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.
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.