Water seems like the softest thing there is, and yet it excels in overcoming the hardest things. Nothing can stand against its power. It is the universal solvent — the most essential and irreplaceable element of all.
We often bear witness to its power, as water crashes through and washes away, or corrodes and dissolves over time. We can see the soft overcoming the hard, so intellectually we can understand it as a principle. Unfortunately, when it comes to applying that same principle to life, we usually fall short.
When we encounter humiliating setbacks, we tend to respond with some combination of disbelief, shame and anger. Only a sage can emulate water, accept the situation and deal with it effectively. Likewise, when we encounter misfortune, we tend to dwell on how unfair it is and rage against it. Only a sage can be like water, flow with the situation and turn it around. It is softness, not aggression, that ultimately leads to triumph. This is often the opposite of what we expect.
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莫能行 can be literally translated as “no can go.” Coincidentally, in English we say “no can do” or “no go” to express a similar idea. Knowing something and actually doing it can be very different things.
The last line, 正言若反, can be literally translated as “straight talk seems like the opposite.” Here we see another coincidental similarity — in English we say “straight talk” to mean the blunt, unadorned truth. 正言 is the same, and can be directly translated as “true statement” or simply “the truth.”
One translator renders 正言若反 as “upright words sound upside down.” There are three problems with this:
- 正言 should not be translated literally as “upright words.” That’s like translating “breakfast” into another language as “taking a break from the fast that began last night.”
- 若 means “like” or “similar.” There’s no equivalent in the original for the verb “sound.” 若 cannot mean “sounds like” because truthful words can be written, not necessarily said aloud.
- 反 means “opposite” or “reverse.” It does not mean “upside down” because the character is about direction, not orientation. The actual Mandarin character for “upside down” is 倒.
This is another instance where the translator lacks knowledge of Chinese. He ends the sentence with “upside down” only because he begins with “upright” — and is therefore doubly erroneous.