The Problems and Limitations of Beal’s translation of Taisho 190
Samuel Beal’s book The Romantic Legend of Sakya Buddha is the only translation available in English of the Chinese version of what we might call a Mahavastu parallel. Beal opined that it may be a translation of the Abhiniskramana by the Dharmaguptakas, and my understanding is that a Tibetan translation exists of that text, but I’m not able to access it or read Tibetan. For now I’ll continue referring to the text as Abhiniskramana.
After examining the first few chapters of Beal’s translation against the Chinese and the Jones translation of the Mahavastu, I can see a number of problems that readers should understand.
1. He Abridged His Translation
Beal’s interest was in the story of the Buddha, so he skips over material that isn’t related to that story or that he felt was too tedious or difficult to translate. He may have also been trying to keep it to a single volume. Taisho 190 is a large text about the size of the Madhyama Agama.
This being the case, the English reader shouldn’t assume because material doesn’t appear in Beal’s translation that it isn’t in the original. For example, the elaborate history of Dipankara Buddha we find in the Mahavastu is also in Taisho 190, but Beal reduces it to a couple paragraphs about the Buddha making a bridge for Dipankara to walk over and receiving his prediction of future Buddhahood.
On the other hand, Taisho 190 is missing large bits that are in the Mahavastu, like the material about the bodhisattva career and the ten bhumis. So, we can’t compared the Chinese against the Mahavastu using Beal’s translation.
I’m comparing his translation to the Chinese and noting where significant omissions take place.
2. Beal Confuses Fascicles with Chapters
Beal conflates fascicles with actual chapters in his translation, which will confuse anyone who isn’t familiar with Chinese Buddhist texts. The Chinese divided large texts into individual scrolls or volumes that are fairly brief by modern standards. Beal starts a new “Chapter” for each fascicle but also includes the actual chapter headings of the Indic text. To make matters more confusing, Taisho 190 has the same number of fascicles as it does chapters (60), but the chapters often span multiple fascicles.
One of the things I’ll be doing with the html version is to create a table of contents and divide the text into appropriate chapters with my own headings.
3. Beal’s understanding of Buddhist Chinese isn’t the best
This last point is not really a criticism. Beal was a pioneer in translating Buddhist Chinese texts and it’s exceptionally arcane work to do without the benefit of modern scholarship. Beal gets some terms wrong, and he doesn’t understand the grammar at times. However, you certainly get the gist of the text from his translation.
At some point in the future, I’ll be taking up a long-dormant project from about 7 years ago to translate this text. That’s about all that can be done to correct some of the errors. With the Agama project already slated for next year, though, it’ll just be sporadic work when I need a break from other projects.