False precision and the use of square brackets in translation

This point came up in another discussion, and I thought it might be worthwhile to say something about it in its own topic. The following is the recommendation and guidelines I follow for SC.

In academic practice it is common to indicate supplied terms in translations with [square brackets]. I recommend always avoiding these, as they are unscientific, misleading, and ugly. They detract from the text and convey a misleading sense of false precision.

If square brackets are to be used at all, they should restricted to critical editions of texts, where the editor has added words to someone else’s manuscript. But in such cases it is, of course, better to use a clear semantic markup. On SC we only use square brackets on the specific request of the author (or occasionally in inherited texts that we haven’t processed fully).

The basic problem is that in translation one is constantly adding or omitting words. This is entirely necessary and normal. There is nothing about the process of translation that says it must be done word for word, unless one is specifically preparing a word-for-word glossary, which is not really a translation anyway.

The reason for this should be obvious to anyone who knows more than one language: meaning is not mapped precisely on words, but often emerges at a higher linguistic level.

Consider just one example, Ven Bodhi’s translation of SN 27.3. As always, his translations are taken, not to criticize, but as an example of best practices.

As so often, the Pali text is abbreviated (with no variants that I know of):

Yato kho, bhikkhave, bhikkhuno … pe … abhiññā sacchikaraṇīyesu dhammesū”ti.

Now, as in any translation, you can’t do this word-for-word. No-one would translate kho. And pe and ti are represented, not with words, but with punctuation: ellipsis and quote marks respectively.

But making it as literal as possible, we would have:

“When, mendicants, a mendicant … in regard to things realizable by direct knowledge.”

Note that here, despite attempting literalism, we have added or expressed idiomatically many things.

  • The text is capitalized.
  • Punctuation is added.
  • Yato, which literally means “from when”, is rendered more idiomatically as “when”.
  • The indefinite article “a” is added.
  • The phrase “in regards to” represents, not any words in the original, but the locative plural ending -esu.
  • Similarly, “by” represents the instrumental sense of abhiññā (which here is found in an idiomatic form in the Pali rather than the more standard abhiññāya).
  • The two words “direct knowledge” represent a single word in the Pali, a somewhat inadequate rendering for ñāṇa when prefixed by abhi-.

Ven Bodhi has:

When a bhikkhu has abandoned the mental corruptions in these six cases … [his mind] becomes wieldy in regard to those things that are to be realized by direct knowledge.

Obviously the extra text has been added to make the abbreviated portion readable, which is fine. But why is [his mind] singled out as supplied text? It seems completely arbitrary. Why not indicate [has abandoned the mental corruptions in these six cases] and [becomes wieldy]? Maybe there’s some reason for it, but it is not at all apparent.

The reader would naturally assume that all these phrases are actually found in the text, and only the words in square brackets are added. This is obviously incorrect, and in any case, adds nothing to their comprehension of the text. Thus the use of square brackets here, and commonly elsewhere, merely creates false precision.

The reality is that we are adding or removing things in every sentence, and so we should. If you want to compare what is in the translation with the original, you have to do it by consulting the original: there is no other way. That is why on SC, we are developing segmented translations, so anyone can see exactly what the source text says.


As someone who uses [square brackets] very differently in my posts than the guidelines you suggest:[quote=“sujato, post:1, topic:5578”]
If square brackets are to be used at all, they should restricted to critical editions of texts, where the editor has added words to someone else’s manuscript.
[/quote]I use square brackets when exploring Chinese texts in an attempt to “show my work”, as it were, as I am not a professionally qualified translator by any means (although perhaps one day I will be).

With this in mind:[quote=“Coemgenu, post:1, topic:4803”]
"Dwell in[,] remain[, in] island[s], dwell in[,] remain[, in] upadhi (lit. obeisance?); dwell in dharma islands, dwell in dharma obeisance (or “dependancy”);
no other island[,] no other obeisance. Monk(s)!

Appositely (or “[You] should/shall”) [and?] rightly observe [and] examine, dwelling [and] remaining [as an] island [is?] naturally obedient, no other island[,] no other obeisance, [the] dharma [is an] island [and the] dharma [one] obeys, no other island[,] no other obeisance.
[/quote]The material not in square brackets is the reading I think (fallible as I am) is in use, and the [square brackets] are my attempt to figure out how these elements grammatically relate to one another, without having to scramble the word order (which is generally necessarily to make a translation properly readable).

I do this because I am a learner, and I always want to stress that. This methodology is an attempt to make it also easier those more schooled than I to see precisely where I went wrong, given that it is most likely a wrong reading (although there are some positively Byzantine quirks of Chinese word-order!).

Do you think that this has the opposite effect? Square brackets, as I have been using them, are intended to do the opposite of creating the idea of “precision”, false or true, but rather, I almost always intend for them to show that I am not sure, that there is another possibility, that there is a nuanced possibility I think I am overlooking, in short, to give “extra information”, or, in the case of these amateur translation efforts I am engaged in to try to educate myself, they serve to differentiate the stream of Chinese characters themselves and my attempts to find their relations.

Well, these are, as you explain, not really translations for reading, but explorations of a translation technique. Which is a different matter. Having said which, i think it makes them pretty much unreadable. I would suggest that in this kind of case, make a trilinear translation, adding an idiomatic translation as a third line, sans brackets.


I saw some suttas have pop-up boxes when the words are clicked on which elucidates their meaning, which is great, except when the meaning is a stock meaning for that word (dukkha means suffering for example) rather than context dependent. The latter is more work obviously. Maybe a similar method could be used to take out the [square brackets] out and ‘hide’ them. That would lessen the chances of someone misreading the intended meaning and perhaps picking up undiscovered meanings which might be obscured by a [ ].

With metta

The latter (“trilinear translation”) I, for one, find the most worthwhile, and not just for translation study; rather for getting perspective on practical (meaning relating to practice) understanding and triangulation from multiple angles of the possible meaning. Having compared lots of translations, and in different languages, I really can’t trust a single translation reading – unless I know the translator well enough to filter the interpretational biases.


That is what we do. For original texts, mostly Sanskrit, where they have a legitimate use, this is fine, but for translations, the point is that they do not have a legitimate use.

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[quote=“sujato, post:6, topic:5578”]
That is what we do. For original texts, mostly Sanskrit, where they have a legitimate use, this is fine, but for translations, the point is that they do not have a legitimate use.
[/quote]What about for clarifying what the original term was, like if I were to say[quote]Das Ziel [asaṅkhata] will ich euch zeigen, ihr Mönche, und den zum Ziel führenden Pfad. Das höret! Was ist, ihr Mönche, das Ziel?[/quote]In this instance, square brackets are probably helpful, since the original text does not say “goal” (Ziel).

Sorry if it seems like I am nitpicking, that isn’t my intention.

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Well, this is a different case. Normally you’d use (parentheses) for this.

Having said which, in translations that are meant to be read, I would recommend avoiding this in almost all cases. I’ve now translated 900,000 words of the Pali canon, and I have used this method only once or twice. This is in cases where the original text relies on untranslatable puns for comprehension.


…for the “pe” - I am seeing this as a repetition of a phrase… and as far as [whatever is in brackets] this means that there might be an alternative word, since some terms have multiple meanings, and the translator is unsure - so for the sake of transparency, both are given. I would and will address this in my introduction. It is is not a translation but an interpretation, I am OK with that label, since Buddhism had 2000 years before me to put things into English, and I ponder why is it up to me? It should have been done before me. Hahaha! I don’t use parenthesis because that is what will contain (Pali)… I’m facing this problem. I may adapt to your perspective since I am only 30 pages into a 200+ page new translation of my sutta/commentary/subcommentary project. Thank you for addressing this.