I have recently written out the principles of translation that I have tried to employ while translating the Vinaya Piṭaka. I would like to share them here for feedback and discussion. Also, it would be great to hear of further principles that I have not mentioned.
Here are the principles in summary, followed by a more detailed discussion below.
- Translating (nearly) everything
- Translating transparently and meaningfully
- Principle of the least meaning
- (Partially) transforming the oral nature of the text into literary form
- Using simple language and vocabulary
- Avoiding Buddhist hybrid English
- Using American spelling and vocabulary
- Sometimes using multiple renderings for each Pali term or expression
- Principle of lectio difficilior potior
(1) Translating (nearly) everything
My guiding principle has been to make the sacred Buddhist literature as accessible as possible, regardless of the reader’s acquaintance with Buddhism or Pali. In practice this has meant that I have translated all Pali terms and expressions, with the following exceptions: Buddha, Sangha, and paṇḍaka.
There is a tendency in the translation of Pali texts to leave a significant number of terms untranslated. Typical examples of words that are left untranslated include core ideas such as Dhamma, jhāna, arahant, uposatha, kamma, Tathāgata, and nibbāna. The problem with this approach is that it may leave readers, especially newcomers to Buddhism, in the dark. In my opinion, it is better to translate a Pali term even in cases where a fully satisfactory English rendering cannot be found. At least the reader will get an approximate idea of the meaning of the text, and thereby avoiding an abrupt break in the reading experience.
(2) Translating transparently and meaningfully
My guiding ideal has been to render all the Pali text in clear and unambiguous English.
The Buddha’s purpose was to communicate his discovery to his audience. As such, it seems reasonable to assume that his words were generally intended to convey a clear and unambiguous meaning, with occasional exceptions, in particular in verse. In my experience, translations from Pali are occasionally hard to understand, especially when the underlying Pali text is itself difficult, and perhaps even corrupt. In such cases it sometimes appears as if the translator has opted for a strictly literal translation to avoid taking a stand on the meaning. The result can be a rendering that is either meaningless in English or at the very least hard to interpret. If, after trying one’s best to understand the Pali, the text remained ambiguous, it seems right to me to decide on the most likely meaning and translate accordingly. Occasionally this may result in an erroneous translation, but at the very least it gives a proper foundation for further discussion, a potential that is largely lost if the translation is meaningless or hard to grasp.
(3) Principle of the least meaning
My guiding ideal has been to render the Pali as it stands without adding unnecessary interpretation.
The Pali Canon is a spiritual corpus, sometimes with a deep meaning. Given this, it is easy to read depth and hidden meanings into the Pali texts, thereby adding one’s own interpretation. To my mind, the straightforward meaning of the text is always the most likely one. The Buddha was communicating with ordinary people. In trying to communicate his insights, he would have had to use language that was accessible to ordinary members of society and that was a common denominator for the population at large.
Assuming that the most straightforward meaning is the right one, reduces the problem of the translator adding their own interpretation of the text. A practical example of this might be rendering a term such Nibbāna as “extinguishment”, rather than giving it some deeper mystical sense, or even leaving it untranslated, which arguably leaves the text too open for the reader to project their own prejudices onto the word.
(4) (Partially) transforming the oral nature of the text into literary form
My guiding ideal has been to reduce the repetitiveness of the Pali, so as to give a more natural reading experience.
The Pali Canon has abundant signs of being an originally oral “text”, especially in its abundant use of repetition. Repetition would have aided memory and helped to stabilise the text for later generations. In written form, however, such repetition does not serve the same purpose. Moreover, it often comes across as tiresome and boring, with the result that modern readers are often put off. To remedy this and to make the texts more reader friendly, I believe it is reasonable to reduce such repetitiveness. Here are some examples:
- The Pali text often employs series of synonyms to convey the meaning of an idea. In English it is often sufficient to reduce this to a single word.
- When a number of items are listed, as is especially common in the Aṅguttara Nikāya, the text surrounding each item is often identical for each item. In my opinion, in English translation it is often sufficient to simply list the various items and not repeat the identical phrasing that surrounds each one.
- The Pali texts, especially in shorter suttas of the Aṅguttara and the Samyutta, often give the same summary line at the beginning and the end of the sutta. In general it seems sufficient to keep one of these.
(5) Using simple language and vocabulary
My guiding principle has been to use ordinary words and a straightforward language.
English translations will be read by all sorts of people, including, crucially, those with English as their second language. To maximise the benefit of these texts for all people, it is important that the language is easily accessible.
It has been common, at least until fairly recently, to give translations of Pali text an artificially archaic and elevated flavour, presumably out of respect for the texts. However, it is my understanding that the main purpose of the Buddha is to communicate meaning. An artificially elevated language often hinders good communication. There is, in fact, Canonical evidence that Buddha specifically wanted to avoid this.
(6) Avoiding Buddhist hybrid English
My guiding principle has been to render everything into idiomatic English.
Too often the English of texts translated from Pali is stilted and artificial in nature. This may be reflected in the choice of vocabulary or sentence structure, which often stay too close to the Pali original. As I see it, the purpose of a translation should be to render meaning. The actual language should fade into the background and barely be noticeable. In other words, one’s attention should not be unnecessarily detained by strange expressions and words that are not immediately clear. To ensure the English is as natural as possible, it may be useful to reflect on the meaning of larger units of texts, e.g. entire paragraphs.
(7) Using American spelling and vocabulary
My guiding principle has been to use the English form that is likely to be most easily understood by the majority of people.
It is a fact, whether one likes it or not, that American English is globally better understood than other forms of English. If these texts are to reach a global audience, it is therefore pragmatic to use American spelling, vocabulary, and expressions.
(8) Sometimes using multiple renderings for each Pali term or expression
My guiding principle has been to translate words according to context.
There is usually no perfect semantic overlap between a given Pali word and any chosen translation into English. Translation projects from Pali have sometimes been hampered by an insistence on a one-to-one relationship between the source word in Pali and the chosen English rendering. Yet to do full justice to the meaning of the Pali, any given Pali word or phrase will often require multiple renderings. To avoid a sprawl of different renderings for the same Pali term, it is important that each rendering stays the same for the same or similar contexts.
(9) Principle of lectio difficilior potior
Unusual readings of the Pali should be taken seriously. Such readings may sometimes be the result of scribal faults, but often they may reflect interesting and even important archaic features of the text. Unnecessarily homogenisation of the text will diminish the richness of the original.