The Proto-History of Buddhist Translation, lecture by Jan Nattier

The Proto-History of Buddhist Translation: From Gāndhārī and Pāli to Han-Dynasty Chinese

Discussions of the history of Buddhist translation usually begin with China, where in the middle of the second century Buddhist scriptures were translated into a non-Indian language for the first time. Yet the process of translation itself began many centuries earlier, when the words of the Buddha were rendered into a multitude of Indian vernaculars. Beginning with a brief sketch of these intra-Indian translations, I will then turn to the earliest Chinese Buddhist translations, focusing on the variety of “translation policies” used by their second-century translators and comparing them with the strategies subsequently employed in Tibet and elsewhere. I will conclude with a few remarks on the special challenges posed by translating these foundational works into English, in particular how best to proceed when “translating a translation.”


The Nikayas reflect different ordination lineages. I was not aware of that. Buddhism was the first spiritual tradition to be written down. Amazing.Thanks Javier. Jan is a great speaker.

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@Javier thank you tremendously for this article. We have actually used the information provided by Dr. Nattier to help us decide a pronunciation issue for SuttaCentral Voice. Specifically, it allows us to consider adapting Asian Pali pronunciation to help serve global listeners (vs. only Asian listeners) using the simple metric that what is spoken should be distinguishable to different native listeners. Dr. Natiers point about the restrictive dissemination promulgated by a highly regulated oral transmission really brought it home. Writing down the transmission was truly revolutionary. It was literally an open source initiative. Therefore any pronunciation that cannot be distinguished by global ears is not as good as a pronunciation that can be distinguished by global ears.


Thanks for that, Javier. Any day I learn something is a good day.


Very informative, with many implications. Many thanks for sharing! :slight_smile:

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Thank you for sharing. Dr Nattier was both informative and enjoyable to listen to.

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Fully agree!



The Vinaya story mentioned by Nattier in Cullavagga is understood by Levman as follows:

The Buddha wanted his very words, in his own vocabulary and designations, memorized, repeated and recited. This is the gist of the Cullavagga incident, and the significance of the phrase sakaya niruttiya. (Levman, Bryan Geoffrey (2008-2009): Sakaya niruttiya revisited. In: Bulletin D’Etudes Indiennes 26-27, S. 33–51).