SuttaCentral

Translating the Four Nikāyas


#1

I’d like to take the chance to announce a project that I have been working towards for the past several months. Many people have heard about this already, so it is no great secret, but I haven’t taken the chance to formally announce it in public.

I am taking an 18 month sabbatical, during which time I plan to translate the 4 nikāyas from Pali into English; or at least, as much of them as I can.

My aim in doing this is to create an entirely new set of translations, which will differ from previous translations in several ways:

  • Plain English: I aim to use the simplest, most direct language possible, with a special consideration for people who have English as a second language.
  • Natively Digital: The translation is intended from the outset to be a digital text, and will be matched sentence by sentence with the underlying Pali.
  • No Copyright: In accordance with 2500 years of Buddhist tradition, the translation will be entirely free of copyright restrictions. It will be dedicated to the Public Domain via Creative Commons Zero.
  • Consistent: It will use the same phrasing and terminology across the 4 nikāyas, so you can easily search over the entire corpus.

I’ll be spending the time on a tiny island in between Taiwan and China, called Qimei. Here it is:

There, I’ll be supported by my good friend Dustin and his family. I plan to not have any internet for most of this period. I am working with the SuttaCentral team to ensure that progress on SuttaCentral is ongoing while I am absent. Over the next several months I will try to wrap up certain things, and prepare for my time away. I’ll be leaving directly after the Global Buddhism Conference in Perth in early August, and will enter the second vassa in Taiwan. 18 months is my estimated time, but it may be longer, so I am not making any plans for the period following the sabbatical.

One exception to this is my teachings in Europe towards the end of the year. These were organized before my sabbatical took shape, so I will keep this commitment. Barring emergencies, however, I won’t be returning to Australia for this period.

It goes without saying that a project of this size is quite uncertain. Who knows whether I will succeed; but at least it is something I think worth trying. Today, the Buddha’s words, which are so beautiful and so profound, are not freely available in a complete, accurate, readable form. It think this is a dreadful thing, and I want to change it.

Together with Blake, our SuttaCentral developer, I’m developing a software to help translate the Pali as easily as possible. We are using Virtaal as a basis. This speeds up translation and makes it more accurate by doing such things as making fuzzy matching of translatable phrases so they can be reused. We want to take the already very powerful and useful features of Virtaal and create a dedicated platform for translating Pali texts.

Once the English translation is complete, we aim to make the software available in a trilinear version: Pali→English→Target language. Then it can be used by those who are translating into their own languages from English. They can see the Pali and English together to help them, and the translated text will be exported in a form that can be directly used on SuttaCentral or any other website. In this way we hope to not merely create a new generation of English translations, but to foster the translation of Pali into even more of the world’s languages.

A similar approach can be used for the other early Buddhist texts, in Chinese and Tibetan, but that is not on our immediate agenda, mainly because translations by excellent scholars of some of these texts are expected to become available over the next several years.

As a public domain digital text, it will not be fixed or final like traditional editions. Anyone can take it and make whatever changes they like. I can correct mistakes on an ongoing basis, and if you don’t like how I’ve translated something, make your own! The text does not belong to me, and I have no right to tell anyone what they can or cannot do with it. Obviously we will retain control over the text that appears on SuttaCentral, but it would be lovely to see a variety of editions appear, each with its own emphasis.

Even though the text is intended to be primarily digital, I would also love to create a printed edition. We’re currently experimenting with a printed edition of the Theragatha translation I made last year, and I see this as a pilot for a more comprehensive printed text. This could be made available via print on demand services such as Lulu.com, and also as a free distribution version.

This project is scary and exciting, and I am very much looking forward to it. The two things I love most in the world are the early Buddhist texts and meditation, and I have the chance to spend 18 months or more doing just these two things.


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#2

Good luck, Bhante Sujato, with your new venture. I have been blessed to have learned from your teachings and I am looking forward to the new translation of the four Nikayas. Thanks again and best wishes. With metta, Michael


#3

Dear Bhante,
I wish you the best of luck in this beautiful project!
With reverence and respect,
Gabriel :pray:


#4

Wonderful news Bhante, may you have all the proper conditions for a succesful translation!!!

If I can be of any help as a graphic designer, don´t hesitate to ask :man_with_gua_pi_mao:

Hurray! hehehe

Does that mean that you are going to take on account and considerate to change some of the words commonly used in the traditional translations like concentration as samadhi, mindfulness as sati, suffering as dukkha, etc…and give a more fresh, modern translation?

I say this because I´m not an expert on the subject and because english is not my root language and also because I don´t know pali sometimes I find it difficult to understand the content of the suttas by some particular words that when I translate it into spanish, for me, just makes no sense.


#5

I do indeed plan to revise various translation conventions, and have been discussing some possibilities. Any suggestions are welcome!

As for the terms you mention, I was planning to leave samādhi untranslated. I don’t have a problem with “mindfulness” or “suffering”, though. Any reason why I should change these?

The main innovation in my approach, however, will be that, because it is tied closely to the actual Pali text, there is less need to translate terms using a one-to-one English-to-Pali rendering of terms. Rather, I will try to render the term most clearly in a particular context, and it will be marked so you can see what term is being used, and how it is rendered in other contexts.

And, of course, if you don’t like it, you can always change it.


#6

:pray:

Dear Bhante,

Sadhu! Sadhu! Sadhu! I would like to also send you my heartfelt wishes of success in this great and beautiful endeavor! You’ve done so much to spread the teachings of the Buddha with this awesome website :heart_eyes:

I would also like to mention how I appreciate the way you explain the root of each Pāli word you use when teaching. I’ve found it to be very helpful for my practice :ok_hand: .

Surely, your continued and unrelenting efforts will support you on your journey towards nibbana. Having monastics such as yourself are an inspiration!!!

Lastly, I would like to know if there’s a way I can volunteer to assist in correcting minor discrepancies in spelling and spacing in the English translations of the suttas in Sutta Central?

Kataññuta.

:pray:

russ


#7

Dear Banthe Sujato
This is a fantastic news.
I’m sure your project will produce a beautiful result for all.

If it is possible not to have to learn Pali too much then count on me for doing the French version.
With Metta
Alain


#8

If you notice any spelling or other mistakes, please post them here under Feedback, and I will make the necessary corrections.


#9

The aim will be to build the software so that it supports people who have a little knowledge of Pali, and can learn as they go.

One of the big problems with Pali learning is that it is not very useful. It’s hard to stay motivated when you spend all the time to master so many details of grammar and so on, and then have nothing to use it on. And at the end of the day, unless your Pali is really good, you’re going to read the Suttas in translation anyway.

But if you have a possibility to actually make some translations, you can learn Pali bit by bit, as you create something that is helpful for both yourself and others. And because it is all open, anyone can correct your work, helping you to learn, and helping make the Suttas more comprehensible, too.


#10

Dear Bhante,

Wishing you all the best in the project and thank you very much for everything.

Hanna


#11

That sounds great, Bhante. I hope that this project could also encompass the older KN material, particularly the Sutta Nipata, Udana, Itivuttaka, and Dhammapada. Those texts are often invoked in discussion, and it would be very helpful to have translations of that material consistent with the first four Nikayas for comparison.

I have a couple of queries:

  1. I gather from your description that this project would give reasonably automatic cross referencing. One of the things I value about the Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translations is the cross-referencing in the notes, pointing to where the various concepts are elaborated elsewhere.

  2. Would you be doing some automatic analysis/comparison of the various versions of the Pali?

Metta
Mike


#12

As for the Khuddaka texts, yes it would be nice to include these, we will see if I have time. meanwhile, I am working on the Therigatha, and I am playing with this as a testing ground for my translation style.

The text will be cross referenced to the extent that the current Pali text is. Over time, we will develop more resources, including this Discourse platform, to improve this.

No, that will be outside the scope of this project. Essentially I will be translating the text as it is found on SuttaCentral, and only referring to other versions when I am unsure of the meaning.


#13

Simply marvellous Bhante. :grinning: Sadhu Sadhu Sadhu. :pray:

Bhante your mind’s just going to be (must already be I bet) feeling soooo inspired and happy doing this!!! :smiley: Much Mudita and Gratitude!!! Woo hoo!!!


#14

Thank you for your response Bhante.

I don’t have problem with dukkha as suffering although I have read from some scholars things like to translate dukkha only as suffering does not cover what the Buddha really intented by explaining what dukkha really is (Is interesting how for example Thanissaro Bhikkhu translate dukkha as stress). This one is also interesting: Leigh Brasington translates Dukkha as a bummer hehehehe :relaxed: (http://www.leighb.com/bummer.htm)

But with mindfulness geee I’m not sure. There is a company called Mindfulness Consulting here in Colombia and they define mindfulness as the human capacity to bring the attention to the present moment and quietly observe what is happening inside and outside of ourselves, without trying to change, delete or judge it.

Curiously they don’t even bother to translate mindfulness into spanish (mm I wonder why…). But, If we look at the common translations of mindfulness into spanish you find this one: Atención plena/Atención consciente which means something like bare attention or conscious attention and as far as I know, probably I’m mistaken, it has nothing to do with sati as memory, recollection, to remember, etc., right?

Ven. Dhammavuddho Thero uses the word mindfulness, full awareness, alertness for sampajañña, and recollection for sati.

Question: Sampajañña is alertness/ full awareness but not bare attention, correct?

Yes, there are some translations I have gather from some scholars:

  • dukkha: bummer, stress, unsatisfactory/unsatisfactoriness, bad space, anxiety, discomfort, unease
  • metta: good will, loving friendliness, benevolence
  • right view: harmonious perspective, proper view
  • right thought: harmonious imaging/goal visualization, proper orientation/attitude, resolve
  • right speech: harmonious communication, proper speech
  • right action: harmonious movement, proper action, conduct
  • right livelihood: harmonious lifestyle, proper livelihood
  • right effort: harmonious practice, proper endeavor
  • right mindfulness: harmonious observation/attentiveness, proper remembrance/recollection, frame of reference
  • right concentration: harmonious collectedness/equilibrium, proper composure, mental repose
  • Jhana: levels of understanding, stages of meditation, states of mind, stability
  • Aggregate: I saw one teaching of Ajahn Brahmali giving another translation for aggregate…I think it was something like group but I don’t remember hehe
  • vedana: tone of experience

If I found or remember other translations I will tell you, hope that helps!

:slight_smile:


#15

Found more hehe

The word Samma means ‘proper’, ‘whole’, ‘thorough’, ‘integral’, ‘complete’, and ‘perfect’ - related to English ‘summit’ - It does not necessarily mean ‘right’, as opposed to ‘wrong’. However it is often translated as “right” which can send a less than accurate message. For instance the opposite of ‘Right Awareness’ is not necessarily ‘Wrong Awareness’. It may simply be incomplete. Use of the word ‘right’ may make for a neat or consistent list of qualities in translations. The down side is that it can give the impression that the Path is a narrow and moralistic approach to the spiritual life. I use variant interpretations so you consider the depth of meanings. What do these things mean in your life right now?

  1. Samma-Ditthi — Complete or Perfect Vision

  2. Samma-Sankappa — Perfected Emotion or Aspiration

  3. Samma-Vaca — Perfected or whole Speech

  4. Samma-Kammanta — Integral Action.

  5. Samma-Vayama — Complete or Full Effort, Energy or Vitality

  6. Samma-Sati — Complete or Thorough Awareness

  7. Samma-Samadhi — Full, Integral or Holistic Samadhi.


#16

Thanks, I will bear these in mind. Everything is open right now, I am playing with different approaches so we’ll see what sticks.


#17

Cool Bhante, it was a pleasure.


#18

I have a question about one of your stated goals for your translation. It is commendable that you want to use plain and simple language, and that you want to make your translation easily readable by those not highly skilled in English. But isn’t trying to achieve such a goal a bit risky? Could using language that is very plain fail to provide a translation with the subtlety and details it needs to be accurate? I worry that too much desire for a translation to be fun and easy to read will result in a translation that doesn’t reflect the fullness and richness of the original text.


#19

The thing is that Nikayas positively recognize wrong or false aspect of the Noble Eightfold Path factors, as expounded in the Mahacattarisaka sutta (MN 117) and Dvedhavitakka sutta (MN 19).

So at least in certain contexts if the word samma is countered with the word miccha, i reckon it is indeed to be understood as ‘right’


#20

Reinventing the WHEEL, instead of letting it spin?
(exuse the pun)

With a professional translation background I feel the need to add some points, on which I have probably not reflected thoroughly enough:

“I aim to use the simplest, most direct language possible.” This will undoubtedly lead to you (subconsciously) interpreting the texts, adding a certain slant.
Given that your monastic training (and therefore your understanding of Pali) has been shaped according to the curriculum set by the 10th Thai patriarch in 1920, which is known to place emphasis on a rather odd interpretation of buddhism (and its implied support of Thai monarchism), there may be a real danger of getting off the rails at some point, or rather tending to the “perceived wisdom” of the school you have been trained in. Will there be any outside (i.e. independent, non-Buddhist) quality control?

(I shall not dwell on the fact that the Hinayana canon is NOT “what Buddha said,” but what the Theravadins – by the way a school that was not fully shaped before the 5th century, therefore not a synonym for Hinayana – but a collection of orally transmitted mnemonically edited texts in a different language, Pali that is, instead of Prakit – if one can say that existed. Looking at the huge differences between biblical texts, which were only compiled 40-80 years after the alleged death of the prophet, one can simply not assume that the Pali canon contains more than the essence of Buddhas teachings, in which case philological nitpicking becomes pointless. This certainly being a point on which I disagree with Hans Gruber.)

The prime example for an incorrect Eglsih translation being widely disseminated (and its mistakes thus perpetuated) is of course Horner’s translation of the Vinaya, in Anglo-American academia still frequently cited, although it is (or at least could be) known to those quoting, that she omitted and/or deliberatly mistranslated various sections (mainly those regarding to “deviant” sexual behaviour according to her Victorian morals).

After almost 25 years of translating Japanese, a language with limited grammer, I am not one to quibble over finer points of grammar (there never was Japanese or Chinese Panini).

Additional danger will be in Re-translating your finished product will of course diminish the quality additionally, such effects are well known. From English (a language with litte Grammar, to something more complex – it doesn’t have to be Estonian with its 16 cases. At least for German (foremost Neumann) and French high-quality translations already exist aplenty.

To sum up: Is this project really necessary? (Your answer will likely be “yes,” as you have set your mind attached to it) or may the result cause confusion in those reading the finished product – there additional obstacles on their WAY?

Rephrasing the question above: Will the resulting material really ease the WAY for readers, or is it just an exercise born from the desire to produce it?

Henry

PS: I can’t resist pointing at another contradiction (fully aware that my attachement to the ancient Greek concept of logos is an obstacle here): “In accordance with 2500 years of Buddhist tradition, the translation will be entirely free of copyright restrictions.“ I presume a CC notice is found in the same section of the Vinaya as the bit about the Buddha’s use of a Swiss watch to determine the exact time when forest monks insist that they must finish eating at 12.00 sharp.