SuttaCentral

Having a Shit in a Pot - An Issue of Graceful Translation

There are a lot of weird things that happen in Buddhist texts, some of them are disgusting and revolting, and some of them are just tremendously (though perhaps not intentionally) hilarious. One of my favorite of such texts is the eighth Pācittiya in the Bhikkhunī Vibhaṅga, which says that “a nun who disposes of feces, urine, or rubbish over a wall must confess the offense.”

Now, in this text there is a phrase that says, aññatarā bhikkhunī kaṭāhe vaccaṃ katvā, which I.B. Horner very gracefully translates as, “a certain nun, having relieved herself in a receptacle…”, but which very literally means, “a certain nun, having had a shit/pooped in a pot…”.

In my Pali class this past term we studied this text (because I requested it and my professor is up for anything), and we ran into this problem of literal translation vs. a nice or graceful interpretation. At first, me and my classmates were somewhat hesitant to translate it literally, and would often come up with renditions of “having defecated in a pot” which our professor would then immediately question us on.

And indeed, many early Western translators of Pali texts would often treat such ‘crude’ language in similar ways to I.B. Horner, in that they would soften or sanitize it. Our professor pointed out (multiple times and with varying texts) that such clean language is not what the Buddha or the authors of such texts had intended, and many are intended to be crude and shocking, and indeed to surprise you - yes, the nun takes a shit in the pot, and yes she does throw it over the monastery wall which lands a layman’s head, and yes the man later comes to think that this nun’s shit is auspicious.

This bears the question then of how the ways in which we translate texts reflect and meanings and intentions behind such texts, and indeed the ways in which our own purviews of language and social customs surrounding language affect our interpretations. I think that this is a question that’s worth keeping in mind, particularly as the former generation of Pali scholars and translators shifts from older white Western men to hopefully less older white Western men.

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We are such conditioned creatures. Ask an Australian and an American how they respond to such examples and they‘ll probably respond quite differently.

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This is an example of a rule in transmission where they were not sure then they themselves translated it weird.

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Oh my!

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Hi @Brenna thanks for this thought provoking conversation starter. Oh yes! Bring it on! (The shift, that is, not the shit!) Probably the biggest factor on translation in any age is the prevailing social mores. I wonder if it’s actually very easy to see these biases in the moment or if they only become apparent over time? I guess this is why we need successive generations of translators to constantly renew our understanding in light of current conditions.

When I think about the era of the Victorian translators, an age where ankles and throats were kept well covered and even piano legs were draped—lest they inspire salacious thoughts—it is no wonder that their translations reflect the prudish conservatism and scruples of the English upper classes to which they belonged. Most likely they also kept in mind the delicate sensibilities of their readers, too, who could be brought into moral ruination if exposed to those pagan excesses of the flesh! Heaven forbid! But also very likely, they had a legitimate concern about the government censor taking a dim view of publications that endangered society’s morals. This was a real issue! Easy to forget.

Perhaps the translator I most feel for was I B Horner, who was more of an Edwardian, having grown up in Victorian in tirmes . No doubt because of being a woman scholar in a world where women were still largely denied education, she likely faced extra scrutiny from the male scholarly community about the questionable suitability of a member of the “fairer sex” working with words that were rather saucy and quite vulgar! How very indelicate! And… oh!!! The indecandescent indecency of a lady, already tainted by strange suffragette ideas—which fill her head and strain her weak woman’s brain— actually embracing the opprobrium of the most prurient Pali! Scandalous! Bring my pearls! The OUTRAGE! [Edit oh dear, I’ve gotten carried away! There is no evidence Horner faced huge amounts of discrimination in her work, but surely there must have been such attitides. Regardless, she certainly was a formidable scholar.)

That Horner felt some pressure to censor her translations is obvious from the fact that she declined to translate much of the more risqué passages of the vinaya. (Was she pressured to do so, I wonder? Would a male translator have done so at that time??) Instead, she left them untranslated but included the original Pali text, thus remaining pure and unsullied by naughty words but still a scholar of note; she obviously knew what it meant! Elsewhere, she opted for the use of Latin, which I suppose was an attempt to restrict the amount of people who could read (and be corrupted) by those crude and lewd words. (Maybe Latin is more fun for smut? All those vowels.) Certainly, gentlemen scholars used Latin to disguise their more ribald ideas in conversation and text, and there is also a long history of upper class gay men using ancient Greek for similar reasons, often writing to each other in this language in case the servants read their letters and dobbed them in or blackmailed them. There was also a fanciful idea that the elite convinced themselves of; that making it classical Greek or Latin elevated it from the usual pornographic stuff of the lower classes, and made it refined and allowable.

There are some hilarious euphemisms in translations. My favourite Horner-ism is the bhikkhuni rule against looking at a casually discarded, and quite dismembered penis, which she terms a membrum virile!

Now at that time a membrum virile came to be thrown away on a carriage road in Sāvatthī, and nuns were looking at it. People made an uproar and those nuns were ashamed. Then these nuns, having returned to the nunnery, told this matter to the nuns. Those who were modest nuns … spread it about, saying: “How can these nuns look at a membrum virile?” Then these nuns told this matter to the monks. The monks told this matter to the Lord. He said: “Monks, nuns should not look at a membrum virile. Whoever should look at one, there is an offence of wrong-doing.”
Bhikkhuni Khandakha 20

I assume that in a time of eunuchs, seeing a cut-off cock might have been more common, but sufficiently rare to warrant some curiosity from the bhikkhunis, many of whom may have never seen one in its natural erstwhile state, perched on a body, let alone free-range, so to speak! But I do adore Horner’s skillful use of language here and her elegant emasculation - the dead, dismembered flaccid penis is, in fact, not a member of anything anymore and certainly could not be called virile! I always found her use of this term in this context particularly hilarious and perhaps it was intentionally so? Reading bewteen the lines, I do believe Horner was a lesbian—she lived with her lady “companion” for over 30 years and even changed jobs to be with her; ‘companion’ of course, being another euphemism that persisted for a long time and is still used today. This is also a kind of ‘translation’ that queers throughout history understand and use to negotiate the world, using carefully nuanced language because they had to remain hidden but somehow still be visible. There is a similar art in the translations of old, I think. A nudge. A wink. A word to the wise… For those “in the know”…

Indeed, it is often the queers who are affected most by moralising censorship in translation, relegating them to the periphery of meaning through vague allusions, euphemisms and where that was not possible, just leaving those bits out, or erasing them completely, which has happened over and over again through history. It’s been left to subsequent generations to undertake “queer readings” of ancient texts, artworks and history to rediscover ourselves where previously we barely existed. This is something that has happened with sexuality generally and is analagous to the issues of translation you raise. Sometimes in the original language we we get a glimpse of these things in idiomatic language, that might show that the original editors also had scruples. Often a queer reader comes along and will find things that have been overlooked or alluded to by translators, but because they have a different eye, see it clearer.

However, imagine a different scenario to moralistic censorship which is fairly easy to deride, and think instead of the complexities of the situation today, where a translator is faced with the task of translating an unpalatable word from the past, something perjorative or derogatory, like a racist term or queer insult. They might choose to protect the feelings of the reader by softening the language, which might make it easier for us to accept the rest of the text without being entirely out off by
a bit of outdatedd language and concepts. Does that mean the translators sacred art is tarnished or enhanced? Another example is using more inclusive language, as Bhante Sujato has done in his translations, replacing “he’s” and “Hims” with “they”. Is this good? Or is it bad translation? I think it’s good and justified. So, I think the task is for subsequent generations to always be investigating and reassessing.

These things do have big consequences though! In older translations, for example, some people have translated pandakas as “effeminate homosexuals” which, given they are barred from ordination, caused a great deal of unnecessary confusion and stigma. Let alone the problem of coming up with a translation for a word whose meaning is in fact not actually known. Further, using contemporary language and concepts to apply retrospectively to ancient cultural groups is also problematic. So these are perennial problems…

One other thing that makes me giggle nervously behind my fan—about paternalistic translations that protect us from the horrors of the truth— is the way that many traditional Buddhist cultures teach their children about the 3rd precept on sexual misconduct. They want children to learn the precepts from a young age, but aren’t quite willing to tell them exactly what they are all about, so the sex stuff is omitted and instead changed to “be good to your parents”. (Of course the very next precept is about lying, so… that’s 2 out of 5 precepts made a mockery of!) You can see the dilema. Adultery or unconsensual sex isn’t something suitable for children of all ages. So what to do with the original form? From experience I can tell you that the unintended consequences of this supposedly well-intentioned ruse is that many people grow up never learning the correct precept. :joy: Thinking about the motivation of these parents, you can see how the Victorian translators might have arrived at their polite translations out of concern for their readers!

But having just spoken to bhante @sujato about this topic, he tells me that there are a variety of Pali words for the ones you mentioned above and they would be used in context and we should try to follow such conventions around using commonly polite language.
I’ll leave it to him to expound that more.

Australians have a bit of a potty mouth, we use shit and piss more liberally than most and wouldn’t flinch if it appeared in text, but some other English speakers would be horrified and might not be able to see beyond that to the actual text.

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Splendid essay Bhante!

My first ever nine-day retreat focussed closely on MN10. At least once a day this passage was recited in English.

Puna caparaṃ, bhikkhave, bhikkhu abhikkante paṭikkante sampajānakārī hoti, ālokite vilokite sampajānakārī hoti, samiñjite pasārite sampajānakārī hoti, saṅghāṭipattacīvaradhāraṇe sampajānakārī hoti, asite pīte khāyite sāyite sampajānakārī hoti, uccārapassāvakamme sampajānakārī hoti, gate ṭhite nisinne sutte jāgarite bhāsite tuṇhībhāve sampajānakārī hoti.

What Horner translates as “obeying the calls of nature” the Malaysian monk teaching the retreat (in Australia) used the same phrase that Bhante Sujato chose later, viz “urinating and defecating”.

There was an American visitor sitting on the cushion next to me and every time he heard those words he physically cringed. I wasn’t being a very good meditator and I have to confess that my Australian potty-mouthed sense of the ridiculous kicked in as soon as the monk started his daily recitation, and I sat there anticipating the cringe. … I suppose this was meditating on the body externally. :wink:

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I don’t get a sense in the Pali that these were terms with the same kind of schoolyard silliness attached to them. In modern English, terms are either pompously formal or childish or obscene, whereas the feel I get from the Pali is just matter-of-fact. Having said which, the Pali is pretty straight-laced; it doesn’t hide things, but nor does it use crude or shocking language. Perhaps we could compare it to the kind of language that would be used in a classroom or courthouse.

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Like what? :thinking:

Hi Brenna! :smiley: :wave:
It’s very cool you are becoming a pāli nerd :nerd_face:. My own Pāli study has fallen by the wayside lately, but we normally kick off a bit of Pali study this time of year, so maybe I’ll get back into it.

I was just reading Ajahn Brahm’s ‘Don’t worry, be grumpy’ book last night and came across this exact story. He retells it in his own way, not as a literal translation. However, the story is titled ‘Holy Shit’. In the actual telling of the story it’s ‘excrement’ which is thrown over the wall, but concludes that it’s a blessing to have Holy Shit dumped on one’s head and summarises the Pc as ’ A nun must not throw shit over the monastery wall’ :smiley:

Hehe!

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Thanks so much for this post, Bhante, it made me very happy. :blush:

I think your note about LBGT+/queer people noticing quirks in language is really interesting, and I would definitely agree that one becomes more keen on noticing the ways people interpret certain words. I for one am quite sensitive to the ways in which people translate things, and think translation can be quite revealing of peoples’ own social and cultural conditionings. I’ve been reading a lot about sexuality and gender in Buddhism, Jainism, and Brahmanism lately, and it makes such a difference to read works by queer authors (I love it so much). Particularly the works of Leonard Zwilling and Michael Sweet – swoons in queer joy.

Hi Bhante, I don’t think so either, they are still quite funny to me though. :sweat_smile:

I would definitely describe it as straight-laced, but I think there’s also a certain poignant brutality to the language as well - it’s so straighforward it’s almost too much so - to the extent that I wouldn’t want to sit down with my family and parse the Pali at the dinner table.

One that comes to mind, and I can’t remember exactly where it is, is the story of a monk who had some worms or maggots living in his flesh, and because he didn’t want to kill them he cut off part of his body so that they could survive. Stuff like that.

Hi Ven Pasanna! Hope you’re doing well. It makes me happy to see that Ajahn Brahm translates it the same way - great minds think alike eh!

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Chinese writers were the same as 19th English translators. It was far too forward to describe such things directly. They used a euphemism akin to relieving oneself. There’s the little relief and the big relief, which correlate to No. 1 and No. 2 in English slang.

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