My goal was to "translate" the Dao De Jing for programmers, engineers, and other techies, while still being as faithful to the original as is practical under those circumstances.

Consequently, I have two target audiences: developers on the one hand, and students of the original work on the other. I hope the result is entertaining (and possibly even inspiring!) for everyone, especially those who are members of both groups.


The initial motivation for this project was a certain residual spite at having read the Stephen Mitchell translation without realizing how badly he manhandled the material (and, yes, I recognize the irony of what is probably the most un-Daoist motivation possible for such a project, but I have learned to take my motivation where I can find it). Anyway, although it sort of snowballed from there, this initial motivation can still serve as a starting point.

In my judgement, there are two things that rescue Mitchell from perdition. First, the fact that I did discover the nature of his work from his notes is worth something. It is not enough, but it would be worse to discover it years later, by casually reading a good translation.

The second mitigating factor, I think, is that it is actually a pretty reasonable self-help book.

What Mitchell did was translate a work of (largely political) philosophy for the ancient Chinese scholar-sage, into a self-help book for the modern new age bookstore. Anything not consistent with this purpose was distorted, elided, or "improvised", but if all you want is a self-help book, the Mitchell version is OK in that respect. All his improvisations seem like perfectly good Daoist homilies; it is only if you expect them to represent the original that they fall short.

So, the task I set myself was this: to similarly translate the Dao De Jing into a book of advice for the modern software developer -- while still doing less violence to the original that the friggin' Mitchell version!


I should make some things clear: this is a "translation" from English into English. I do not read or understand Chinese, ancient or otherwise, and learning it would have been far beyond the scope of this project.

Some of my books have the Chinese ideographs accompanying the English translation, and I admit that I did look through these occasionally, for clues to the original terms and phrasing. Sometimes this was helpful; I do regret not actually being able to read it.

I considered seeking out additional translations to refer to, perhaps including a scholarly work with definitions and cross-references for each ideograph, but decided against it. For one thing, it would have put me dangerously close to pretensions of actual scholarship; also, I could have spent a very long time seeking out and studying other sources. If I had started with a scholarly translation, that would have been fine, and I might have ended with a better result, but in the end I just went with what I had.

Also beyond the scope of the project are other Daoist writings, as well as the larger body of cultural Daoism, past and present. This is not a hard and fast rule; if nothing else, they inform the translations I used. However, just as I didn't have the time to learn Chinese for this project, I didn't have the resources to absorb the entire body of Daoist thought and practice, either.

On the other hand, I feel that Chinese history, especially around the time of the origin of the Dao De Jing, is necessary to understand its original cultural context. Much of the text that would otherwise seem confusing, inexplicable, or simply wrong to a modern Western reader makes sense with even minimal knowledge of its native context; the time I spent on Chinese history was very rewarding in this respect.


I have taken an opportunistic approach, starting with my best guess at the original intent, and converting elements to novel analogs as such relevance presents itself. This has allowed me to pursue a verse-for-verse, line-for-line correspondence for the great majority of the book.

However, it also means that I have translated many verses and chapters without any misappropriation at all, which may give the result an uneven quality; though perhaps reading classical verses interspersed with developer-relevant ones will have some appeal in itself. Basically, these are cases where there was no obvious opportunity for mistranslation (although, it may be that I sometimes liked the original sense enough that I had no desire to change it).

I started adding chapter headings as an additional avenue for snark, but I have tried to use them to bend some of the more straightforward sections towards such novel relevance.

I don't think it's really necessary for me to dick with each and every line of the Dao De Jing, though. After all, I'm retargeting the philosophy as well as the text, so elements that help define the philosophy are still relevant, even if they aren't quite as funny.


The overall task has turned out to be tractable beyond any reasonable expectation; since the original work is so vague and unspecific, it is remarkably easy to distort to a particular purpose.

It also helped that the original audience of the book was itinerant scholar-sages -- men with rare abilities (i.e., literacy) looking for government posts among the warring states of ancient China. In other words, they were ancient consultants -- thus, the title.

One of the easiest parts was choosing how to translate terms. Once chosen, I have been fairly consistent about using them, but not universally so; also, I have added some parallels in the mistranslation that were not present in the original.

The difficult parts were those bits of ancient China that are alien to the new context. Some things can be translated into relevant analogs with a simple choice of terms, but others have no counterpart in the modern world.

The most difficult of these was the pervasive anti-intellectualism found in the Dao De Jing. There is no good way to avoid this: on the one hand it is a prominent feature of the overall philosophy, and on the other, the necessity of learning and the baneful effects of ignorance are a prominent aspect of programming in particular, and modern society in general. In its original context, this aspect of Daoism does make sense, but if mass ignorance ever was a virtue, this is not the case today, and any effort to make Daoism relevant in the modern age must deal with this problem, one way or another.

I will say that one way I find Daoism personally useful is as an occasional reminder to stop overthinking things. However, this was not especially helpful in resolving the problem of how to translate the virtues of ignorance into modern terms, except to recommend that I put it aside and come back to it later.

In various ways, I have introduced a number of elements that have no analog in the original context; in particular, economics. Naturally enough, this is frequently associated with the term "the Market", which, along with "the Net", I have made cognate to "Heaven and Earth" in the source text.

Large parts of the original Dao De Jing are collections of proverbs, ostensibly from the common culture of its time; I have taken this as a cue to integrate sayings from modern culture where relevant. It is especially gratifying when both cultures have independently generated what is effectively the same saying: a common observation about the natural perversity of the world seems like the best possible indication that you're actually onto something.

In many places, I have chosen to change the general into the specific. One of the aspects of the original text is that it contains riddles, whose answers were more or less accessible to its original audience. Many of these are still answerable by modern scholars, but in any case they do not translate readily to a general audience, so I have chosen to answer them instead, or to abuse them to my own purposes.

In general, I have treated other translation difficulties as opportunities as well. In most cases where my source translations were inconsistent and incoherent, I have pursued my own purposes instead, while still making some effort to be consonant with the original.

An occasional overriding interest is to make the result true in its new context, as well as relevant to it: basically, I have tried to avoid saying anything that a developer should know just ain't so. This does make some passages less literal, and arguably more awkward.

On the other hand, one final consideration: poetry trumps everything.


From the beginning, it was my explicit intent to do a specific kind of violence to the Dao De Jing, while staying as true to the letter and spirit of the original as is practical.

Of course, you can look at even the most earnest and literal translation as just such an exercise in specific violence. However, I think there is a difference in whether your intent is simply to represent the original, or if there is some additional interest at work. Thus, while it should be possible to learn the principles of the Dao De Jing by reading _The Way of the Consultant_, a serious student should really seek out a proper translation.

One lesson I have taken from this enterprise: refusing to admit what kind of violence your intent requires leaves you in the position of pretending that you are doing no violence at all. This kind of position is awkward at best; ultimately, I think, it is untenable as standing tiptoe. In the end, I'm afraid, that might be what led Mitchell astray.