Chinese Transliterations

It would be ideal to trace the underlying word-forms on the basis of the textual evidence, rather than on the basis of preconceptions.

If it is done carefully based on textual evidence, it would probably uncover clues about which languages were used for which texts, where and by which sects, and in which period.

I gave you a reference to textual evidence. Charles Patton analyzes the transliterations and compares them with Middle Chinese pronunciation and corresponding Indic forms.

You might want to look into the work of the late Dr. Seishi Karashima. He focused on doing exactly what you are mentioning. The early Chinese translations generally were using some sort of middle Prakrit, whereas during the time of Xuanzang and Yijing, they were clearly using Sanskrit texts. I mentioned this before in another thread, but it’s pretty clear when we look at the texts closely and also at the evidence in extant Gandhari texts that have been unearthed. There are Gandhari texts that match the Dirgha Agama very closely, for example, such as a Dharmaguptaka Sangiti Sutra commentary. The switch the Sanskrit was later in history (~6th c. CE), at least as far as what was reaching China through Central Asia. In India, perhaps it was sooner; there isn’t much historical evidence that I am aware of myself.


Thanks, I will look him up. Gandhari is likely, but I dont think Pali is likely as a source for Chinese texts. My understanding is the Pali canon itself is based on a Gandhari original

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No, I haven’t encountered a Chinese translation that sound exactly like Pali throughout. Gandhari sometimes sounds like Pali and sometimes not. Sometimes, the transliterations don’t match extant Gandhari that well, either. I think it’s possible there were multiple dialects or languages being translated to Chinese in the early centuries. It’s difficult to tell with what little that still exists of the original texts. The Dirgha Agama has a sutra that transliterates Prakrit verses as dharanis, which makes me wonder what the language was that they were translating. Gandhari with older Prakrit verses? Tocharian with Gandhari verses? I’m not really sure.

Myself, I convert the proper names to Sanskrit rather than Pali because the Agamas tend to have better parallels in the later Sanskrit sources, and there’s often a direct textual relationship. But mainly it’s convenient to use a classical language people are more familiar with than an obscure Prakrit.

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Charles, I wonder: do you think that during the translation and transliteration of these texts, the Indic languages were being spoken out loud? And that the Chinese transliteration is of a spoken Prakrit word?

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Yes. Chinese sources describe an oral process that worked like this:

There was a team of at least three people: A reciter, a translator, and a scribe. The reciter might recite the text from memory, which was still common in 400 CE apparently, or they would read from a written document. The translator was bilingual and would translate the Indic words to Chinese orally. A scribe who was literate in Chinese would write it down.

Afterward, the translation would be edited, etc. Some translation projects had quite a team of people involved, others were the bare minimum. The reciters and translators were usually monks from northwest India or Central Asia.


In some ways, it’s too bad translations aren’t similar today! It’s almost theatrical.

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Anyone who would like to take a deep dive into the early history of Chinese translations, there’s a detailed historical study of the Ekottarika Agama’s translation and subsequent redactions in An Early Chinese Commentary on the Ekottarika-Āgama @ The Open Buddhist University by Antonello Palumbo.

That was a particularly messy project because the reciter’s memory failed during the initial translation, so they tried re-translating and re-editing the manuscript. On top of that, their patron was a king who had conquered Northern China and had his capital in Changan. His fortunes, however, took a turn for the worse when he tried to conquer Southern China. A coalition of armies defeated him. Well, the translators working on the Ekottarika Agama apparently were working while Changan was under siege. Daoan mentions hearing the wardrums in the distance. There’s no account of what happened to them when the city fell, but the team apparently broke up, and some of them like Daoan may have perished during the battle or shortly afterward because of their association with the defeated king.

So, yeah. I suspect ancient history was a messy affair full of these kinds of situations that led to texts not always being preserved well.