Quirky translation choices

One of the joys of reading Bhante @sujato’s translations is discovering his interesting translation choices. Perhaps readers might like to share their discoveries…

We’ve already heard about Manuka Honey: Manuka honey in MN 77? and the wordplay of:
“It wears away, mendicant, that’s why it’s called ‘the world’. Please report any errors or typos!
which attempts to reproduce the Pali wordplay.

Here’s another one: Living with gods and zombies.

“Householders, there are four ways of living together. What four?
A male zombie living with a female zombie;
a male zombie living with a goddess;
a god living with a female zombie;
a god living with a goddess.

Bhikkhu Bodhi translates Chava as a wretch. Here’s a dictionary definition:

New Concise Pali English Dictionary
m.f. & mfn.
(m. f.) a corpse; a dead body.
(mfn.) vile; base; wretched; inferior; paltry.

And we can see that zombie does have a certain resonance…


@mikenz66 I actually thought of asking Venerable Sujato about his choice of translation in AN 4.53. Not that I have any complaint, not at all. It’s just that I never thought of seeing the word “zombie” in any Buddhist text, let alone an early Buddhist text (I bursted out laughing when I read AN 4.53 for the first time since I didn’t expect to see the word “zombie” at all).


There is a reference to a zombie-like corpse in DN 24:

So, Bhaggava, Sunakkhatta went to see Korakkhattiya and said to him: ‘Reverend Korakkhattiya, the ascetic Gotama has declared that you will die of flatulence in seven days. And when you die, you’ll be reborn in the very lowest class of demons, named the Kālakañjas. And when you die, they’ll throw you in the charnel ground on a clump of vetiver. But by eating just a little food and drinking just a little water, you’ll prove what the ascetic Gotama says to be false.’

Then Sunakkhatta counted up the days until the seventh day, as happens when you have no faith in the Realized One. But on the seventh day, the naked ascetic Korakkhattiya died of flatulence. And when he passed away, he was reborn in the very lowest class of demons, named the Kālakañjas. And when he passed away, they threw him in the charnel ground on a clump of vetiver.

Sunakkhatta the Licchavi heard about this. So he went to see Korakkhattiya in the charnel ground on the clump of vetiver. There he struck Korakkhattiya with his fist three times: ‘Reverend Korakkhattiya, do you know your destiny?’ Then Korakkhattiya got up, rubbing his back with his hands, and said: ‘Reverend Sunakkhatta, I know my own destiny. I’ve been reborn in the very lowest class of demons, named the Kālakañjas.’ After speaking, he fell flat right there.


AN 8.19:

Many great beings live in the ocean, such as leviathans, leviathan-gulpers, leviathan-gulper-gulpers, demons, dragons, and fairies.

Leviathan-gulper-gulpers… now that sounds very big and with a lot of teeth :scream:


The best about new translations is that it shines a light on how terms in old translations are really TRANSLATIONS and do not mean the English words we have come to unconsciously take for granted as exactly what the Buddha meant.


Yes, that’s a very good point. We can get very used to some of the rather archaic translations, and different ones can really shake up our ideas of how to interpret particular terms.

Another interesting one is “choices”: What is the best translation for sankhara?

This is not a bad thing.
For instance, even the Pali scholars haveing difficulties translation words like Sankahara. This is the best way to avoid some complains from people using direct pali words in their translations.
This will help the reader to dig deep in the meaning.

Count me as one of the few who don’t think it is a good idea to use quirky words. The translation may appear fun and attractive now but give it a few decades and people, especially those who are unfamiliar with local colloquialisms, will be arguing over what the Buddha meant. Even Ven Thanissaro is a culprit. Seriously run-of-the-mill-person as a translation for putthujana?

I misunderstood that word for a long time, until I recently checked the meaning of that expression on the internet. I though it carried a notion of busyness, restlessness (because of the ‘run’ probably), now I understand that it just means ‘average’ people.


There’s Prime net and Terminator…lurking in the translations. :robot::smile_cat::exclamation:

Once believe to be purely mythical, the leviathan gulper-gulper has at last been captured on film!


Or this one!

Sorry, I came across this just now, I should have responded when the comment was made.

The “quirky” choices that I’ve made are limited to rare terms, names, and ideas that are of no major doctrinal significance. And in many cases, they are merely literal, like “zombie” for chava or “townsville” for nagaraka.

In no case have I used a deliberately “quirky” choice for a doctrinal term or idea.


Bhante Sujato wasn’t always a monk. Prior to ordaining, for a time he earned his living as a muso and as a busker in Sydney’s Kings Cross. He once related that he was too poor for dreadlocks so had to settle for one large dreadlock :slight_smile:
It is no surprise then that DN24 contains:

“Though I spoke to Sunakkhatta like this, he still left this teaching and training, like someone on the highway to hell.”

Maybe as a reference to AC\DC??