A modernized typographic version of the opening line of the Tao Te Ching. The text of this document is not susceptible to what we normally think of as translation. Of course, the bewildering number of translations, both in print and online, may cast doubt on that assertion. When someone asks, "Où est le WC?" we translate, "Where is the bathroom?" — at least, those of us in the United States. Obviously, a bathroom and a water closet aren't quite the same thing. We aren't bothered by the fact that WC was originally borrowed from English. Both are so shrouded in euphemism that "bathroom" seems close enough without thinking about it. The six characters above (four different characters) are neither euphemistic nor imprecise, yet their meaning is beyond multiple. It verges on paradox. We encounter nothing like this when seeking desperately to powder our nose. If I asked you not merely to repeat the words but to give me the meaning of a 1956 Chevy two-door convertible, despite the absurdity of such a question, you might find, especially if you grew up in the 50s and 60s, that a great many meanings seem almost reasonable. But, do individual cars really have meaning? I could ask the same about televisions or cellphones, or the hamburger you just ate. And the answer is that we know by instinct, we know intuitively, even though words fail us, that things in and of themselves have meaning.

The Chinese characters in the Tao Te Ching have come down to us from antiquity. At countless stages along the way they accumulated, like tourists in curio shops, associations and meanings both personal and cultural, but also like aging tourists failing to remember a particular ashtray, associations once seemingly unforgettable have been irretrievably lost. Or have they merely been misplaced? What is the meaning of an ashtray? And what is the meaning of the Tao?

Transliterated in the Wade-Giles system, the first line reads,
Tao k'o tao, fei ch'ang tao.
or mercilessly translated it says,
Tao can tao, not eternal tao.
selecting the first choice for the meaning of each character from Jonathan Star's "Verbatum Translation" in Tao Te Ching: The Definitive Edition listed below.

If a journey of ten thousand miles begins with the first step, I thought it might be fun to share this handful of first steps toward a meaningful translation. Each is an attempt to initialize meaning. There is no system to the selection. The books were all on my bedroom bookshelves. I have listed them as they appeared. Lin Yutang is missing. Perhaps he's too modest for such a spectacle. Timothy Leary's acid soaked no Chinese version is near the bottom of a box stacked deep within the garage, tripping with his far less notorious contemporaries. A short visit to a good library could produce ten times this many examples, and those only in English.
There are ways, but the Way is uncharted…
R.B. Blakney, The Way of Life, The New American Library (1955)

The Tao that can be stated is not the Eternal Tao.
Henry Wei, The Guiding Light of Lao Tzu, The Theosophical Publishing House (1982)

The Way that can be told of is not the Unvarying Way
Arthur Waley, The Way and Its Power, Grove Press (1958)

The way that can be spoken of
Is not the constant way…

D.C. Lau, Tao Te Ching, Penguin Books (1963)

The way can be spoken of,
But it will not be the constant way…

D.C. Lau, Tao Te Ching, Alfred A. Knopf (1994)

Existence is beyond the power of words
To define…

Witter Bynner (1944), The Way of Life: According to Lao Tzu, Capricorn Books (1962)

A way that can be walked
is not the Way

Jonathan Star, Tao Te Ching: The Definitive Edition, Tarcher Penguin (2003)

Tao, the subtle reality of the universe
cannot be described.

Hua-Ching Ni, The Complete Works of Lao Tzu, Tao of Wellness (1979)

The Dao that can be described in language is not the constant Dao…
Richard John Lynn, The Classic of the Way and Virtue, Columbia UP (1999)

The tao that can be said is not the everlasting Tao.
Tam C. Gibbs, Lao-Tzu: "My words are very easy to understand.", North Atlantic Books (1981)

The Tâo that can be trodden is not the enduring and unchanging Tâo.
James Legge, The Texts of Taoism, Part I, Oxford (1891), Dover (1962)

The tao that can be told
is not the eternal Tao.

Stephen Mitchell, Toa Te Ching, Harper & Row (1988)

The Tao that can be followed is not the eternal Tao.
Yi-Ping Ong, Tao Te Ching, Barnes & Noble Classics (2005)

Tao can be talked about, but not the Eternal Tao
John C. H. Wu, Tao Teh Ching, Shambhala (2005)
Lately, I've been thinking about the television program Naked City that starred the incomparable Paul Burke — he died in Palm Springs this past September. I stayed up late to watch every episode over a several year period in the late 50s, early 60s. Some I remember like they were yesterday. They captured a kind of reality that seemed always sensitive to higher values, perhaps merely sensitive. Based on the 1948 movie, based in turn on the book by Weegee, the closing line was, "There are eight million stories in the Naked City. This has been one of them." There are far more than eight million meanings to Lao Tzu. This has been a portion of the translations of line one.