When people think of translation, they often seem to imagine that there are hidden truths to be discovered, an unspoken conspiracy to hide the true meaning of the Dhama. Or they think their imagination supersedes the reality of the texts, indulging in creative hallucinations in lieu of linguistic spadework.
The reality is much more mundane, and a lot more hard work.
Take verse 24 of the Rhinoceros Horn Sutta for example. Here it is with Norman’s literal translation:
Bahussutaṁ dhammadharaṁ bhajetha,
One should cultivate one of great learning, expert in the doctrine,
Mittaṁ uḷāraṁ paṭibhānavantaṁ;
a noble friend possessed of intelligence
Aññāya atthāni vineyya kaṅkhaṁ,
Knowing one’s goals, having dispelled doubt,
Eko care khaggavisāṇakappo
one should wander solitary as a rhinoceros horn.
So what is this verse about, exactly? Well, the theme is pretty well set by the first line: it’s an encouragement to spend time learning from the learned.
Let’s move on to Ven Bodhi’s translation:
One should resort to the learned, a bearer of Dhamma,
an eminent friend gifted with ingenuity.
Having known the benefits and removed doubt,
one should live alone like a rhinoceros horn.
They are pretty similar, and doubtless I could find other similar renderings, too. And they’re fine as far as translations go. But there are a number of ambiguities and infelicities in each translation, which taken together obscure the sense.
The first problem is with the term dhammadhara, rendered by Norman as “expert in the doctrine” and Bodhi as “bearer of Dhamma”. The latter phrase is especially vague. But the meaning is quite precise. Dhamma means “teachings” and dhara means “one who has memorized”. It’s not talking about someone who is in some vague way an “expert” or who somehow mystically “bears the Dhamma” but about someone who has memorized the teachings, i.e. someone who can orally recite the suttas. And I don’t think that sense is clearly conveyed by either rendering.
The next problem is with paṭibhānavantaṁ in the second line. Norman has “possessed of intelligence”; the clumsy construction echoes the possessive case in the Pali. Bodhi has “gifted with ingenuity” which sounds a lot nicer. But paṭibhānavantaṁ only occurs in one other place in the EBTs, where it is an epithet of the poet Vangīsa, and it clearly means “eloquent” (or “gifted with eloquence” if you want to render the possessive). Paṭibhāna is common in the suttas in this sense, and never, to my knowledge, in the sense of “intelligent”, a meaning it seems to have acquired at a somewhat later date. There is no call for adopting that reading here, as in context, being eloquent, i.e. gifted in explaining the Dhamma, follows on and builds from the first line with a specificity that is lost if it is considered merely as general intelligence.
The second line also includes the word uḷāraṁ which is rendered by Norman as “noble” (inviting confusion with arya), by Bodhi as “eminent”, and Thanissaro as “great”. Again I feel a certain specificity is lost. Uḷāra has a rather vague set of meanings, and none of the ones given are wrong, but the dominant sense is “high, lofty, uplifting”. “Great” is vague, while “eminent” emphasizes fame and status, which is not really the point. Surely what is at stake here is that the good friend, having done the work to uplift themselves, is well suited to lift you up too.
The third line then has the somewhat odd atthāni. The word attha is one of the most common words in Pali and one of the hardest to translate due to the variety of senses: meaning, goal, good, benefit, matter, etc. But it is unusual to find it in the plural. Norman’s “goals” seems unlikely, as the “goal” in Buddhism is always one. Bodhi has “benefits” which seems more plausible, but it once again lacks a certain specificity. How does it meaningfully relate to the theme of the verse? Ven Thanissaro has:
Knowing the meanings, subdue your perplexity,
This is a rather good example of the tendency of his I noted in my previous essay to combine “surprising insight mixed with puzzling eccentricities”. Vineyya kaṅkhaṁ is a standard phrase that just means “having removed or dispelled doubt” and “subdued” is inexplicable here. But “meanings” for atthāni is brilliant. Now the line hangs together much better: by understanding the “meanings” (which are diverse because the teachings are diverse) you dispel doubt. And it builds from the rest of the verse, as obviously you understand the meanings because you have been hanging out with a learned expert.
Once the sense of the individual terms is sorted, it becomes clearer that the verse has a gradual sequence. Each line depicts a successive stage in spiritual education.
- Spend time with someone who has memorized the teaching,
- and is good at explaining it.
- When you have learned to understand the meanings of different teachings, your doubts will be cleared.
- You will then be ready for the solitary meditative life.
This sense is kind of there in the former translations, but it’s also kind of hidden away. You’d be forgiven for lacking clarity as to the exact sense, or reading it in ways that the original did not support.
As always, it’s easy to criticize the work of others and hard to do better. But let’s see if we can try.
Spend time with a learned expert who has memorized the teachings,
an eloquent and uplifting friend.
When you understand the meanings and have dispelled doubt,
wander alone like a rhinoceros horn.