Pāli Rhetoric in Translation

So much more to delve deeper into Pāli! But no time! :O(

This is the part which least affects purport and interpretation, but mostly of literary interest and value. The Buddha’s rhetorical tongue is well established in Pāli, and it is here that we may (and do) find the traces of authorship in the text(!)

We frequently encounter the anaphora, and its counterpart, the epiphora, in prose; in fact more in prose than ever in verse!! They are sometimes unique in Pāli, comparing to other classical languages, and are nearly always left not translated or otherwise reflected in the target language (so … English!). Despite of being usually beautiful and effective in their usage in Pāli, yet quite often they do not readily lend themselves to any emphatic or poetic resonance in English, though they match a bit more comfortably with Arabic.

So I came across this example from the Pācīnādisutta. The English supplied here being a more literal translation just to show the anaphora (in bold) and the symploce (in italic) of the original.

Seyyathāpi, bhikkhave, gaṅgā nadī pācīnaninnā pācīnapoṇā pācīnapabbhārā; evamevakho, bhikkhave, bhikkhu cattāro sammappadhāne bhāvento cattāro sammappadhāne bahulīkaronto nibbānaninno hoti nibbānapoṇo nibbānapabbhāro.

Just as the Ganges flows eastwards, turns eastwards, slopes eastwards; so too the mendicant that dwells in the right practice of effort, engrossed in the right practice of effort, flows to nibbāna, turns to nibbāna, slopes to nibbāna.

So it is not readily easy to reflect the rhetorical of a passage like this effectively and meaningfully in translation:

Toward the east flows the Ganges; toward the east it turns and slopes. And the mendicant who is dwelling in right effort, zealous in right effort; toward nibbāna flows; toward nibbāna turns and slopes.

Note how either attention or nonchalance with regard to these literary concerns in translation indeed bestow upon the speech of Buddha a distinct character. This then is a good case to use as an example of the argument I posed earlier in “Issues with Pāli Literature & its Translation”:

This problem of “tone” in translations is prominent, and on the one hand it may be caused by the absence of “auditory experience” on the part of the reader or translator; that is, we haven‘t “listened” to Pāli long enough and therefore have difficulty discerning with the ears the auditory qualities of the speech that we examine with the eyes (and in this area, we have much to learn from fluent Sri Lankan and Burmese readers). But on the other hand, it may also be due to it being a unique feature of Pāli “usage”, which naturally inclines to “muffle” such kind of emotive verbal expressiveness which otherwise prevails quite visibly (or rather loudly) in other languages, including literary ones such as Classical Arabic. […]

It remains to be the case though, that translators may and do differ among themselves in their appreciation even of the tone and character of speakers, and particularly those of Buddha, as the original Pāli does indeed express little of these features, and thereby allows for an unusually wider margin of interpretation of them; which apparently has led some translators to presume that no such margin exists and no interpretive effort is needed in this area, and that no particular tone or character of Buddha exists or is worthy of being reflected in the target language apart from that which readily and strictly manifest in the original Pāli, and which serves as a sufficient form of expressiveness there [though not necessarily, or at all, in the target language?!]. At the same time, the translator is so absorbed in handling “meaning” that he is often unaware of the ramifications of his lexical choices and preferences on stylistic features. Literal, overcomplicated, or over-simplified approaches to the text (in terms of meaning) almost always unintentionally bestow a certain character and tone on the Buddha as a speaker, and (with Rhys Davids as a clear exception here) there are no signs that the various translators are concerned, or even aware, of the importance of such dimensions in their translations, and of the compromises they might occasionally have to make in the area of “meaning” in order to accommodate such important considerations of style. This problem appears like daylight in translations into both classical and vernacular Arabic, where over-attention to meaning alone yields catastrophic results and brings utter destruction upon how everything “sounds”, which soon becomes a concern that is of equal importance to what everything “means”. The task therefore can sometimes, and quite often, be twofold!


Thanks for these remarks. I don’t have much to add, except to reinforce the idea that questions of style are an under-appreciated aspect of Pali translation. The field is yet young, and there is much room for improvement.