On befriending the learned: notes on mildly suboptimal translations

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.

  1. Spend time with someone who has memorized the teaching,
  2. and is good at explaining it.
  3. When you have learned to understand the meanings of different teachings, your doubts will be cleared.
  4. 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.


Brilliant! :clap::pray:

Could you talk a bit about your choice of “uplifting” for “uḷāraṁ”?


Well, I’m not exactly sure of the etymology, but it has something to do with ud- = “up”. Obviously it’s used in different senses:

Āḷāre kālāme uḷāraṁ pasādaṁ
Lofty confidence in Āḷāra Kālāma

appāyo samāno uḷāraṁ jīvikaṁ kappeti
little income but an opulent life

evarūpaṁ uḷāraṁ visesaṁ adhigacchanti
achieve such a high distinction

uḷāraṁ pītipāmojjaṁ uppajji
filled with lofty rapture and joy

evarūpopi nāma uḷāro satthā bhavissati, evarūpaṁ uḷāraṁ dhammakkhānaṁ
such a magnificent Teacher, and such a magnificent exposition of the teaching

The latter is probably the closest in context to our verse.

It’s not wrong to translate here in any of these senses, and my rendering is, admittedly, a little interpretive. But the theme of the verse is all about how someone more learned than us will guide us further in the path. What do you think?


:pray:Yeah, in all those examples it seems to describe the object as being elevated not doing the lifting, so it seemed a bit of a reach to me.

While, obviously, it is the hope to be lifted up by your teachers (hi! :wave: :blush: ), I felt like something was lost from that line as “uplifting” shares semantic range with “eloquent” (they’re listed as synonyms in my thesaurus) while … idk… lofty? … would add something unique.

Just my reaction to that word :pray: But I love the rest :grinning_face_with_smiling_eyes:


I’ll bear it in mind, hmm.

While you’re here, do you (or anyone else) have any thoughts about the “rhinoceros” vs. “rhinoceros horn” question? I initially thought I’d just go along with whatever Norman and Bodhi chose, both of whom have “rhinoceros horn”, but whenever I read a different take on it it sounds equally persuasive.

Right now I am vacillating towards “rhinoceros” on the grounds that it is of “least meaning”: as Jones argues, it simply follows the normal and common metaphor of a solitary animal. But Ven Bodhi also rightly points out that elswhere in early Pali khagga always means “rhinoceros” so khaggavisāna must be the horn. Or must it? :confused:


My vote is for the horn, of course! :trumpet:

But purely on sentimental / aesthetic grounds. I’m not qualified to judge the Pāli -visāna except, as you say, to assume that KR Norman and Bhikkhu Bodhi know what they’re talking about :grinning_face_with_smiling_eyes:


Ven Bodhi’s translation is sticking really close to the commentary, though. And to be sure, he says clearly that he’s not just following the commentary and gives good grounds in the Pali to support his choice, but still. But sure, it’d be the safe choice.


Just noting here, I hadn’t realized, there’s a version of the Rhino Horn Sutta in the Apadana, which means there’s also Walter’s excellent translation to refer to:


Salomon, in his edition of the kharoṣṭhī fragment of the sūtra, summarises the main arguments for rhinoceros vs rhinoceros horn (section 1.4). Available here .
Understanding the text to mean simply ‘rhinoceros’ makes best sense to me.


Great, another erudite source of doubt. But seriously, thanks.

The thing is, when I run up against things like this, my mythometer starts tingling. We have multiple versions of this in multiple Indic dialects, reams of commentary, and prolific observations by the most learned scholars, yet every opinion seems to just reverse the former.

One of the details that emerges is that khagga appears to stem from a proto-Muṇḍa root. In other words, it is a local Indic dialect that predates the arrival of the Aryans. Which makes sense, it’s a local animal. It also, perhaps, relates to the rather persistent link between this sutta and the Paccekabuddhas: they too lived in India long before the arrival of the Aryans (mythically speaking).


Well, what do we actually know of the people who lived in India before the Aryans? Not much. We do know, however, that they left behind a bunch of “seals”, i.e. small clay tablets with impressions, often of animals. Most of the animals are familiar: bulls, elephants, fish, etc.

But most common is the famous “unicorn”.

No-one knows what the “unicorn” is. There are a lot of theories.

The Latin name of the Indian Rhino is Rhinoceros unicornis. It is the literal “unicorn”. But, if I may appear indelicate, the horn of the Indian Rhino is not hugely impressive.

I’m sure to other rhinos it is great, but in the hall of horn fame, it’s down the list a bit. And it certainly doesn’t look like the unicorn of the seals.

There were rhinos of the past that had it going on.

But they became extinct long ago, and are not attested in India.

Maybe this is all just going nowhere. But I can’t help feeling that we’re missing a piece of the puzzle. Could there be an echo passed down in story and mythology of a beast of impressive horn, striding the landscape, inspiring stories and songs that survived long after their passing?


I’ve wondered the same thing Bhante. Especially since the idea of “living alone like a rhinoceros horn” or “wander[ing] solitary as a rhinoceros horn” doesn’t really make good sense. Rhinoceros horns don’t “live alone” nor “wander solitary”, though perhaps rhinos with large horns used to live and wander alone in India, much as I’ve heard it said that Indian rhinos – at least the ones we know of – are gregarious creatures.


If the word khagga has several meanings, then khaggavisana may have simply been a form that would more clearly indicate rhinoceros. These may develop in some languages when the meaning of a word might be otherwise too short and ambiguous.


Sadly Bhante, artificial selection ( i.e poaching by humans) has selected for smaller horns.This has been observed in
elephants who are having smaller tusks, or none at all. (We are talking about just the last couple of centuries where poaching/ habit loss has skyrocketed).

And other species as well.

As they lived in the tropics, the fossil record might be sparse. It could be highly likely that the Indian rhino could have been quite impressive before the selective pressure for smaller horns impacted it.


Regarding the Rhino vs horn issue, i just think that using Rhinoceros is just better for the everyday reader. Horns don’t wander, and so it just sounds bizarre to say 'wander alone like a rhino horn". Just my 2 c.


Rhinoceroses wander alone, but they also only have one horn. Their horns are “alone.” You can “wander alone like a rhinoceros” in the sense that your wandering is like the animal or you can wander “alone like a rhinoceros['s] horn” in the sense that you are alone like the lone horn on the face.


This made me think of the statement - ‘wander alone like a tusker’

Could there perhaps be a similar thing happening with reference to the Rhino’s horn, as to the elephants tusks, just not working in translation… ie no one would call a rhino ‘a horner’ :smile:


It has been said, but apparently incorrectly. More recent research by Dhivan Thomas Jones (Like the Rhinoceros, or Like Its Horn?) says that it is in fact mostly solitary, referencing Laurie, W. A., E. M. Lang and C.P. Groves. 1983. ‘Rhinoceros unicornis’. Mammalian Species 211: 1–6.

Apart from cow-calf pairs, Indian rhinos rarely form groups … Adult males are usually solitary

So that seems to be settled. Sometimes knowledge improves, yay, I’ll take it!

Indeed. Khagga may be an abbreviation of khaggavisana, like our English “rhino” and “rhinocerous”. Which would imply that khaggavisana is the older form. It’s noteworthy that the cases cited by Ven Bodhi using khagga in Pali are all from texts several centuries later than the Khaggavisana Sutta.

Sad to know. I wonder if this might also be the reason for the absence of the Harappan “unicorn” from the fossil record: their horns were coveted.

You can, and this is the basic argument of the “horny school” of interpretation, as i am sure they would be delighted to be called. But as Ven Akaliko pointed out, you’d never say, “wander alone like the nose on your face”. Well you might, but people would look at you funny.


Hah! Yes, but there’s nothing unusual about having only one nose to wander around with, unlike the rhino. Most other horned animals have two (at least), so the rhino’s horn is distinctive in not having a companion, isn’t it? I’m guessing the horn, if it was meant literally, is a poetic symbol for the rhinoceros’s solitary ways. People tend to like to have a companion, like animal horns.

It’s pretty amazing how difficult it is to translate passages like this simply because you really need to know what exactly was in the author’s mind. And, well, they aren’t here to tell us. So, we end up with a selection of possibilities by various translators to trace out the limits of possible meaning. I guess that’s one advantage to having many different translations available–it indicates where the meanings are fuzzy.


Except not all Rhinos have a single horn:

Ha! One more point for the anti-horn camp!


:laughing: It depends if it is “alone, wander like a rhino” or “wander, alone like a rhino’s (solitary) horn.” The nose seems extra funny because it is a nose!