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Notes on the translation of Sutta Nipāta

After a long time, I have finally begun translation of the Sutta Nipata, the last of the Pali books that I intended to translate. This is a famous work and has been translated many times before, including a version by Lawrence Khantipalo Mills, on which I was editor and contributed a few translations.

The standard for accuracy has been KR Norman’s very literal linguistically-based translation. Recently Bhikkhu Bodhi has published a new translation, together with the commentary. The Sutta Nipata is a difficult text, and I refer frequently to both these translations, and less frequently to others.

Despite the many translations, I feel that there is still lacking a good reader’s translation. Each version has its own strengths and weaknesses:

  • E.M. Hare’s Woven Cadences is an ecstatic translation, whose archaic language and lack of precision renders it of mostly historical interest.
  • Ven Saddhatissa’s classic reader’s translation is excellent, both stylistically enjoyable and reasonably accurate. However it is getting perhaps a little archaic; and the renderings are a little on the loose side for my tastes.
  • Ven Thanissaro’s translation offers his usual combination of surprising insight mixed with puzzling eccentricities.
  • KR Norman’s is accurate but rigidly literal, and best understood as a reference for Pali students or a template for readable translations.
  • Bhikkhu Bodhi’s is perhaps even more accurate and literal than Norman’s. Its style is determined by its integration with the commentary, rendering it less readable than I would like.

So far, I feel there isn’t a translation that really hits that sweet spot of readability with precision. I’d like to see something as readable as Ven Saddhatissa’s and as accurate as Ven Bodhi’s. Challenge accepted!

As an illustration of stylistic choices, let’s look at the first verse of the Rhinceros Sutta, Snp 1.3.

Norman has:

Laying down violence in respect of all beings, not harming even one of them, one should not wish for a son, let alone a companion. One should wander solitary as a rhinoceros horn.

The sense is clear, even if the style is somewhat brutalist. Note that despite Norman’s literalism, he renders daṇḍa according to sense as “violence”.

He also renders the grammar non-literally, rendering the absolutive nidhāya (“having laid down”) as present participle (“laying down”). Such adaptations are a normal part of every translation. The text is establishing a temporal relation between events, and so long as that is clear, there is no need to try to copy every tense of the original. In particular, the Pali uses the absolutive much more than English, so it gets wearisome fast. Nevertheless, in this case I can see a case for keeping the absolutive: one has in the past renounced violence, one in the present does not harm any beings, one determines for the future to give up desires.

Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation has this:

Having put down the rod toward all beings,
not harming a single one among them,
one should not desire a son, how then a companion?
One should live alone like a rhinoceros horn.

What’s interesting is that in most cases where Norman has rendered according to sense, Bodhi has gone back to a literal rendering.

  • daṇḍa is the literal “rod” rather than the contextual sense “violence”
  • the absolutive is expressed in English
  • The idiomatic kuto (literally “from where?”, idiomatically, “let alone”, “still less”) is rendered more literally as “how then”, making the sentence a (rhetorical) question.

These renderings are influenced by the need to match up with the commentary. The commentarial explanation of daṇḍa is the “bodily, verbal, and mental rod … because it strikes … or the rod is simply giving blows”. Thus the literal “rod” helps keep the metaphors straight with the commentary.

Similarly, the absolutive nidhāya is glossed with another absolutive (nikkhipitvā), while kuto is retained without gloss in the commentary (sahāyaṃ pana iccheyyāti kuto eva etaṃ). In both cases keeping it literal helps to translate the commentarial gloss consistently.

This approach is important for Ven Bodhi’s specific translation project, but doesn’t really help a general reader.

In other cases, Bodhi’s rendering is slightly less literal:

  • For the locative plural Sabbesu bhūtesu he avoids the pedantic “in respect of all beings”.
  • one “among them” where the Pali has literally one “of them” (tesaṁ).
  • “live” rather than “wander” for care ( = 3rd sing optative of carati, more commonly careyya).

The latter is a little tricky, as the sense encompasses both, and certainly doesn’t always literally mean “wander”. To “wander” does, however, fit the theme of the poem, yet it perhaps invites confusion with the metaphor “to wander alone like a rhinoceros horn (wanders???)”.

Both translators have some things in common.

  • They use the masculine “son” for putta, although it is commonly used in a neutral sense of “child”.
  • They use the impersonal “one” to bring out the implicit subject of the Pali. Pali syntax doesn’t require that the subject of the verb be specified. Translators fill this in with the neutral “one”, but I try to avoid this as it is cold and distancing. Where possible, I shift the voice to a more natural English idiom such as the generic “you”.

My rendering in draft:

When you’ve laid aside violence toward all creatures,
not harming even a single one,
don’t wish for a child, let alone a companion;
wander alone like a rhinoceros horn.

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I notice you have not included the late Ven. Ñāṇadīpa’s translation. He is one of the great experts on Pali verse. Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation seems to incorporate much from Ñāṇadīpa, but Ñāṇadīpa’s style is even more literal and sparse.

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Bhante, I am looking forward to being able to read this, and the other “minor” books…

As you are aware, the last two chapters are often claimed to be particularly ancient, and have been extensively used by some modern teachers and commentators to support their interpretations of the Dhamma (for example in Bhikkhu Ñāṇananda’s “Nibbana Sermons”) so I’m sure you’ll have some lively discussion about your translation choices there…

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I don’t think I have a copy, do you know where can I get it?

Looking forward to it!

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Speaking of which, I wonder what venerables Sujato and Brahmali think of these claims that these texts are especially early.

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There’s no good reason to think that they are any earlier than the bulk of the prose suttas. I wrote on this in A History of Mindfluness and paste the relevant portions here.


The “gatha theory”, which includes several eminent scholars among its adherents, claims that the earliest recorded teachings that we possess today are to be found primarily among certain of the verse collections, notably the Aṭṭhaka and Pārāyana of the Sutta Nipāta. However, while I agree that some of the verse is early, I do not think that the reasons given suffice to establish that these verses are generally earlier than the prose. To briefly state the case for and against the gāthā theory.

  1. The language found in such texts harks back in some respects to the Vedas, and therefore is archaic.

Verse usually tends to be archaic; this could be supported in any number of cases by comparison of verse and prose passages by the same author even in modern times. This may partially be a matter of style, a preference for an archaic flavour, as in English verse one might affect ‘thee’ and ‘thou’. Another factor is that, due to the constraints of metre, it is more difficult to translate verse as compared with prose from one Indian dialect into another; thus even in the later hybrid Sanskrit literature, the verse tends to retain more archaic Prakrit features, while the accompanying prose tends towards more formal Sanskrit. This tells us something about the translation process, but nothing about the relative ages of the different parts of the original text.

  1. Several of these verses are referred to in the prose Nikāyas, and therefore must be earlier than those prose discourses.

This confirms only the chronological relationship in these few cases. In many other cases, verses are tacked on to the end of prose discourses, such as in the Aṅguttara, and there it is likely that the verses were added later. Anyway, there are also prose passages that are quoted or referred to in other prose passages, notably the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, which is explicitly or implicitly referred to in several important discourses. The references to the gāthās, moreover, while significant, never declare such passages to be the central message of the Dhamma. The key teachings, extolled over and again in the early texts, are such things as the four noble truths, the 37 wings to awakening, the dependent origination, or the ‘aggregates, sense media, and elements’. None of these topics are prominent in the gāthās. It would be natural to assume that the earliest scriptural body consisted of teachings on just such core topics. Such references may even refer to specific texts where these doctrines are elucidated. The primary source for all these topics is the Saṁyutta.

  1. The Aṭṭhaka and Pārāyana have their own canonical commentary within the Khuddaka Nikāya, the Niddesa.

This argument has recently been repeated by Gregory Schopen, who says that these are the ‘only’ texts that have received commentaries by the time of the earliest known redaction. This seems like a strong point, until we realize that the Niddesa really just applies Abhidhamma technique to poetry, listing synonyms in mechanical style for each word in the verses. It is very similar to the Abhidhamma Vibhaṅga, etc., and must stem from a similar period as a minor spin-off from the Abhidhamma project. The Vibhaṅga is clearly the more important work, and that consists largely of quotations and commentary of central prose passages of the Saṁyutta and Majjhima. In fact there is much ‘commentarial’ material even in the four Nikāyas: the Saccavibhaṅga Sutta is an explicit commentary on the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta. Much of the Vinaya, too, is a commentary on the Pāṭimokkha.

  1. Technical terms and formulaic doctrines appear less often.

Again, this is simply part of the normal character of verse. Poetry is for inspiration, not information.

  1. The monks lived as hermits in the forest rather than in settled monasteries, whereas in the prose this phase of Buddhism is largely absent, the discourses being normally set in monasteries.

This shift, from the forest life to established monasteries, is depicted in the texts themselves as having already begun within the Buddha’s lifetime, and there is every reason to believe that this was so. It is difficult to live in the forest, and the Sangha must have, before very long, started taking in recruits who were elderly, or infirm, or weak, and who would have required decent accommodation. This plain common sense is confirmed in many stories in the early texts. Here we may point out the parallel with the Franciscan order, which was accused by St Francis himself of backsliding from the rigorous standards he had set. In any case, the prose does in fact constantly refer to monks living in the forest. The mistake stems in part from the failure to distinguish between the teachings themselves and the narrative cladding in which the teachings appear, which must obviously be later. The outstanding example here is the teaching on the gradual training, the main paradigm for the monastic way of life, found in tens of discourses. Although the texts as they are today are set in monasteries, the body of the teaching itself refers simply to the monk, ‘gone to the forest, to the root of a tree, or to an empty hut…’ to meditate, with no mention of monasteries. This is a good piece of negative evidence: we know that later Buddhism was largely based in large monasteries, hence the fact that so many of the teachings extol the forest life strongly suggests these teachings must have appeared before the development of settled monasticism.

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It’s here:


There’s also the ancient translation (1881) by Viggo Fausboll

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I’ll upload it here. It’s not a complete translation. It contains the Aṭṭhaka-vagga, the Pārāyana-vagga, and a couple of additional suttas. The Silent Sages of Old - Suttanipata.pdf (1.4 MB)

Good luck with this daunting project!

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The Cadences are by E.M. Hare.

I’d say it’s also great for liturgical and chanting purposes, Edward Miles Hare being by far the best poet in the early PTS brigade.

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I’m surprised no one has mentioned the Chalmers translation. Isnt it set in iambic pentameter?

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Oh, thanks for pointing it out, I’ll fix it.

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It’s in iambic trimeter - six-syllable lines of three iambs. He was translating during the Edwardian twilight when the meter underwent a brief vogue, starting with Kipling’s White Man’s Burden. But to get the lines to scan Chalmers ends up taking much greater liberties even than Hare. For example, with the Khaggavisānasutta he translates the rhinoceros refrain only in the first verse. In subsequent verses he reduces it to just the phrase “Go forth alone!” or the single word “Alone!”

Hurt naught that lives; do harm
to none; yearn not for sons
or friends; but live - as lives
th’rhinoceros [sic] - alone!

Alone! Companionships
breed fondness; fondness leads
to Ills as a consequence;
so mark where fondness ends.

Go forth alone! To live
for friends and comrades means
your own weal sacrificed;
beware acquaintances!

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There is also a translation made by N. A. Jayawickrama: Suttanipāta: Text and Translation, published by the University of Kelaniya in 2001, 435 pages

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Right, indeed, and he also did an extensive historical analysis, which is widely cited by Ven Bodhi and others. But I haven’t seen a copy.

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I don’t have the Text and Translation, but his 1947 PhD Thesis (“Critical Analysis of the Sutta Nipāta”) was serialized and published by Pali Buddhist Review, who subsequently made their archives Open Access (so, yes, one can legally share the file).

I’ve taken the liberty of stitching together their serial PDFs into one, merged PDF, here, in case that’s helpful :grinning_face_with_smiling_eyes:

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This is my favorite translation (Ven Ñaṇadīpa’s–it’s only the 4th and 5th chapters and 3 other suttas). It’s very literal and also very readable. He has kept the verse form and amazingly, has also kept the original ordering of lines. I find it a simply beautiful translation. The Pali and his English translation are printed side by side, so it’s a wonderful way to study Pali as well. Highly reocommended!!

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Thanks so much for this Venerable!

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I have his translation. It’s too much to be scanned completely (435 pages), but if you happen to want to check how he translated some stanzas, I could scan these pages for you.

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FYI Bhikkhu Bodhi recorded a series of lectures on the Sutta Nipāta in 2004. If I remember correctly he follows Saddhatissa’s translation but makes many corrections along the way.

It can be found here: Sutta-Nipāta | BODHI MONASTERY

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Hi Bhante, here you could find an edition of Ven. Ñāṇadīpa’s translation. It’s a selection, not the whole book.

From the web is possible to get a pdf version :The_Silent_Sages_of_Old.pdf (1,5 MB)

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