Last week I posted some notes about the Chinese and Sanskrit versions of the Paccaya Sutta. Today I have been looking at the many English translations and have been struck by a feature that they all share. I’m looking at two extracts from each. Here they all are in chronological order:
Whether, brethren, there be an arising of Tathāgatas, or whether there be no such arising, this nature of things just stands, this causal status, this causal orderliness, the relatedness of this to that… Thus, brethren, that which here is such wise, not elsewise not otherwise, the relatedness of this to that:-this, brethren is called causal happening. (Rhys Davids 1922: II.21)
Whether Tathaagatas [sic] appear or do not appear, this nature of things continues, this relatedness of phenomena, this regularity of phenomena, this law of conditionality… So, bhikkhus, that which herein is a reality and not an unreality and not otherwise, this law of conditionality — this, bhikkhus, is called Dependent Arising. (Ireland 1981)
Whether or not there is the arising of Tathagatas, this property stands — this regularity of the Dhamma, this orderliness of the Dhamma, this this/that conditionality… What’s there in this way is a reality, not an unreality, not other than what it seems, conditioned by this/that. This is called dependent co-arising. (Thanissaro 1997)
Whether there is an arising of Tathāgatas or no arising of Tathāgatas, that element still persists, the stableness of the Dhamma, the fixed course of the Dhamma, specific conditionality… Thus, bhikkhus, the actuality in this, the inerrancy, the not-otherwiseness, specific conditionality: this is called dependent origination (Bodhi 2000: 551)
Whether there is the arising of Tathagatas [Buddhas thus come] or no arising of Tathagatas, this element stands as the fixity of things, the order of things, a specific conditionality… Thus, bhikshus, is the suchness therein, the inerrancy, the invariability, the causal conditionality. This, bhikshus, is called dependent arising (Tan 2012)
Whether Realized Ones arise or not, this law of nature persists, this regularity of natural principles, this invariance of natural principles, specific conditionality… So the fact that this is real, not unreal, not otherwise; the specific conditionality of it: this is called dependent origination. (Sujato 2018)
Buddhist Hybrid English
What I notice about all of these translations is that they are using English vocabulary, but sticking closely to the Pāli syntax. As long ago as 1981, predating all but two of these translations, Paul Griffiths pointed out this problem with translations of Buddhist texts, coining the term Buddhist Hybrid English. for the phenomenon. (Link to the article as pdf: https://journals.ub.uni-heidelberg.de/index.php/jiabs/article/download/8546/2453).
Griffith’s opening paragraph–one is tempted to call it a “salvo”–is worth citing in extenso,
Buddhist thought has a strange, and in many respects deplorable, effect upon language; in India it produced that barbaric language we usually call by the equally barbaric name of Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit, a language in which large numbers of long, repetitive, obscure, and subtle works were composed over a period of more than a thousand years. It forced the Tibetans to invent not only an alphabet but also what was in effect a new language, the most mechanical form of translationese which the world has yet seen. It managed to disturb even the severe balance and precise rhythms of classical Chinese. And it is now in process of wreaking its havoc upon the English language, creating a dialect comprehensible only to the initiate, written by and for Buddhologists, a dialect which has provided the title for this paper: Buddhist Hybrid English.
Now, I’m not a translator, I am a historian of ideas. So I make no pretence to being able to do a better job at translating. But I know exactly what Griffiths is talking about and I’ve just read six examples of that approach to translation above. None is in idiomatic English.
Part of the problem is that Pāli translators seem to be hung up on a style of translation that we might call word-for-word. This approach emphasises the individual words and takes them as the basic unit of translation. Given the fetishisation of terminology in Buddhism, I can see why translators might feel they have to take this approach. To be seen to “mistranslate” a technical term is to lose credibility.
There are often strong opinions amongst Buddhists, who have no Pāli beyond a selection of jargon terms, on what counts as an acceptable translation of such words. Thus the translator is constrained to shoehorn their translation into a mould that is never going to make for great literature. And let’s face it, most of the Pāli Tripiṭaka is not great literature to start with.
An example in the text above is tathāgata. Which is mostly left untranslated, though Tan adds one of the traditional parsings parenthetically, i.e. “Buddhas thus come”, which is misleading at best, but also probably wrong since the word is almost certainly tathā-gata on the same model as su-gata and the dozens of other words ending with -gata. I can’t find any unambiguous examples of a compound with -āgata.
Only Sujato ventures something English, i.e. “Realized Ones” (though with the American spelling). This is OK as a translation of the word. Rather than slavishly following the traditional folk etymology and using a version of “thus gone” or “thus come”, Sujato at least seems to be cognizant of Pāli grammar. As pointed out by Richard Gombrich some years ago, -gata as the second member of a compound seldom takes the meaning “gone”, but instead means (very roughly) “being”. Pāli examples include hadayagata “learned by heart”, hatthagata “being in possession of”, sāmaññagata, “united”, and so on.
Tathāgata therefore means “being that way” or “in that state” or as Sujato puts is “Realized”. Arguably, he has a model for “the realized ones” in “the lucky ones”, or “the chosen ones”. But why the Realized Ones with initial capitals? It is a way of marking important religious terms that we get from the Bible. Conze was also very fond of capitalising such terms. They are not simply realized, but Realized. Lacking capital letters, Buddhists often marked important words using prefixes such as brahma- or later ārya- or vajra-.
On the other hand as the six translations above make clear, we are not at all agreed on how to translate the words. Translators feel bound to tinker with the existing translations, without really adding anything new in the process because they all take the same approach (and I would argue, none appears to have any greater insight into the meaning of the text than any other). Sometimes when I read a new translation, I am reminded of the book Everything Is Illuminated, by Jonathan Safran Foer. One of the central characters learned English by reading a thesaurus and always chooses the wrong synonym (usually with comic effect).
The recent issue of Contemporary Buddhism (18.2), makes clear just how bad things can get, with a dozen or more articles dedicated to a single technical term, i.e. vedanā. My contribution to that issue was to argue that since the word was defined arbitrarily, there was no semantic argument that could produce the ideal English translation. What the word vedanā means is not a matter of semantics at all, but of pragmatics. But I’m shouting into a hurricane.
Translating for English Speakers
The alternative, and by far the superior method of translating, is to translate sentence-by-sentence. This puts much more burden on the translator because they have to comprehend the sentence as a whole and then render it into idiomatic English. The trouble is that the resulting text may well be unfamiliar to Buddhists looking for their precious jargon terms.
So to go out on a limb, and recalling that I am a historian of ideas rather than a translator, what would an idiomatic English translation of this phrase look like?
uppādā vā tathāgatānaṃ anuppādā vā tathāgatānaṃ, ṭhitāva sā dhātu dhammaṭṭhitatā dhammaniyāmatā idappaccayatā… Iti kho, bhikkhave, yā tatra tathatā avitathatā anaññathatā idappaccayatā—ayaṃ vuccati, bhikkhave, paṭiccasamuppādo (SN II.25-6)
There is an enduring principle, which exists whether or not anyone notices it. Phenomena only arise when the necessary and sufficient condition is present… [This sequence of conditioned phenomena] is what it is, and we call it “conditionality”.
No doubt this is a poor effort, but I’m only trying to give a flavour of it. This is what the Pāli says in modern English terms as far as I can make out. One need not be shackled to the Pāli syntax and idiom when translating, because as Paul Griffiths points out this practice is “wreaking havoc” on the English language.
Note that often in Pāli we get several words meaning the same thing as a kind of autocommentary. So dhammaṭṭhitatā and dhammaniyāmatā are not two distinct terms, but two very closely related words for the same thing, with slightly different nuances. They point to a single concept (indeed a single principle or dhātu) and we are not bound to translate both words individually.
Also note that rather than get tangled up in separately parsing tathatā, avitathatā, and anaññatathatā, I see that they all mean exactly the same thing with no distinctions (i.e. suchness, non-un-suchness, and non-anti-suchness). I might have expanded my translation to “[It] is what it is, it isn’t what it is not, and it is not otherwise.” But I’m only labouring a point that doesn’t need to be laboured in our culture.
What might have been appropriate to an oral culture in Iron Age India is not necessarily so to a hyper-literature modern culture. We are not only literate, but through the internet have access to vast resources that were scarcely imaginable earlier in my own lifetime! I seldom need to go to the library any more, because most of the resources I need to consult are available to me via the internet. Rather than multiple synonyms, I can just provide hyperlinks to dictionaries, for example: niyāmatā.
I find it strange that 137 years after the founding of the Pali Text Society we have yet to see a definitive English translation. And worse, the number of alternate translations that offer nothing more than changing a few words around seems to be on the rise. Less than two decades into the 21st Century and we already have more translations of the Nikāyas than were completed in the whole of the 20th Century. But none of them really adds much to the project of translating Buddhism into English.
Some will argue that the language changes, so new translations will always be necessary. I agree that Caroline Rhys Davids translation sounds extremely dated, but she didn’t talk like that in real life in 1922. She adopted a faux archaic English because that was how she assumed a religious text should sound. The model was, and sometimes still is, the King James Bible (even though few Christians even use it these days). None of the new translations adds anything much in terms of English idiom after John Ireland (1981). The language that translators adopt has not changed since then, even if the vernacular has shifted a little.
If we compare the situation to China, there were a few centuries of pfaffing around and then Kumārajīva’s translation group produced the texts that spoke to the Chinese religious imagination and became the standard texts. Indic languages, as here and now, were the preserve of specialists, and the Chinese soon forgot that the Buddha did not write in Chinese. Kumārajīva’s 5th Century translations remain the standard for most popular Buddhist texts in the Sinosphere. Xuanzang was arguably more accurate, but his translations are seen as inelegant and cumbersome. They never supplanted Kumārajīva’s.
The modern West has many advantages over the early medieval Chinese translators: most especially in two areas. 1. We have the Pāli and Chinese Canons at our fingertips and can electronically search both, though nothing comparable exists yet for the Sanskrit Buddhist texts; 2. the scientific study of languages (inaugurated when Europeans discovered Sanskrit and Pāṇīni) has vastly improved our comprehension of
We ought to be very far ahead of our medieval Chinese counterparts in assimilating Buddhism to English. We do have the disadvantage of receiving many different sects of Buddhism simultaneously, which requires us to assimilate a broad range of ideologies, many of which are mutually incompatible. However, even within the sects which look to the Pāli Tipiṭaka there seems to be no consensus on how to render the texts into English nor any great thought going into how one should go about doing it. Everyone who learns Pāli considers themselves a translator, it seems; but almost no one is studying translation as a subject (one can do degrees in it).
And now the brightest minds are all learning Chinese to compare the Āgama texts instead of sorting out Pāli. 137 years of the PTS and we still cannot agree on how to translate vedanā into English, but we do know how the Chinese wrote it. Worse, the translations of the Chinese texts into English follow much the same methods and produce much the same results.