English Translation of Chinese Agamas



I haven’t studied this. But I know that the work on parallels for SC was largely based on the 4 nikayas, so we would definitely like to add parallels for Khuddaka-style texts.

I do recall there being some research on the Chinese Iti, but I can’t recall much about it.


I don’t have access to academic publications too, but I found this from Bhikkhu Thanissaro’s introduction to his translation of Itivuttaka:

The Chinese canon contains a translation of an Itivuttaka, attributed to Hsüan-tsang, that strongly resembles the text of the Pali Itivuttaka, the major difference being that parts of the Group of Threes and all of the Group of Fours in the Pali are missing in Hsüan-tsang’s translation. Either these parts were later additions to the text that found their way into the Pali but not into the Sanskrit version translated by Hsüan-tsang, or the Sanskrit text was incomplete, or Hsüan-tsang’s translation was left unfinished (it dates from the last months of his life).

Itivuttaka: This Was Said by the Buddha


Thanks. Yes, I had seen that comment, too. It’s true that the Chinese doesn’t have any of the Fours, but it has more sutras in the other sections, making it a bit larger than the Pali (137 vs. 112 suttas). The note about the text being translated at the end of Xuanzang’s life was a curiosity. When I looked it up in Dan Lusthaus’ list of Xuanzang’s works, he dates it at the end of 650CE (#39 in the list), over ten years before Xuanzang’s death.


I’ve been quiet lately, but things have been moving forwards. At least, my ambitions, which tend to run a bit far ahead of my resources, have been making progress, so I wanted to give everyone an update.

The past couple months, a part time translation project of Chinese EBTs has been shaping up, but it’s only a 10-15 hr/week commitment at this point due to funding issues that hopefully will improve in the future.

It began with work on the Chinese Udana-varga (T213) last Fall, which led me to take up editing my old translation of the Madhyama Agama, which led me to sit down and think about EBTs in general and how to proceed.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been deciding on an overall translation style, breaking with some of my old “rules” like passing through Chinese transliterations and overly literal grammar in the English. To that end, the translations of MA.1 to 4 have been edited a couple times, though the latest versions are still sitting in the Git Repo.

I’ve also been looking at the other Agamas, re-familiarizing myself with them, and creating master files for translating them. Some preliminary work has begun on the Itivrttaka and the Samyukta-agama and the Ekottarika-agama. The only Agama I haven’t looked at yet is the Dirgha, which is mainly because I prefer to work with shorter texts when my time is so limited.

Going forward, I’ll be continuing to translate the Madhyama as the primary task and will begin releasing translations from the Samyukta as well when I’m confident about the vocabulary in that text. Things will continue to move slowly, but slow and steady wins the race, as they say.



Thanks so much for the update, that’s thoroughly awesome! (Even the “slow and steady” bit—so far I’ve only managed to achieve “slow”, but this is already an accomplishment I’m rather proud of :wink: ).

With regards to the MA translations—including the completely new MA4 (along with a few other legacy text additions) :heart_eyes:—they are due to be updated on the site soonish; the next update was a point of discussion at this week’s team meeting and hopefully will be done before long.

All good wishes in your work!



Please let us know if we can help. We don’t have dedicated funds for this, but in principle I would like to be able to support it.

Can you explain some more exactly what this means, maybe with an example or two? Also, I would be interested to know your philosophy on translating the Chinese text vs. translating the assumed underlying Indic text. Obviously it’s one of the many areas in translation that does not admit of absolutes, but I’d be interested to hear your approach.


In the past, I had a more academic attitude about translation, wanting to represent the Chinese text as closely as possible. So, for example, I would reproduce transliterations and loan words that were common in Chinese, even though many can be translated to English. Chinese translators sometimes go back and forth translating and transliterating the same names. These sorts of things I would simply reproduce. The irony is that my translations back then weren’t always great, because I was still learning.

Now, I think texts littered with diacritics and Indic words isn’t helping anyone in the general audience, and I think the goal should be to try to rescue these texts from archaic languages.

So, for example, in my recent edits I decided to stop transliterating “bhiksu” and “kasaya.” It’s just not necessary. Now those terms are “monk” and “reddish-brown.”

In the past, I’d also do what many translators do with Chinese texts, which is to translate them literally and force unnatural grammar in the English. As a writer, I shake my head at that looking at my older work. Chinese places adverbial clauses before the verb most of the time when English would put them in the predicate, and Chinese is fine with double negatives, and the like. It also doesn’t think subjects are necessary, so then you have to decide how to fill them in with pronouns. (As an aside, it’s sometimes a little humorous to me when translator place alot of English in brackets when translating from Chinese–in truth 50% of the English should be in brackets, we have to add in so much.)

One of the main editing tasks for my older work is simply applying modern English grammar and getting rid of the awkward or wordy style I used.

So, those are the two main things I was meaning about changing my style.

I’ve also begun carefully identifying repeated expressions and standardizing the English throughout as I translate. I have the entire Madhyama in a single Word file now, for instance, and as I finalize a translation, I search for repetitions and translate them as well. It seems like the best way to avoid an editing nightmare from past experience. It turns into a kind of non-linear workflow, progressively translating the entire text as I go, but it seems to work so far.

When it comes to the problem of translating translations, I’m much more agnostic about the underlying text having studied parallels quite a bit. The Chinese canon is unique, I think, in that we get a really detailed “history” of how these texts evolved over time. Some sutras like the Diamond Sutra have a half dozen Chinese translations that span 500 years. When I sit down and compare them to extant Sanskrit or Pali, I realize that these aren’t always just a single version that’s evolving. There were multiple versions sometimes. The Diamond Sutra, for example, had a verbose and simple version still by the time of Xuanzang and Yijing. Yijing’s reads like the extant Sanskrit, and Xuanzang’s much more expanded, but Yijing’s is the later translation.

I come away from this believing that it’s not possible to know what the underlying originals really said. I can guess what the original term was in obvious cases, but in others it could be one of a few different synonyms. Just because the Pali or Sanskrit we have differs doesn’t mean the Chinese is incorrect. The original they translated may have been different. I regard the Chinese to be the only extant copy of a lost text, essentially, and I focus on understanding what the translator intended.

I do my best to discern how the Chinese terms were used by the translator. I start with internal glosses, then I look at the way he used them in his other translations, to the dictionaries compiled by Chinese scholars in ancient times, and then I fall back to the way the terms are used in literary Chinese outside of Buddhist texts.

It’s also important to be clear about the grammar being used in a text. Ancient Chinese evolved quite a bit from 150 CE to 800 CE, when most of the translations were done, and different translators sometimes created their own personal “Hybrid Buddhist Chinese.” Reading Gautama-sanghdeva is very different from reading Xuanzang. It’s challenging, but we have great resources and searchable electronic texts that make it easier now.

That’s a basic overview of what I’ve been doing. Feel free to ask more questions or make suggestions.



Thanks so much, this is very illuminating. I hear your journey from literalism to understanding, and i try to follow that same path myself. Echoing a famous line from Asimov, I tell myself, ‘Literalism is the last resort of the incompetent translator’. It’s odd that we equate this with an “academic” style; who is it that decided academia should be driven by such a mechanistic approach? Is there really anyone who thinks this kind of translation is valuable except as a crib for students?

Good, I too try to translate everything as much as I can.

Preaching to the converted here!

Right, there are certain passages that presented with very high consistency in Indic texts, the jhana formula being one of them. But in most cases there is considerable room for variation. If we pre-digest the Chinese texts too much we lose the point in comparing versions at all.

I learned a little about the pitfalls of this when translating the Digha Nikaya. It seems that Walshe’s translation is largely based on Rhys Davids’. When Rhys Davids encountered a gnarly bit of Pali, it is sometimes reflected in a clumsy or obscure turn of phrase in English. Walshe then “tames” RD’s rendering, resulting in what sounds like a more fluent, even more plausible English phrasing; but if you compare it with the Pali, it is actually less accurate and often simply wrong.

I am a strong believer that there is no one true translation method; any translation both adds somethings and omits something. ideally there would be multiple translations from different perspectives, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. But the most important thing is that a translation is guided by a strong and coherent philosophy. What I am saying is, sadhu! :pray: