Jargon: Good, Bad, who knows

Greetings friends,

This is a general question that I’ve been pondering ever since encountering the EBTs.

All technical areas of study depend on specific meanings of standard terms - Jargon. The purpose for this is clear - it is short hand, to communicate quickly and clearly a specific and complex meaning. My own background being psychology, is full of examples where ordinary words in daily usage have a different and specific meaning when applied to that discipline. Short of inventing completely new words (new language) we are stuck with the range of words we have. These words end up being just ‘symbols’ for a specific meaning - the symbol/word is not ‘the meaning’ it just represents it. There is really no way around this, it is a result of representation of highly specific knowledge in a particular field, without having to say/write paragraphs of explanation.

Issue to discuss.
I am extremely appreciative of all the efforts that have gone into the translations of Pali texts. For myself I estimate it took about 2 years to learn the ‘jargon’ or ‘attributed meaning’ to specific words. While a bit challenging, I accept this as ‘par for the course’ in gaining a deep understanding in a new field. This is the same no matter where we work, in all specialist fields.

There are 2 issues regarding translations for me; 1) Accuracy of the expounded meaning of the original texts and 2) choosing a specific word as the representative symbol for that meaning.

I would suggest that accuracy of communicating the meaning is of primary importance, but once a reasonable term is established, it is retained and viewed as legitimate Jargon (with it’s own specific definition). I think this is really important, it fixes the meaning, and assists with clarity. There are always a range of words that could be chosen, but ultimately NONE of them exactly captures the specific meaning of the term as used by the Buddha. The Buddha himself acknowledged that he was using general usage words in a different and specific way, (perhaps one of the first in history to explicitly define terms as Jargon).

What I find somewhat problematic though, is when this ‘jargon’ is not fixed, and when there is a continually changing range of terms that are used. This sort of feels like going backward - of eliminating the jargon (specific attributed usage of a word within context). Personally I find it very confusing and not helpful, and really a hindrance to good communication, rather than an improvement. For me the chosen word is just a symbol of the definition. If the definition needs expanding or clarifying, then that is part of ‘defining the term’ rather than substituting another word/symbol for it.

I know it is not straight forward, and I am interested to hear the thoughts of others on this subject.


Yes, jargon is a problem isn’t it? I would recommend Newmark’s approach to translation theory. He distinguishes between two types of translation: semantic and communicative. I don’t use those terms personally, but they might be fun to look up if you are interested. A semantic communication prioritises the features of the source text. A communicative translation prioritises the understanding of the reader. But the issue is that every understanding is also a misunderstanding: sometimes it’s the fact that we EASILY UNDERSTAND the text in our own language that is the PROBLEM because it prevents us from engaging with the REALITY OF OUR CONFUSION about foreign and ancient sources (my words, but echoing Newmark). Hence, the birth of “jargon”, which is in some senses, a way of signposting the reality of our confusion. What I mean, is that jargon is an invitation to be more careful with the assumptions we bring to a word. I would translate “sangha” as the “Buddhist church”, but in the end, it might be BETTER for the reader to be a little confused about what a “sangha” is, than to think they KNOW what is the Buddhist church.

Sometimes readers will be willing to go further into the reality of their confusion if they are motivated enough to do that. Like you, they will put in the effort to learn some jargon. In fact, the later Chinese Buddhist translations tend to use MORE not LESS technical vocab, as translation moved beyond trying to communicate with the reader’s Daoist world view, to trying to be more specific about the Indian features of the Buddha’s message. The use of technical terms kind of depends on what experience you want your reader to have & what tolerance level you think they are going to have for confusion.

In regards to “accuracy of meaning”, I think the question would be…what do you mean by “meaning”? :wink:


I think we are a couple of centuries too early to speak of “established” translations of Buddhist texts. The history of their translation into modern languages is only very recent. It takes time for terminology to settle down and be established. Since the first translations into English (and similarly German) have been made, new discoveries have been made, new manuscripts of parallel texts, for example, have been found that were not available to the first translators. So we have a better knowledge now than what they had then, and a better understanding of the texts can evolve from that. And we might not be at the end of that development. Comparative studies on a broader scale are only starting to emerge …

Another thing is that language itself is evolving and changing. What sounded perfectly intelligible and readable 150 years or so back, when the first translations into modern languages were made, can sound in fact very strange to our modern ears.

Terminology and jargon too are evolving. You have been working in the field of psychology. I too have been working in a similar field. During the years of my professional career the DSM and ICD, the standard diagnostic manuals, have been revised a couple of times, i.e. “jargon” has been redefined. And for that, too, there is no end in sight. It will always keep evolving.

So to me it seems that “jargon” is a thing that is dependent on time and place and on various conditions. Surprise! This thing called “impermanence” seems to be at work here too … although I do understand your wish for a well defined, unchanging and reliable set of Dhamma texts!

Language can help us, and it is indeed required, but ultimately the understanding has to grow inside our hearts, on a level that is beyond words.


Thank you both Ven @Suvira and @sabbamitta for your thoughts :pray: :slight_smile:

Very interesting point, and thank you for the reference :slight_smile:

Sadhu to all those who earnestly study and translate and teach the Dhamma. May all the words point the way to Liberation.


I was thinking some more about this…I guess that you are talking about having too many different English translations for one Pali or non-English word, none of which really map conceptually to anything? I always get excited about a chance to talk about translation theory (hence the caps), but there is an easy solution for the “too many different English words” problem, which is “just leave it in Pali”.

kamma nibbāna samsāra…samādhi.


Very interesting thread, @Viveka! Thanks for starting it.

I think about a similar issue, not specifically jargon, but that without consistent translations of certain terms one can lose the underlying argument. Given my pre-Buddhist life, my examples tend to be with classical and Biblical Greek. But if a translator sometimes translates αρετή as excellence and sometimes virtue, one can make connections not in the original text and fail to realize ones that do exist. For a New Testament example, if δούλος is sometimes translated as servant and sometimes as slave, one’s understanding of the text is confused.

For a Buddhist example, if Dhamma is sometimes translated teaching, sometimes doctrine, sometimes truth, one can think distinctions are being made in the original, when really the original illustrates the broad range of meanings in the word Dhamma.

Now, there is of course another side to this argument. Translations ultimately have to make sense in their destination language. Importing large numbers of terms from the original language, or always mapping the same destination language word to the same original language word even if it means using destination words in a way no speaker would, can lead to a translation that doesn’t meet that basic requirement of making sense in the destination language.

EDIT: To clarify, I meant consistent translations of terms within a given translation. Of course translations of terms will differ between translators. That’s one of the pleasures of reading multiple translations. :slightly_smiling_face:


I think that if the translator is clear in their own head about the audience they are directing their translation to, then this issue is more than 50% resolved before they start work. I also think that it’s misguided to start a major translation project imagining it can be all things to all readers.

In general and aside from translation, word meanings are never fixed. We just imagine they are, and doing so does indeed make us feel much more comfortable. But reading any quality etymological dictionary will remind us that word meanings shift.

EDIT: Just another instance of aniccā.


This is exactly what I was meaning. And though I have no fixed view, and realise that it is complex and subjective, I can see a benefit of the ‘keep it in pali’ approach. That way there is a limited set of jargon/words/definitions to learn and apply, and the focus is on understanding the representative meaning, rather than finding substitute words that can only convey a limited aspect of the meaning - just like with learning a new language - though in this case it only requires a ‘set’ of pali technical terms - the Buddhas own Jargon :slight_smile:


I agree that the issue is mapping - when a term is translated consistently it is of great help to understand what was supposed to have been translated.



:rofl: I’m tying myself up in knots here… Good, Bad, who knows…
but it is great for someone like me without a background in translations, to hear all of the perspectives.

Yes this is more the perspective from which I was approaching it.

This topic isn’t meant as criticism of the dedicated translators working on the Original texts, and whatever choices they make, or indeed of anyone at all. That is the last thing I would want to convey :pray: :pray: :pray:

It was more about reflecting on some of the challenges in transmitting meaning in such a complex area. I mean it’s not rocket science - it’s much more difficult than that!! :slight_smile: :rocket: :dharmawheel:


Spoken, Yoda has:


Once, in another place, I taught first year Linguistics to students in a Translation Studies degree. As the result of a random bit of googling here is a list of core texts for students in such a course at the University of Leeds.

Core texts

Baker, Mona and Gabriela Saldanha (ed.) (2020) Routledge encyclopedia of translation studies Core, London: Routledge.

Baker, Mona (2011) In other words: A coursebook on translation. Routledge. Core

Bassnett, Susan (1980, 1991, 2002, 2014) Translation studies, London: Routledge. Core

Bermann, Sandra and Catherine Porter (eds.) (2011) A Companion to Translation Studies. London: Wiley-Blackwell. Core

Bucher, J. et al (2016). Butcher’s copy-editing : the Cambridge handbook for editors, copy-editors and proofreaders. Cambridge, UK ; New York : Cambridge University Press. Core

Chan, Sin-Wai. ed. (2015). Routledge encyclopedia of translation technology. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge. Core

Gambier , Yves and Luc van Doorslaer (eds.) 2010. Handbook of translation studies. John Benjamins. Available on-line from University of Leeds network: Handbook of Translation Studies Online Core

Hale, Sandra Beatriz (2007) Community interpreting, Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave McMillan. Core

Hatim, Basil & Ian Mason (1990) Discourse and the translator, London: Longman. Core

Hatim, Basil & Ian Mason (1997) The translator as communicator, London: Routledge. Core

Hatim, Basil & Jeremy Munday (2004) Translation : an advanced resource book, London: Routledge. Core

Kockaert, H. J. and Steurs, F. Eds. (2015). Handbook of terminology. Amsterdam; Philadelphia: John Benjamins. Core

Koehn, P. 2020. Neural Machine Translation. Cambridge University Press.

Kruger, Alet , Kim Wallmach, Jeremy Munday (eds.) 2011. Corpus-based translation studies : research and applications. London. Bloomsbury. Core

Malmkjaer, Kirsten and Kevin Windle. (2011). The Oxford handbook of translation studies. Oxford: Oxford. Core

Mason, Ian (ed) (2001) Triadic exchanges : studies in dialogue interpreting , Manchester: St Jerome. Core

Millán, Carmen Francesca Bartrina (eds.) 2013. The Routledge Handbook of Translation Studies. Routledge. Core

Munday, Jeremy (2016) Introducing translation studies : theories and applications. 4th edition. London: Routledge (http://www.routledge.com/cw/munday-9780415584890/) Core

Munday, Jeremy (2012) Evaluation in translation : critical points of translator decision-making. Routledge Core

Munday, Jeremy (2009) The Routledge companion to translation studies (edited volume), London and New York: Routledge,. Core

Nida, Eugene A. & Charles R. Taber (1969) The theory and practice of translation Leiden: E. J. Brill. Core

Nord, Christiane (1997) Translating as a purposeful activity : functionalist approaches explained Manchester: St. Jerome. Core

Pérez-González, Luis (2015) Audiovisual translation : theories, methods and issues. Routledge. Core

Pöchhacker, Franz (2004) Introducing interpreting studies. London. Routledge. Core

Pöchhacker, Franz & Miriam Shlesinger (eds) (2002) The interpreting studies reader, London: Routledge. Core

Pym, Anthony (2014). Exploring translation theories. Routledge. Core

Roy, Cynthia B. (2000) Interpreting as a discourse process, New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press. Core

Snell-Hornby, Mary (1988) Translation studies : an integrated approach, Amsterdam: Benjamins. Core

Translation studies abstracts. (1998 -) Manchester: St. Jerome. Core

Venuti, Lawrence (ed.)(2012) The translation studies reader, 3rd edn. London: Routledge. Core

Venuti, Lawrence (2018). The translator’s invisibility : a history of translation. London: Routledge. Core

Wadensjö, Cecilia (1998) Interpreting as interaction, London and New York: Longman. Core

Weissbort, Daniel & Astradur Eysteinsson (eds.) (2006) Translation : theory and practice : a historical reader. Oxford University Press. Core


Some of trouble is also that the source texts themselves are using jargon that sometimes is rarely defined, which I think is why the Abhidharma texts were developed (at first to collect all the jargon together for oral lessons, later to collect the definitions, too). That jargon evolved and shifted over time, and redactors of scripture edited their corpuses as that moved along, leaving us with a bit of a mess. We see old usage and new usage of Buddhist jargon in what we’re translating.

So, there’s naturally going to be disagreement among translators, who end up creating their own language if they translate large projects. Then people adopt what a translator did, but other translators look at it and say, “Wait a minute, there’s maybe a better way to read this word.” And so it goes. I mean, I’m personally still using old holdovers I picked up from Bhikkhu Bodhi that I’m slowly discarding for other translations as I see enough evidence that they aren’t great translations (like “wholesome” for kusala instead of “skillful”).


Many Thanks Charles :slight_smile:

I’ve come to see that the impressions I shared in the OP, were most likely just an artefact of my last few weeks of practice, where I was reviewing verbal teachings by a number of different teachers within a short space of time, very close together.

Given the Internal consistency in written texts/translations that is really not a problem, as there is adequate time to become accustomed to the specific perspective of each translator - which is a delight! :smiley:

Where I find it more challenging is in verbal teachings, where there is not as much time for all the cross referencing of meanings to occur within the mind, during the flow of the talk. This especially the case where multiple terms are used for the same thing, by the presenter, within a talk.

So I think I was on the ‘wrong’ track with my initial line of exploration, and it was more a question of teaching methodology and use of terms, rather than issues related to Translations.

Thank you everyone for your kind responses

:slight_smile: :pray: :dharmawheel: :sunflower: