be found,
If its deep mystery we would sound;
But if desire always within us be,
Its outer fringe is all that we shall see.

Under these two aspects, it is really the same; but as development
takes place, it receives the different names. Together we call them
the Mystery. Where the Mystery is the deepest is the gate of all that
is subtle and wonderful.

Upon looking at these two paragraphs with fresh eyes I can see its excellent advice for relationships. But that’s another story.

Basically, this says “if we want to find god (or a higher power or The Force, etc,) have no desire”

So, to make it easy on my transation: “if you have no desire, you find god”

Of the above. I don’t know “desire” or “to find”.

Desire = “deseo”

“To find” = “entrontrar”


  • Yo encuentro
  • Tu encuentras
  • El encuentra
  • Nos encuentramos
  • Ellos encuentran


si tu no tienes deseos, encuentras dios

So there you have it. Chapter 1 of the Tao Te Ching:

Si le doy un nombre, no es dios

si tu no tienes deseos, encuentras dios

As they say in English, “I’m a poet and I didn’t even know it” OR (thank you Google Translate): Yo soy un poeta y yo ni siquiera lo saben


  1. Correction: “if I can give it a name, it's not God” = "si puedo nombrarlo, no es Dios" or "si puedo darle un nombre, no es Dios".
    "Si doy se un nombre" makes no sense.

    Then: "si no tienes deseos, encuentras a Dios".
    You were missing the "a".
    The "tú" in that sentence, is optional.

    Also in the conjugation of "encontrar" you must say "nosotros encontramos".

    Good progress!


  2. @La Boluda, thanks. Before I saw your comment I updated it to say
    "si le doy un nombre."

    Do you think thats fine also?

    And thanks for the correction on "a Dios"
    Also, how come we need "nosotros" for the conjugation. If I say "encontramos" won't it be clear that I mean "we find"?

  3. Yes, "si le doy un nombre" could be fine for the meaning, but the thing is you have "if I CAN give". Can = poder (as in: being able to). So to translate literally, you must include the verb "poder", as in "si PUEDO darle un nombre". Otherwise, it would be like "if I give it a name".
    See the difference?

    Regarding "encontramos", yes with that word you are already implying "we". You don't need to add "nosotros" in a sentence.
    I was just correcting where you said "nosotros encuentramos" (it's "encontramos").

    You are going very well. Right now I am trying to learn italian myself, and it's hard, as all the languages with latin roots. Even for a spanish speaker like me. Same story with french.
    You can easily learn some words, but then you don't know how to connect them on a sentence, or use the plural, or conjugate the verbs, etc.
    So well done!
    Bien hecho amigo!


  4. Unfortunately, this translation of a translation has caused huge drift from the original meaning. As a speaker of both Spanish and Chinese (and clearly English :P), I submit the following as a Spanish translation more accurately conveying the nuances of the original text (though with much poetic mystique understandably lost):

    Raro es que el camino que estamos sigue tomado.
    Raro es que el nombre que llamamos sigue usado.

  5. Justification (so you know I'm not whack):

    Slowly from Chinese to Spanish:

    (Original in pinyin)
    Dao ke dao fei chang dao.
    Ming ge ming fei chang ming.

    (Hard verbatim translation to nonsensical Spanish)
    Camino estar camino no siempre camino.
    Nombre llamar nombre no siempre nombre.

    (Reordering for more logical Spanish syntax plus articles and helpers)
    No siempre el camino que estamos camino sigue.
    No siempre el nombre que llamamos nombre sigue.

    (Reintegrating original meaning and making it more natural)
    Raro es que el camino que estamos sigue tomado.
    Raro es que el nombre que llamamos sigue usado.

  6. Yo soy un poeta y yo ni siquiera lo saben

    should say:

    Soy peota y ni lo sabía.

    ¿Que dicen uds?

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  8. Instead of trying to do a direct translation of “I’m a poet and I didn’t even know it” a real translator would try to use a phrase that is common in the target language, for instance: "Me salió en verso, y sin mucho esfuerzo", which pretty much captures the essence of the message as well as giving it a light touch of humor, something a machine is not capable of "sensing". Translating machines/software are still very unreliable, unless you want to sound like a dictionary :)

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  11. There are some sentences which are not meant to be translated. They may be idioms which would make no sense in another language. I hope you got my point. Therefore it is necessary to understand the language itself instead of just using any online language translator.

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  13. When asked what it is that people want translation to be, Bellos responds that “People, for various cultural reasons and reasons of education and so forth, often have the idea that a translation to be a translation has to be the same as the original that it's translating.” Bellos disagrees with this argument as all expressions even when restated in the same language will vary. “They vary historically. They vary in the specific language patterns that you're dealing. They vary depending on the kind of text or object that you're translating.” Instead of seeking the same expression in the target language, Bellos states that the art of translation seeks likeness or a good match. This brought to mind the Spanish translation of Shakespeare’s infamous quote “To be or not to be. That is the question.” I’ve often seen this translated as “Ser o no ser, he ahí la pregunta,” which conveys the message but I couldn’t help but to feel that something was lost in translation. After researching this phrase, I stumbled upon Tomás Segovia’s ingenious translation "Ser o no ser, de eso se trata," In this inarguably rich equivalent, the recently deceased poet and translator avoids a literal approach and in my opinion focuses on the spirit of the message.
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  18. Is sean é an scéal ach is fiú dó a athinsint, faoi duine amhain a grá aige ar a chara agus ansin chaill sé é le marbh. Agus d'fhoghlaim sé go raibh in easnamh air an cumhacht a chuid cara a athbheoigh. Is scéal é faoi Gílgames, agus faoi a chuid cara ainmithe Enkídu.

    Bhí Úrúk a rialú ag Gílgames. Cuireadh Úruk lonnaithe i mBabelóna ársa idir na dhá haibhneacha
    darb ainm 'Djilla' agus 'al-Fúraut' dóibh. (Tá siad ainmnithe anois Tígrise agus na hEofraite, faoi seach).

    Rugadh Enkídu sa Domhan Oscail; d'fhás sé anios ansúid i measc na ainmhithe.
    Na daoine a dtugtar do Gílgames é féin mar dia agus duine araon.
    Bhí Enkídu ainmhí agus daonna ag an am céanna féin.
    Is é seo an scéal faoi conas a thóg siad i bhfoirm an duine le chéile.

    Mar rí, bhí Gílgames mar tíoránach i dtreo a ghéillsinigh.
    Éiligh sé pribhléid mar rí, bunaithe ar seancheart breithe, an maighdeanasa a éileamh den bean atá le pósadh sula ndeachaigh a fear céile chuici.

    Uaireanta, bhí a ghéillsinigh brúdh go dtí pointe éaga,
    Mar bhí a ndualgais orthu atógáil na ballaí de Úruk.
    Agus ansin, gan míniú, bhí na ballaí tréigthe agus d'fhág go lobhadh.
    Fágadh a ghéillsinigh a aisling faoin am atá caite,
    Agus thosaigh siad ag lorg le hathrú.
    D'fhásadar tuirseach de chuid contrárthachtaí,
    Mar bhí sé cadránta lena mhuintir féin.
    Bhí a fhios acu go raibh a saol cranda, agus bhí sé ina thranglam lena ealaíona lofa, cé a chosaint orthu ach nach bhféadfaí athbheochan.
    Ní raibh aon coincheap de hAostachta ag Enkídu.
    Rith sé leis na hainmhithe,
    D'ól sé ag a fobhar,
    agus ní raibh aon eagna ná eagla aige.
    D'fhuasclaíodh sé na ainmhithe óna gaistí a raibh curtha amach ag sealgairí.

    Lá amháin, chonaic mac sealgaire Enkídu a oscailt gaiste a bhí leagadh ag na sealgairí.
    Bhí an créatúr cúlaithe le fionnadh, ach fós, bhí aclaíocht daonna ag a lámha;
    Rith sé leis an gasaila a shaor sé é, ar a thaobh mar a dheartháir.
    Agus d'ól siad le chéile ag linn éigin,
    Mar beirt cairde

  19. I just found this by accident and would like to say how badly it pains me to randomly translate these amazing poems. They are absolutely not written for idiots and they are everything but simple. They are so true and soft, gosh, the pain of random translation into insanely bad Spanish is horrendous. I say this as someone who doesn't speak Spanish and only very little Chinese at this point. But translating such an ancient masterpiece... kind of hurts me (Lao Tze wouldn't be happy with me haha)