Are material possessions, honor, and popularity “dreadful”?

There’s a series of suttas on how bad possessions, honor, and popularity are. I like it! It’s really tough and uncompromising. There’s a whole Saṁyutta devoted to this at SN 17.1 etc.

The most distinctive phrase in this series of texts is the set of epithets condemning possessions, honor, and popularity (lābhasakkā­ra­siloka). The epithets are dāruṇa, kaṭuka, pharusa. I always quite like Ven Bodhi’s rendering of these three as “dreadful, bitter, vile”. But when I came to do my own translation I looked into it some more, and it raised some interesting issues about translation.

Now, each of the three terms has a fairly well established root meaning.

  1. dāruṇa: From dāru, “wood”. From there it means something “hard”, and then “unyielding, cruel, vicious”. Outside of this context it’s used in contrast with mudu, i.e. “soft and hard” (Ja 452); to describe a hunter Migaluddo pure āsiṃ, lohitapāṇi dāruṇo “Previously he was a deer-hunter, bloody-handed and vicious” (Pv 32); or in a description of a bad character Ye lūkhasā dāruṇā piṭṭhimaṃsikā “Coarse, brutal backbiters” (Snp 2.2#247).
  2. kaṭuka: From the same root as “cut”. It means “sharp, severe, acid”.
  3. pharusa: Means “harsh, rough, unkind”. It’s the same word that’s used for “harsh speech”.

It struck me that these three terms have a close kinship. They all refer to a quality of something external that is hurtful, harsh, or violent. That is, it’s about how possessions, honor, and popularity are going to hurt you. It’s not about their ethical qualities or our emotional response.

This sense is reinforced by the similes used in this chapter. Possessions, honor, and popularity are said to be like being struck by lightning (SN 17.6) or pierced with a harpoon (SN 17.3) or caught on a hook (SN 17.2) or stuck in a briar patch (SN 17.4). In all these cases we get a sense that there’s some external agent of harm, something that hits you, harsh and hard and pitiless. Of course, it’s not that every example is like this, but it does seem to be a strong tendency.

However, this metaphorical sense is absent in the renderings used by Ven Bodhi. Indeed, there’s no sense of metaphorical unity at all. Each term has a quite distinct association. “Dreadful” in modern English just means “very bad”, but the roots are in an emotional response, something that arouses fear. “Vile” has a sense of corruption or foulness, moral or otherwise. And “bitter” relates closely to taste. Of these, only “bitter” remains close to the metaphor of the original.

Compare the renderings used by Ven Thanissaro: “cruel, harsh, bitter”. Or Walshe: “fatal, bitter, harsh”. Both these stay closer to the underlying metaphor, although “fatal” may be overly specific; and “cruel” is used elsewhere.

It’s certainly not the case that a translator must always stick close to the underlying metaphors. These vary tremendously across languages, and it’s important to be flexible and adaptive. Nevertheless, there’s a striking unity in how these particular terms are clustered and how they align with their similes. If possible, it would be nice to convey this.

To be as literal as possible we’d probably use something like “hard, bitter, harsh”. “Hard” is a little ambiguous though, so I’ve gone with “brutal”:

Possessions, honor, and popularity are brutal, bitter, and harsh.

It’s only a tiny detail, but I hope it’s little closer to the original intent.


Perhaps ‘abrasive’ for pharusa?

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What’s wrong with “harsh”?

Nothing. In my case they have different connotations, with ‘harsh’ as an active motive & ‘abrasive’ as a quality. I’d have kept the idiosyncrasy to myself if I’d thought a little bit more before posting.