How do you feel about leaving problematic Pali terms untranslated?

I’m guessing many people here have been in the many threads about confusion over “life is suffering”, as well as other less than great translations.

What do you think about leaving problematic Pali words untranslated? Like “Dukkha” ?

I think doing so would force the reader to look it up, starting them off with an education about the proper range of the meaning, and cutting down on years of mistaken ideas.



I’m in favor of this over translating difficult terms.

We already do this, such as with terms that are already in English dictionaries like nirvana

The real issue is which terms we’re going to do this with, its probably not a good idea to overdo it. For example, arhat, nibbana, bodhi, buddha, jhana, kamma, dhamma are pretty non-controversial terms that are often left untranslated.

But what about other difficult terms like dukkha, sati or metta? Should we translate them to the somewhat weird words that are commonly used like “mindfulness” and “loving-kindness” or leave them untranslated? There is the problem. I prefer untranslated but I can see why continuing to add pali terms to english translations can start to get in the way of understanding things for the casual english reader. So I think that perhaps with these translating them is not so bad.

1 Like

Perhaps a rule of thumb that you limit yourself to two untranslated terms the user will need to look up per sutta.

I think someone who has answered a lot of questions about Buddhism like Ajahn Sujato can probably guess which terms generate the most mistaken views for people ( having been asked many questions over and over again ).

This is a good idea but there is a limit on how we can do this. It depends on how many untranslated words can be incorporated into a sentence.
I tried to compile a list of Pali words we used without translation.

Well, there’s a number of issues here.

We always have to bear in mind that there’s no “proper” meaning of a word. Words have meanings in context. So you can have a word in a sentence and look it up in a dictionary, and it gives you half a dozen different meanings. Anyone working on dictionaries will tell you how inadequate they are. And anyone in the field of Pali and Buddhist studies will tell you that there is no complete and reliable Pali dictionary.

And the reader has to decide: what meaning applies in this case? The job of a translator is, as an expert, to make a considered judgment on what meaning applies in what context. Do we always get it right? No, we do not. Do we get it right more often than someone just reading a text and looking up a dictionary would? I bloody hope so, else why are we doing this job!

I don’t think dukkha is problematic to translate. It means “suffering”. Other people have different opinions: I think they’re wrong. It’s my duty as a translator to have opinions about these things.

Who are we to try to force a reader to do anything? We should be grateful that our readers have given us their precious time and attention, and treat them with gentleness and respect. Our calling is to respond to a reader, to reach out to them, to help them with kindness and compassion. If we do our job well, and communicate the Dhamma in a meaningful and intriguing way, a certain percentage of readers will be interested to look further. Great!

We should be encouraging curiosity in readers, and to do that, we need one thing: readers. Write for your readers, not at them.

Really? Let me see, hmm …

  • arhat: Buddhists have been arguing about the meaning of this since the earliest days, and it was the key issue in the first schism. I translate arhat as “perfected one”, which I think works fine in the context of the EBTs, but it would, of course, be rejected by all Mahayanists.
  • nibbana: This means “extinguishment” or “quenching” yet most translators either just translate it wrongly (“unbinding”) or leave it untranslated.
  • jhana: again, this is a highly controversial term. I translate it as “absorption”; but I really want to translate it as “illumination”.
  • kamma: is almost always understood wrongly as “fate”.

I have commented on dukkha above. Sati has been translated just fine by mindfulness for a century. Mettā as “loving-kindness” is okay; I prefer just “love”, but this is purely stylistic, not out of any concern over the meaning.

My point here is that what one person thinks is controversial or difficult is not at all controversial for others. In my view, with few exceptions, the real reason why people choose to leave some terms untranslated is rarely linguistic, but has more to do with the doctrinal leanings of the translator. For every term that you might say is hard to translate, I could list a dozen Pali words that are just as problematic from a linguistic point of view, but which no reader has even heard of, and which every translator has somehow found a way to deal with. Again, that is our job, to solve these hard problems as best we can.

I made the decision to translate everything: otherwise, you’re leaving the translation half-baked. And I found that there were hardly any terms that really resisted translation. Brāhmaṇa is probably the only significant one, as we have no word for a “hereditary member of a caste claiming sacred origins but who may or may not perform priestly or spiritual duties”.

And finally, the bigger problem is that when you use Indic words, it’s not just a neutral act. By including Indic words, you’re sending a message that this word is special. The reader will almost inevitably overload it with meaning, and those meanings are informed by their own experience and background. People almost always make the mistake of assuming that Indic words have fixed and well-defined meanings. But they just don’t, any more than words in any other languages.

If you’re Thai, to “sit samadhi” simply means “to meditate”. According to the Yoga philosophy, it means “union with ultimate reality” or “enlightenment”. When you read the word samādhi in an English translation, your meaning depends on whether your influences are Indian or Thai. But the meaning in the EBTs is neither of these things. There, it means “to become immersed in an experience of bliss and light and oneness”. True, it’s not easy to convey this in translation, but we should at least try.

Sacred words, due to their doctrinal overloading, are in fact highly mutable in meaning. In Buddhism and the Indic sphere generally, they have undergone extremely rapid change in meaning under ideological pressure. Yoga means “spiritual striving” in Buddhism, “union with the divine” in Hinduism, and “stretching” in modern American/global culture. For 2,500 years, saṅgha meant “the community of ordained monastic followers of the Buddha”, and in the last couple of decades it has changed in secularist circles to “a local meditation group”.

I think this extreme mutability has to do with the fact that there are so few knowledgeable people in the area, so new meanings of words can proliferate rapidly.

All this is why we should avoid displacing meaning onto words, and keep the reader’s attention on sentences.


A quick note, what I meant was not that those terms are non-controversial but that it is not controversial to leave them untranslated. I should have been more clear looking back on that awkward sentence now.


The biggest problem I have with using English translations is different teachers use different English term for the same Pali words. IF they use the Pali word I will not have this problem.

The meaning of Dukkha in Pali is not the same as the meaning of Suffering in English.
Newcomer to Buddhism thinks Buddhism is negative, not knowing the meaning of suffering in Buddhist teaching.

I respectfully disagree.

1 Like

I respect your opinion Bhante, but I like to leave at least the key words such as Dukkha and Nibbana untranslated. Perhaps we have to see this in the point view of the reader. The problem with a reader like me is not the norm as English is my second language. We have to see this in the point of a reader whose first language is English.

I think different teachers using different translation for the same Pali word is un-necessary and confuse even reader whose first language is English. The reason being what ever the translation they use the Buddhist meaning the same.
So my verdict is use the Pali term or use one universal English term.

Since your EBT translation will be free and open source, anyone will be able to fork it and make an “English-Pali Edition.” Am I right, Bhante @sujato?

1 Like

Absolutely. Any translation is a mere approximation of the original, and any number of approximations might be useful from different perspectives.

What I would like to encourage is the development of considered, researched, and carefully executed translation projects targeting specific issues. This is what we can see in the Bible world, but Buddhist translations lag far behind.

If someone can convince me that a particular translation project is sufficiently interesting and useful, we’d be happy to host it on our translation servers. But in any case, anyone is free to copy the data and alter the text any way they choose.


Dukkha does not mean dukkha in Pali either, at least it did not mean that until the Buddha explained its meaning. He did this is his first sermon and he had to do it to an audience which where beings, according to the Buddha himself, very close to awakening. If this sort of audience required such an explanation, what can we expect ourselves today?

What I mean with this is that every word will face this problem in any language. The Buddha changed the meaning of words such as kamma (karma), nibbana (nirvana) and so on, he adjusted them to the Buddha Dhamma which he was teaching. If he had to do it in this other (original?) languages, we should expect to do the same in English, Spanish, Slovenian and so on.

I agree with Bhante, and one of this issues is regional variations in languages, in America we have a lot of Spanish speaking cultures each filled with its own unique variations and tones. There is also Spain and even local Spanish variations in non-Spanish speaking countries. And then the same translation that works today will probably not work in a hundred years.

I can see how using the Pali words confuse new people and I can see how the help when I need to ‘break’ the preconception of a word in Spanish, I also use alternative translations and variations. Whatever works in each case. But I do think that it is good and necessary to have translations, even if there are a lot of options.


I agree your point and that is why I say it does not matter what English word you use for it.
Because as Buddhist we give a new meaning to the English words too.


Quite true. I suppose that where an explanatory note becomes useful. I noticed some pop-up boxes for some terms appearing on SC, but wondered if they were more bog standard ones, rather than context specific ones (ie - more like a general dictionary explanation).

Another related issue is that some highly meaningful words (nibbida, for eg:) become watered down (revulsion), and become generalized as it is drawn from set of words describing a mundane context, rather than a religious Buddhist context, and is a specific term having a specific meaning. I got a ‘oh is that what was meant’ moments when I dip into the pali. I would like to see the pali term incorporated into the pop-up, so that it serves as an index term.

It is clearly so much more than trying to determine the pali from a dictionary! The dictionary would have many words to choose from. It might not be perfect, but the ability to choose or leave out an inappropriate word is an important skill. The translated work would be much more enhanced for it.

My Indian (Hindu) friends were horrified when we told them we were considering naming our girl samadhi -apparently it means tomb stone or death! :grinning:

with metta


I tend to agree. Leaving some terms untranslated allows for the understanding of these terms to develop over a period of time.

Really, I didn’t know that!

1 Like

Grave - समाधि ,मज़ार ,क़ब्र, samadhi , samadhi , kabr (…) (n.) An excavation in the earth as a place of burial; also, any place of interment; a tomb; a sepulcher. Hence: Death; destruction.


How many terms were left untranslated by early English Christians? Let us see… Church, Christ, bishop, priest, sacrament, eucharist, repentance, atonement, deacon, cathedral, Bible, angel, prophet, Trinity, baptism, confirmation, anointing, confession, absolution, etc. etc. etc. I mean this is not the first time that it happened, right?

Well, many of these words, after hundreds of years, are still technical terms only understand by insiders or specialists.

And it’s a very different situation. English culture was massively infused with Latinate (or other European) culture on all levels, not just religion. This would be more comparable to the situation in, say, Sri Lanka, where a closely related language freely adopts and adapts all kinds of words from Pali and Sanskrit.

And in any case, aren’t these subject to the same problems that I have discussed? Take “angel” for example. I have no idea what the linguistic history of the word is, or how it is or is not used in the Bible. But I strongly suspect that when “angels” appear in the Bible they are very different from the angels of modern imagination. If this is so, then it would, I think, be a perfectly valid choice for a modern Bible translator to avoid using the word “angel” if an alternate was available.