The Art of Translation

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:

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.


Is this from the above translations

This an example of that? Or is

own-being, own-beingness

An example of that, or are both?

I will confess that I likely find “Buddhist Hybrid English” so ubiquitous that I do not notice it. Nothing seemed exceptionally strange in the initial translations you provided.

Perhaps this is something that those heavily exposed to Buddhist literature don’t notice. After all, it seems just to be in-group language.


The benefit to the antiquarian grammarian style, the much-maligned KJV-esque school of translation, is that you can follow the English on a clause-by-clause basis and find correspondence in the source text.

The more conversational and vernacular you want to get, the more you cannot do that with a translation.

In the end, that is only really of interest, though, to people who are interested in the source text.

Take the KJV, for instance (or a newer version, the NRSV). With these versions, you can look directly at the Greek/Hebrew/Aramaic and see the same sequences of ideas introduced in the same order, however much creative shuffling this might require for an English rendering.

The English of the KJV, although paradoxically called beautiful and foundational to English literature, a self-fulfilling prophetical identification, could also be considered quite messy.

Full of oddities like

The Lord is a man of war, the Lord is his name, he has cast pharaoh’s chariots and his army into the sea, his chosen captains are sunk in the Red Sea.

It’s full of redundant repetitions, but they are in the source text. Why? Because the source text is a song, with a certain rhythm and a certain meter. How to render this into English? The question is the same for Buddhist gāthā.

Monty Python brilliantly rips on the awkward sentences of the English Bible, if anyone has seen Monty Python and the Holy Grail or The Meaning of Life.

I see the situation much the same for Buddhist translations.

Do we really need a “The Message//REMIX” for Buddhism, wherein the annunciation scene reads:

Good morning!
You’re beautiful with God’s beauty,
Beautiful inside and out!
God be with you.
(Luke 1:26-38, approximately, from The Message//REMIX)

This is obviously the opposite extreme, though.

I can’t imagine how brutal they would have been to Buddhism for all its religious trappings, had they grown up in a Buddhist society, instead of Anglican.


This is definitely a huge debate among translators, especially Bible translators, and ultimately, the solution has become to have many different translations, with some on the vernacular end and some on the literal translation end. I think that Sujato has done a fine job of it here, but as you note, has chosen not to go all the way to the fully vernacular and has kept some of the feel of the pali, which I think is good.

Eventually someone else will come along and do a more vernacular, everyday english translation, but the problem of that will be that, like most vernacular translations, it hides the messiness and nuance of the original and makes it difficult to identify key vocabulary terms. But that won’t matter because it will be for its own particular audience.

And so it goes.


Hopefully this is not too off-topic, but to finish my point about divergent translations, that section of The Message//REMIX, in a more conservative style of translation, generally reads:

Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women.

This has a general correspondence with the source text, whereas the Message//REMIX is obviously looser.

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Hi Jayarava,

Yes, you’re quite right, we should have more readable and idiomatic translations, and should back off on the fetishization of the word. This is a huge problem in Buddhism generally, and in translations in particular.

But I’d also add a few qualifications!

Firstly, not to get all defensive about it, bit I do think my rendering of this passage is a step forward. All the other versions you quote have terms that are not really standard English: “such wise, not elsewise”, “this/that conditionality”, “not-otherwiseness”, and so on. I retain a more or less literal rendering, but at least all of the words are pretty much standard, even if they are used in sometimes technical ways.

What matters here is the translation project. What are we trying to achieve? My goal was to make a translation that was freely available, accurate, and consistent. In doing so, I wanted to make it more readable and approachable than former translations. But I was thinking in terms of evolution, not revolution.

While the passage you’ve chosen is a famous one, I also translated hundreds of obscure and difficult passages, some of which had never really been accurately translated. The project of getting the suttas translated into even the inadequate form we have is far from complete.

But here’s the rub: it’s easy to be a critic. Griffith’s salvo sounds impressive, but what did he actually translate? Maybe he did some, I’m not sure. But translating a passage here and there is very different than translating a major body of work. Your ideas about what you think should work constantly collide against the reality of what is in the texts. You thing a rendering is fine, but months later you realize it’s just not making it. So you go back and change it, and again, and again. Consistency, accuracy, unambiguity, clarity, readability: all are tugging at your elbow, nudging you this way and that. Translation is a series of compromises and concessions, each one of which is glaring and painful to no-one more than the translator.

Having said which, I would definitely support the development of more idiomatic translations. Should anyone be interested to work on this, we would give what help we can.


Yes! The issue you have highlighted here with the development of Buddhist Hybrid English, although I had not heard the term before, has definitely been a hindrance to understanding for me. I can only hope that someday someone will attempt a translation more focused on the overall meaning and context of the sentence or paragraph structure as you have described above.

In general I find Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s translations much easier to read than some of the other earlier translations due to the removal of much of the repetitive content, the greater use of idiomatic english and the explanations he gives for why he chooses to use certain english words over more traditionally used words.

Bhante Sujato is much the same, I love his use of ‘situational awareness’ for example as I understand the meaning of that term very well. It’s use gives a more nuanced and deeper understanding of the need to develop the ability to maintain continuous, full contextual awareness of all current mental phenomena rather than the more usual rendering of having ‘clear comprehension’ or of being ‘fully alert’ or ‘fully aware’ does.

I would love to see someone with sufficient technical understanding of Pali and a clear understanding of the path of practice attempt to translate a more idiomatic english version, I am sure it would make the dhamma even more accessible to those from non traditional cultures. The work done here on SC by Bhante Sujato and others has already gone a long way down that road but certainly a more idiomatic translation could be of great benefit to native english speakers and readers like myself.


This is quite correct. I think rather than aiming for one correct or standard translation there should many translations to match with differing degrees of proficiency in English, not to mention translation into other languages. I might add some of the Sinhala translations are in very old scholarly Sinhala and is hard for most Sinhala speakers to grasp- but that there are any Sinhala translations at all is a near miracle!.

There’s something to be said for different fonts, aesthetics, hardcopies-electronic documents, websites, text-to-speech, podcasts etc for maximum use of these texts.

with metta


Not to be funny, but it isn’t. It’s easy to have an opinion. Sure. But its very hard to read a text in Pāli, Sanskrit, Chinese. Its hard to collect, read, and assess all the secondary material. Its hard to be well enough informed to be an effective critic.

It is true that some people approach problems on a large scale. All of the people who have translated the Nikāyas do this. It’s a difficult job and I acknowledge that it takes skill and perseverance. And overall we do have a very good level of access to the Nikāyas that can only be surpassed by actually learning Pāli.

However, as I said, I’m not a translator, I’m a historian of ideas. I work at the level of single ideas. I can spend all the time I need on a single passage, literally years in the case of the Heart Sutra. I want to see how that word changed it’s meaning over centuries. Or how the underlying concept emerged and evolved. I notice things like only the Theravāda versions of the Paccaya Sutta added idapaccayatā. No one has ever noticed this before, even Lamotte who looked at all the same source texts did not comment on it.

So my complaint is very specific on one hand (about details that any translator with 1000s of pages to translate is apt to overlook simply because of the scale of their project) and very general on the other (translators of Buddhist texts all take the same approach).

I’m happy to grant that you did a good job as far as the task you set yourself goes. And I’m sure that you made sense of some previously obscure passages. Will we see any articles on these? And yes, it can be agonising. More so when one is actually editing a famous text in a source language because not only did the modern editor botch it, but the ancient editor was even worse.

In the case of this passage, you are using the same method of translation as all the others. Even if yours is the best of the bunch, which may well be a fair assessment, it is still an example of Buddhist Hybrid English. Your choice of vocab may well be better but you are still mostly translating word for word and following the Pāli syntax. At best you manage to rescue some of the phrases, but the sentences are all still bound to Pāli syntax.

It is true that as a Pāli student I have often grateful for this style of translation, because one can use them as a commentary on the text. I learned a lot about commentarial Pāli, for example, from reading Bodhi’s notes from Spk along with the Pāli text.

This is a problem that I had not thought to raise. That people think that Buddhist Hybrid English translations have the “feel” of the Pāli. This impression is entirely false. The “feel” of reading idiomatic Pāli is nothing like the “feel” of reading the broken English of modern translations. Pāli literature is seldom beautiful and often stitled and emotionally flat in its own way, but the only way to get a feel for Pāli, is to learn Pāli.

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This is a good thing?

Like I said before, we don’t need “The Message//REMIX” in Buddhism.

Or compare that with these translations:

Where the Buddha hangs out with Angels in the Kingdom of God.

Let’s take a Pāli sentence:

Arahaṃ sammāsambuddho bhagavā
Buddhaṃ bhagavantaṃ abhivādemi
Svākkhāto bhagavatā dhammo
Dhammaṃ namassāmi
Supaṭipanno bhagavato sāvakasaṅgho
Saṅghaṃ namāmi.

How do you translate this to avoid “Buddhist Hybrid English”?

How do you translate this? Why is it important that the English syntax be opposed to the Pāli syntax?

It is quite easy to make the order of ideas introduced in the Pāli correspond with the English. Why not do this, other than to cater to others’ poor reading comprehension?

Why is a translation into “idiomatic” English a good thing to have? What’s so great about English idioms?


The approach to the texts is progressive.
First, people should avoid suttas with no parallels.
Then, they might want to stick to the most doctrinal part, which has its counterpart in the Saṃyuktāgama. This narrows the scope to about 1300 suttas *.
The more literal the translation is, the better it is.
Once a somewhat understanding of how things fit together, one should turn to lexicography, to understand the real meaning of uncomprehensible, unclear and/or vague words.
For that matter, one should turn to the litterature around the time of Buddha.
Meanings that keep the same significations before and after Buddha’s time should be preferred.
(Note that the litterature at the time of Buddha, was predominantly connected to the Vedas - particularly the Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa, Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad and Chāndogya Upaniṣad - but any pre-Buddhist text will do).

Coupled with that, one should read the two most important Vedas, viz. the Rigveda and the Yajurveda. Or one should get acquainted through the Indian philosophy, by reading books by the “locals” themselves; such as the pre-Buddhist sections in “A History of Indian Philosophy” by Surendranath Dasgupta; or in “Indian Philosophy” by Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan.

Once one has a real understanding of the subject matter, one might want to learn Pali and its grammar to really get into it.

Accessorily, one might want to learn Chinese and Sanskrit. But late translations always bear the bias of interpretation. Therefore, one should rather stick to the parallel per se. That is to say that one should just rely on the presence of the same passages in both texts, and always prefer the Pali, over any other languages.

*Then one might read the other suttas with parallels.

And it is up to each one to make his/her own interpretation of the texts; if interpretations there could be.
“Own kamma”, I presume.


I personally don’t really know what “The Art of Translation” is about, but I do know that good translations should be accurately translated and easily understood by anyone who reads them. Therefore, I don’t think translations in idiomatic English are needed, if at all. As long as those who read them can understand the messages in the translations, that’s all that matters in my opinion.

@suci1 I disagree with your opinion about parallels. Take the Discourse of Bakkula (MN 124 and MA 34) for example, even though this discourse is preserved by both Theravada and Sarvastivada schools, it’s clearly later than many other discourses. I suspect that there are more of this kind of discourses (like a certain discourse, which I don’t remember exactly where, where Buddha allegedly showed his lower private body part through his psychic power and his tongue by wrapping his whole face with it to some brahmins).

There is also the infamous story of the foundation of nuns. It’s preserved in many Vinayas, but the story itself is quite different and inconsistent among the extant Vinayas. It’s very likely to have been added or altered after the death of the Buddha.

Also, when it comes to Anguttara Nikaya in particular, there is no close parallel collection since the Ekottara Agama is very different from it. So the lack of parallels for discourses in the Anguttara Nikaya is much less significant than the lack of parallels for discourses in the 3 other Nikayas/Agamas. In this case you have to use internal materials to determine whether a discourse is authentic or not. Take AN 5.229 for example, where it claims that the Buddha compares women to black snakes. Even though it lacks parallels, we know that it’s a later discourse because the “teachings” that appear in this discourse appear only in this particular discourse, not anywhere else. While other discourses in the same collection can be contended for being early, even though they currently lack parallels.

In some cases, discourses in Agamas have been proven to preserve the “more original” versions than the Pali ones (of course, the reverse is also true in some cases as well). This is evident in DN 26 and MA 70 regarding the story of Metteyya, where he is evidently a later addition to this discourse. So, there’s really no reason to favour Pali language over other languages that are used by other early Buddhist schools (unless you favour Pali because the Pali Canon is more “complete” than the Agamas).

Indeed. It is impossible to know how many of the Pāli texts had parallels because most Buddhist texts don’t survive the ages. It strikes me as odd to assume we still have most of them. No one really assumed that, though.

The parallels that are still around are useful, but that is hardly an exhaustive account of what has existed.

@suci1 I still disagree with your opinion about parallels though. You may be able to learn early Buddhist doctrines by studying Samyukta Agama and Samyutta Nikaya only, but I see no reason to limit oneself to only them.

Sure, the Samyukta/Samyutta division is the earliest among the Agamas/Nikayas but does that undermine the authenticity of other Agamas/Nikayas? In my personal opinion, it doesn’t. As @Coemgenu said, parallels are useful but most Buddhist texts don’t survive. Having parallels is one of many criteria of judging a discourse’s authenticity, but it’s not the only criterion. I don’t find avoiding discourses which have no parallels at all, or those that have no parallels in Samyukta Agama useful. There are many discourses in other Agamas/Nikayas which aren’t that related to the main early Buddhist doctrines, but they are beautiful, inspiring, and practical nonetheless. Avoiding those discourses would be such a shame, in my opinion. Then again, when it comes to parallels and studying the early Buddhist texts, in this case, we can only agree to disagree.

The comments about Buddhist Hybrid English translations are interesting since I read many of them (mostly Mahayana texts), but never really noticed them until I found this topic. They just seem natural, for the lack of a better word (I suspect that I’m actually so used to them that I didn’t really notice). Though, I can see that this kind of translations can be confusing for those who are not familiar with Buddhist texts in general. If translations of Buddhist texts can use less of Buddhist Hybrid English, then that would make those translations more accessible to readers.

There’s also “Buddhist Hybrid Thai” as well, and believe me they are terrible. They are bad not in the sense of being inaccurate translations, but they are bad when it comes to getting messages in the texts across to the readers. You can barely understand them, reading English translations is a much better alternative for those who know English. Or, if you know Chinese, you can opt for the Chinese translations of the Pali texts, or the Chinese Agamas.

Still, I don’t see the point of idiomatic English translations. Using simple English that can be understood even by those whose English is not their first language is very beneficial in my opinion, just like Bhante Sujato’s translations.


I’ll just say: “when in doubt, refrain”. Particularly when doubt brings ambiguity.

So I will stick to the certainty of the Nikayas with parallels in SA, if you don’t mind.
Which does not prevent me to read other suttas with parallels in MA, EA, and DA.
My take.


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Something very similar happened in the Old Church Slavic translations of the Bible that not only tried to stick to the Coine Greek wordings as close as possible but also used word for word translations of the Greek syntactical structures that never existed in any Slavic language, e.g. Accusativus cum Infinitivo. The resulting text has existed largely unchanged for over 1,000 years. It is very likely that similar English and German constructions (‘I saw him go’, ‘Ich sah ihn gehen’) were also a result of the Biblical and Latin syntax. Besides, I am really curious how readable the translations of the Greek Church Fathers are in Indic or Sino-Burmese languages. I suspect most of them are a dense wall of weird philosophical gobbledygook ‘comprehensible only to the initiate’.

My point is calling the Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit a barbaric language and complaining about the bastardization of English in Buddhist translations does not do justice to them. It is a more or less regular process that we are partially blind to in our own culture as we do not necessarily take into account the diachronical analysis of Germanic or Slavic syntax when analyzing Buddhist texts.

As for your criticism of existing translations being too literal-minded in rendering the Pali syntax, I agree to an extent. Still, I think you underestimate the power of pragmatics a little bit. The first and most important question when we translate a text is ‘who and what we are translating it for?’ It can be answered more explicitly, as it is in Ven. Sujato’s case, more implicitly as it was in the earlier Nikayan translations or not answered at all.

Of course, it is painfully obvious to us all there is no single answer to this question. depending on what we are translating a text for, our translations will be different. If we want to ‘catechize’ a wide audience in the Buddhist teachings, your ideas about the syntax are 100% valid and opting for the English syntax and modern vocabulary is the way to go. If we want to create a ‘sacred text’ inspiring awe and general Freudian oceanic feeling, retaining the Pali syntax and using archaic vocabulary are way better. Finally, when addressing an ‘advanced’ Buddhist audience, emulating the Pali syntax is essential because it would allow us to account for the initial pragmatics of the source text and convey as much of the intended meaning as possible even if it requires some learning on the reader’s part and violates the existing language norms - it always did, down to Heidegger and Hegel.

In short, there cannot and should not be a single translation fulfilling all the functions of a text in a given culture. Your ideas are great and intriguing, but they are only true for a certain subset of possible translations intended for a wide Western non-Buddhist audience. Finally, Griffith’s thesis that the Buddhist Hybrid anything is barbaric and has a deteriorating effect on languages is untenable, any great religious or cultural traditions has exactly the same effects.


The Sanskrit Bible is famous for being extremely philosophical, and very creative in trying to draw cultural parallels, but it is a very loose translation.

They translate the word “church”, for instance, as svāmaṇḍala, “own-circle”, referring to “our territory”.

The phrase “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.” becomes

you are the deathless lord’s christ-son.

Amareśvara, the deathless lord, is a repurposed title of Śivamaheśvara, Shiva.