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A "conversational" rendition of the Dhammacakkappavattana

translation
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#1

Some recent threads in this site have gotten me thinking about varying translations and how their usefulness depends on the reader’s capacity and interest. I have been looking into how there are so many different Bible translations, made to suit different readers. I have also noticed over time how a lot of people can be turned off by the repetitive style of the suttas (myself included), leading them to read other more modern Buddhist material. I have also thought that the best sutta translation is going to be the one people will actually read. So I decided, on a whim, to try my hand at a more vernacular, conversational and “free” rendition of the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta. It’s supposed to be easier for beginners to read, especially those who would be turned off by the formal style of the suttas while keeping the basic meaning and ideas. My main ideas for a ‘conversational’ sutta rendition is that I should try to make them:

*Not “literal” or “word-for-word”, but capturing the meaning and intent of the text (“thought for thought”). This means that the translation will lean towards the end of the spectrum of translation (Word for word <-> Thought for thought <-> Paraphrase). For Bibles, the more “free” style includes versions like “The Living Bible” and “The Message”. More info here: Why We Have Different Bible Translations | ReasonableTheology.org

*In as simple language as possible, with simple sentences, the idea is that schoolchildren, and non-fluent speakers could tackle it.

*As little repetition as possible, meant for comprehension of the basic message, not to keep the oral repetitive structure of the text.

*Should be conversational, like a passage depicting a dialoge from a novel. I want to give it the feel as if the Buddha is a friend talking to the reader.

*No ‘Buddhist hybrid english’, very few pali terms (only widely known ones, such as Buddha, Dharma, Nirvana).

Ok, so here is what I have so far. I would appreciate some feedback. If there is interest for this kind of thing I might be inspired do some more “free” renditions of the really important suttas in the future.

Turning the Dharma wheel

I heard that one time the Buddha was at a deer park in Isipatana, near Benares. Speaking to five seekers, he said:

There are two extremes not suitable for seekers. The first is seeking sensual pleasure, which is low, useless, trivial and worthless. The second is punishing the body, which is painful, low, and useless. By avoiding these two, I woke up to the middle way and attained knowledge, peace, and nirvana.

This middle way is the noble eightfold path which is right view, right intent, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right immersion. This is how you wake up and attain nirvana.

Now, these are the four noble truths.

Suffering means being born, getting old and dying. It’s sadness, grieving, stress and pain. It’s when something happens that we don’t want, or when we lose something we love, and also when we want something and can’t get it. Basically, suffering is the five groups.

The second truth is the source of suffering. This is when craving leads to a further greedy existence, and you keep trying to look for pleasure everywhere. It’s got three forms, craving for pleasures, craving to exist and craving to end existence.

This brings us to the third one, which is the total fading away of craving. It’s letting go, not clinging, and being craving free.

Finally, the fourth truth is the way that takes you to the end of suffering, which is the noble eightfold path.

This was the vision and knowledge that I realized on my own. I saw that suffering has to be fully recognized and I fully recognized it. I realized that the source of suffering has to be let go of, and that I had let it go. I knew that the cessation of suffering follows from that, and I experienced this cessation of suffering. Also, I saw that the eightfold path has to be cultivated and that I had done that. That was my insight, my clear vision.

As long my knowledge and vision was not pure in these three ways and twelve aspects, I didn’t claim to be perfectly awakened. But when I accomplished this, then I said “I am perfectly awakened”. In this universe filled with gods, demons, humans, ascetics and priests, I realized an unshakable freedom and knew that this is my last birth, with no future lives left.

This is what the Buddha said, the five seekers rejoiced and venerable Koṇḍañña had a vision of the Dharma that was stainless and pristine. He said “whatever arises has to end”.

With this turning of the Dharma wheel, the gods of the earth shouted across the universe. And this shout was repeated by the Tusita gods, the Yama gods, the happy gods, the maker gods, the controller gods and the gods of Brahma. All of them shouted:

“The Buddha has turned the Dharma wheel at the deer park of Isipatana! And it can’t be rolled back by gods, ascetics, demons or anyone else!”

This went up all the way to the highest realms, and the universe shook and trembled. A glorious light which was immeasurable appeared, one superior to the gods themselves.

The Buddha said: Koṇḍañña got it! He really knows it! And so, Koṇḍañña was then known as “Koṇḍañña who knows”.


#2

I have been following the discussions elsewhere with interest. We will always need different translations to meet different needs. The requirements of scholars and those of simple enquirers are simply not the same.

The website Readability Formulas gives instant access to seven different measures of readability. I compared your version of SN56.11 with those of Sujato, Bikkhu Bodhi and Tanissaro Bikkhu. It’s obvious from the results below that the seven measures must have been computed in different ways, but it’s also apparent that you and Bikkhu Bodhi are at different extremes with your version “fairly easy to read/8th grade” and his “fairly difficult to read/college graduate and above.” Sujato and Thanissaro Bikkhu whilst respectively “average/standard” and “fairly difficult to read” are both rated at college level.

I welcome the accessibility of your attempt. It would be great to have school-level versions of key suttas which are translations rather than simplified accounts to supplement the more scholarly English versions.


#3

Woah, thanks for pointing that website out Gillian, that’s really cool to see the readability quantified!

I guess this does mean that I succeeded somewhat in making it easier to read. The question now is, has the meaning been retained accurately?


#4

This sentence makes no sense without additional clarification of what five groups are being referred to.


#5

This is true, but the sutta itself doesn’t go into detail on the five skandhas.

Perhaps I can go with “the five groups of clinging” or “five groups one clings to” to make it more obvious that its a doctrinal thing which will be expanded upon in another sutta.


#6

Now we can see the gradual development of troped suttas, he said jokingly.

Suttas with explanatory insertions in the text to clarify and expand upon the text.

I don’t actually see a problem with this if it is done sensibly and the tropes are identified as such.

How is your Latin?

Alleluia. Solémnitas gloriósæ Vírginis Maríæ, ex sémine Abrahæ, divino Moderamine, igne pio numine producis domine, hominis salutem, paupertate nuda, virginis nativitate de tríbu Júda. Iam propinas ovum, piscem, panem dabis, partu sine semine órtæ de tríbu Júda, clára ex stírpe Dávid.

This is a troped section of liturgical text from 1372 (Paris, France). The trope dates from at least 1372, the source text of the liturgy, though, being far older. The italicized material is the inserted trope on the text. There are actually two somewhat different Latins used, one in the source text, one in the troped text, dating from different periods of usage for the Latin language.

This would obviously be very controversial a practice in modern translation, just having a running commentary inside the text with little indication of where the source text is, the commentary being presented as source text.

But for small things, all translators do this a little bit.


#7

Or you know, use footnotes.


#8

Nice, that’s a well realized approach. May I make a few points?

Can we avoid perpetuating this? It is simply a mistake, not a genuine alternative rendering. “So I have heard” refers to the fact that the text comes from an oral tradition. “At one time” is a new sentence, which gives the Buddha’s location.

Nice, I like it! I wouldn’t worry too much about explaining “give groups” in this context. One thing about reading is that you don’t always have to understand everything. As long as most of it is clear, the mind accepts an occasional obscure word or phrase. We put it in a “?” basket, as it were, and look for clarification at a later point. Learning new things is part of what makes reading fun, so it actually increases engagement. We just have to make sure it’s not too much.

Just in case you missed it, I’ve made a post about this earlier:

My research just used Ven Bodhi’s translations for comparison. On the other hand, I used a much larger corpus (the whole of the Anguttara 4s). Anyway, your results mostly confirm what I had done earlier. Note that the reading level for my translations is roughly the same as that for a typical (reasonably decent!) newspaper.


#9

Thanks Bhante! Well, I don’t see how its a big deal, but I will defer to you on this, especially since if I just change it from:

I heard that one time the Buddha…
to
Thus have I heard. One time the Buddha…

I’d just be adding one more word, so it doesn’t really affect much.

Of course, this sutta was easy to render into “fairly easy to read - eighth grade” readability!

Now, lets see me tackle the Mulapariyaya! :sweat_smile:


#10

To be even more vernacular.

I’ve heard it said that […]

Or to preserve the seperation, if that’s important:

This is how I’ve heard it:

My partner suggested

This is what I heard. [Once upon a time…]

for

evaṃ mayā śrutam [ekasmin samaye…]

The “once upon a time” might be a bit much on terms of tone :sweat_smile:


#11

I hadn’t read that thread, so thanks for pointing me to it. I’m not surprised that my comparison confirms your own findings since one characteristic of readability measures is that they are reliable for quite small samples: assuming writers’ styles stay consistent of course. (This is not really an issue now but, back in the day when I was teaching masters students to compute some of the measures with pencil and paper, achieving rough accuracy from small samples was a boon.)

I think eighth grade compared to college level is a worthwhile difference. I’m not in a position to assess your translation tho, and obviously over-simplification is a risk you’d want to avoid.

**

Access is terribly important. When I was current with these issues it was reported that the popular press (UK?) catered to readers with a reading age of 12 years and that the so-called ‘quality’ press to college-level readers. I’m guessing that is probably @sujato’s ‘reasonably decent newspaper’. All professional writers know that they are writing to a specific audience. Surely some sutta translations should be geared towards readers who are younger, or didn’t complete high school, or are reading English as their second language. (Personally, I’m happy moving between Bante Sujato’s college and Bhikkhu Bodhi’s graduate school while I struggle through AK Warder’s exercises, but I don’t think that’s the point.)

An alternative to what Javier is attempting would be for someone like me to make reader-friendly paraphrases from existing translations, but that is much more likely to scramble original meanings.


#12

Lol, it’s quaint, but I don’t think I want to go that route, after all the suttas aren’t fairy tales. I’m thinking of just going with

This is what I heard. One time the Buddha was…

Yea, maybe i’ll try my hand at a few more and one day cobble together a short little compilation of “simple suttas”, suitable for those who just can’t stand the formal repetitive style of the suttas, as well as for the young, less educated and so on. After all, the Dhamma should be understandable by even those who are not as sharp or intellectual, in fact, maybe they’ll understand it better since they have less papañca!


#13

Sadhu x 3. A booklet of simple key suttas, online and easily printable for free distribution would be wondearful. If you need help from a non-translator please let me know.


#14

Perhaps this is a tangent, but since this is purported to be the first sermon, I am guessing (with no supporting evidence) that the Buddha was referring (in the five aggregates/groups sentence) to something he expected his audience to already be familiar with, because they were experienced ascetics with “little dust in their eyes”.


#15

…in a land far far away…! :grinning:

with metta


#16

Here’s a challenge and an interesting direction for this thread, if it is not contrary to the intentions of the OP regarding this thread.

Pick a simple discourse of the Buddha. My “simple” I mean something like SA 890, SN 43.11, or perhaps the Mettasutta.

Pick something like this, because the challenge is to render it, as extremely simply as possible.

Imagine you are talking to a child, for instance. You simple words that you would use with a child. But still make sure that it is more or less still “the sutta”.

I think it’s an interesting challenge. I’m trying it now, and might give up, because it’s really hard.


#17

It is kind of hard, because you have to first ask yourself what the entire sentence is trying to say and communicate it in as few words possible. At least, this is what I am trying to do with this attempt.

I’ve been reading style guides online looking for different models. Mainly I have been reading about two slightly different styles which I think are apropos.

One is the “plain language” or “plain English” movement. The modern push for this started in law and has moved into all areas of government as a way to write simply, you can read all about it if you do a quick search. Robert Eagleson defines it as:

“clear, straightforward expression, using only as many words as are necessary. It is language that avoids obscurity, inflated vocabulary and convoluted sentence construction. It is not baby talk, nor is it a simplified version of the English language. Writers of plain English let their audience concentrate on the message instead of being distracted by complicated language. They make sure that their audience understands the message easily.”

Bryan Garner has written about this, mainly in the field of law, but as he notes in his essays, this is not a new idea. In fact, it goes back to the classical period, where there was a divide between atticism and asianism among classical orators. Rhetors like Demosthenes were considered plain spoken and concise, and thus in the attic style.

The other style literature I’ve been researching is modern novel dialogue writing. Again, the basic idea is short dialogue that gets to the point. The emphasis is that “natural” dialogue actually has a lot of fluff and “ums” or “ehs” but dialogue on the page should be the opposite, concise and clear. For example, here is a quote on this from Nigel Watts:

“Dialogue is like a rose bush – it often improves after pruning. I recommend you rewrite your dialogue until it is as brief as you can get it. This will mean making it quite unrealistically to the point. That is fine. Your readers don’t want realistic speech, they want talk which spins the story along.”

Anyways, I’ve been working on pruning and being as concise as possible while maintaining the same meaning. This can lead to a surprisingly shorter text. As an example, my current work in progress version of “Turning the Dharma Wheel” has a word count of 504, compare with Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation at 1, 159 words.

This will no doubt be controversial to some, but since various translations which maintain some of the formal structure of the Pali texts (repetition and so on) already exist, there is no need for another that does the same.


#18

Not to stray too far from the OP, I write dhamma hand-outs for 11 year olds, and so must account for not only vocabulary and comprehension but also attention span. As for retention I don’t aim beyond one dhamma concept per lesson and usually only the first sentence! I developed this after seeing what they retained after having brief exams to check their level of understanding and knowledge. :blush:

With metta


#19

This is very interesting, because I know the attic style as extraordinarily verbose and flowery. I’ll have to give him a read.

EDIT: nvm, I’m actually thinking about Roman speakers, not Greek or Asian.


#20

Even in the Roman era, atticism was seen as concise, and Cicero was even criticized by certain “atticists” for his language. He then wrote in defense of his own style as the true attic style. :joy:

Anyways that’s my understanding of it. I haven’t been in a classical language classroom in years.