On befriending the learned: notes on mildly suboptimal translations

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Just to confirm and redundantly restate, the ambiguity is in if “like a rhinoceros['s horn]” corresponds to “wander” or “alone.”

“Alone like a rhinoceros horn” makes sense, but “wander like a rhinoceros horn” really doesn’t. I take it the Pāli is as ambiguous as the English?


Yes, the Pali can be construed either way. Although by far the normal situation would be for it to apply to “wander like the animal wanders”. OTOH, you could argue that the uniqueness is precisely the poetic point. :man_shrugging:


I’m interested when you translate “kāḷānusāri” as “Spikenard” while Ven. Bodhi translate it as “Black Orris”. Why you choose spikenard Bhante? :thinking:

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They’re both roots used for fragrances, which is the main meaning of kāḷānusāri. I’m guessing the rendering “Black Orris” stems from the fact that it has “black” (= kāḷa) in the name. However, the orris is derived from varieties of Iris that are native to Europe, whereas spikenard is Indian.


Now I have the reason. Thanks for your answer, Bhante. :grin::pray:


Here is my comment on the kāḷānusāriya from my Vinaya translation:

Kāḷānusāriya: “Indian rosewood” (Dalbergia sissoo, source SED); but dentified in SAF, p.111, as the Parmelia perlata, “stone flower”.

SAF stands for “South Asian Flora as reflected in the twelfth-century Pāli lexicon Abhidhānappadīpikā”, by J Liyanaratne, Journal of the Pali Text Society, 1994. This work is an excellent source for identifying plants in ancient India. My sense is that it is quite accurate. In this particular case, however, it seems off. The kāḷānusāriya is a root, whereas the Stone Flower is a kind of lichen.


Yes Bhante, it’s appear in Bhesajjakkhandhaka. It’s translated as “black gum” in here. I have searched on Pali dictionary, it’s translated as “black sandalwood”. But I’m not sure it’s correct since it’s a fragrance wood, not fragrance root (mulagandha). :thinking:


I can’t find record of its root used as fragrance, so this is probably also incorrect.

Note that in Pali, it is the name of the mūlagandhā, i.e. the fragrance derived from the root, rather than the name of the plant as such. That’s why it’s spikenard not honeysuckle.


Yet the name of the fragrance and the name of the plant will no doubt usually be the same. The list at Kd.6, for instance, includes candana (“sandal”), presumably referring both to the plant and the fragrance.

I am a bit fascinated by the reference to “stone flower”. It is found both in “South Asian Flora” and also in modern texts on Ayurvedic medicines. This suggests that kāḷānusārya, the Sanskrit version of the name, has meant “stone flower” for quite a while. Could it be that this was the meaning, or at least one meaning, already at the time of the Buddha?


Sure, it just happens to not be the case in this specific example in English, that’s all.

I mean maybe, or else it just means everyone has been quoting each other.

But does anusāriya means here, “black-follower”? If so, it could be any number of plants that grow on black things (rocks, stumps, earth).


You seem to be right about the root of the Indian Rosewood not being uses as a fragrance. I may have to change my rendering.


It’s not clear to me how the kāḷānusāriya comes to be identified as spikenard. According to all dictionaries, spikenard is the identity of the plant narada. Dhammika (in “Nature & Environment”) then proposes that the narada and the kāḷānusāriya are the same. However, I have not been able to track down any corroborating evidence for this and so I am sceptical.

We know from the EBTs that the kāḷānusāriya was a root fragrance (SN45.142) and used as a scented eye ointment (Kd.6). Searching for the Sanskrit term kālānusārya (or simply kalanusarya) yields one plant that fits this description well: Indian Valerian (Valeriana wallichii, syn. Valeriana jatamansi). This plant has an aromatic root that is used as a medicine, including, it seems, for the eyes.

To me this seems a more likely candidate than spikenard. Any further thought?


The spikenard article says it’s “closely related to valerian”,

It’s probably splitting long-extinct hairs at this point, but the entry on spikenard emphasizes its prestigious and widespread use as a fragrance in India and worldwide, especially in religion, all of which agrees with the idea that it is the “best of root fragrances”. We’re looking for something that has a similar profile to, say, sandalwood.

No hate on valerian, I’m sure it’s fine, but:

Historically, the name nard has also referred to essential oils derived from several other species, including some species in the closely related valerian genus and Spanish lavender, which have also been used in perfume-making and sometimes to adulterate true spikenard using more common, less valued materials.


Venerable @sujato, the meaning of this particular term is elaborated in verse 259 of the Dhammapada. Perhaps it’s sometimes relevant to include these nuances in the translation, sir?

Na tavata dhammadharo
yavata bahu bhasati
yo ca appampi sutvana
dhammam kayena passati
sa ve dhammadharo hoti
yo dhammam nappamajjati.

Okay, so let me introduce you to my good friend, the “principle of least meaning”. This has been one of the handiest ideas that has informed my translations.

The basic point is this: as humans, we tend to read things into statements that are not there. And this tendency is even more acute when it comes to ancient sacred scripture. They bear a huge freight of meaning, and it is not uncommon to find the words of the text overwhelmed by the expectations placed upon them by interpreters.

So to counterbalance this, I always try to translate with the “least meaning”. This is a principle that I learned in my studies of translation theory (I can’t remember where tho!)

Try to read the text in its most plain and obvious way. Don’t read more into it than is demanded by the context. There are, it is true, cases where a text is rich and ambiguous, and in such cases it is good to try to capture that. But in most cases in the Suttas, the meaning is plain and clear.

Now, let’s look at this specific phrase. Here, dhamma is obviously “teachings” and dhara is “memory, bearing in mind”. In an oral tradition, a dhammadhara means someone who memorizes a text and carries it for others to learn. This is a crucial role for the survival of the Dhamma.

And it is in that plain and simple meaning that the word is used throughout the suttas.

In the verse you cite, the Buddha takes up that plain meaning and raises it up by ascribing a new, higher sense.

This is, of course, a common technique that he uses. As a well-known example, he takes up the “brahmin” and redefines him as one who is perfected, as an arahant. But—and this is the crucial point—no-one would mistake this for the ordinary sense of brahmin. When the suttas say that the Buddha met a brahmin in the street, it doesn’t mean that he met an arahant: it means “brahmin” in the ordinary sense.

This is a good example of the “principle of least meaning”. When translating the suttas, assume that when the text refers to a brahmin, it just means an ordinary member of the brahmin caste, unless the context requires otherwise.

The same thing would apply in the case here. Does it make sense to understand dhammadhara in the ordinary sense in which it’s used throughout the suttas? Yes it does. Is there anything that requires it be read in the higher sense? No.

Admittedly, in this case the higher sense is not impossible. It’d make sense for the text to speak of a teacher as both a memorizer of texts and as a spiritual master. And so that is definitely a possible translation, and a valid choice by a translator—so long as the basic sense is not lost. You can see in the examples above how easy it is for the plain meaning to become obscured once we start ascribing a higher sense to everything. Meaning is slippery that way.

So, my approach is not, “is it possible to read it in the more meaningful sense?”, but “is it necessary to read it in the more meaningful sense?” And since the answer in this case is “no”, then my translations stands.

For what it’s worth, my translation of that Dhammapada verse is:

You’re not one who has memorized the teaching
just because you recite a lot.
Someone who directly sees the teaching
after hearing only a little
is truly one who has memorized the teaching,
for they can never forget it.


Venerable @sujato, thank you for the detailed explanation and for summing it up nicely. I will keep this in mind during my translation attempts, sir.


I believe this principle also serves us the readers of translations very well.