Towards Modern English Translation

Modern English Translations of EBTs

A primary goal I often cite when I describe my translation voice is that I aim to produce modern English translations. The truth is that I haven’t been doing that aside from a few superficial rules like “prefer contractions” and “avoid foreign loan words.” These are actually very small steps towards modern English Buddhist texts.

The reason I’ve so far balked at going fully modern with my translations is that it would require radically rewriting ancient texts that have sometimes never been translated before or only once before. Realizing that many English-speaking Buddhist readers want a fairly literal translation, I’ve kept to these small “reforms” of my style. Another reason is simply a matter of time: Editing an ancient text to conform to modern English and preserving its meaning closely adds more labor.

Something I am thinking about, however, is a project that produces more than one translation of a given text, at least as an experiment: A literal translation and a modern English translation. A literal translation is desirable for preserving the original ancient text, but a modern translation is desirable to make the content more approachable. With electronic texts, this approach is more practical than it would be with printed books.

What Would a Modern English Translation of a Chinese Āgama Text Look Like?

For starters, it wouldn’t repeat itself, which would make it quite condensed in some cases. But that’s just the biggest issue that the original texts have when we translate them literally. Let’s consider some specific things that need to change or disappear to make an Āgama text follow modern English conventions.

Verbal Quotation Cues

Oral tradition texts that have been preserved in ancient languages use standardized verbal cues that communicate meaning modern English handles with quotation marks, carriage returns, and inference.

In English today, there’s seldom a need to actually state who is talking (much less to whom they are talking) during a quoted conversation aside from minimal indications. An experienced fiction writer once told me that a writer shouldn’t need to use the word “said” more than once per page. Only a complex conversation with three or more speakers talking out of turn needs the speakers to be named explicitly throughout.

In stark contrast to these conventions, Āgama texts invariably state the speaker and often who they address when beginning a quotation. When a quotation ends, the narrator often indicates it by stating that the person listening has heard what was said.

Most of this verbiage will disappear in modern English and only the minimal amount of information needed will remain.

New Paragraph Cues

In English, we break up the events, subjects, and thoughts of a larger narrative and encapsulate them as paragraphs. Over the past century or so, this granulation of English written texts has accelerated. Modern English dislikes looonnng paragraphs. Thus, when an English writer realizes they’ve finished a more-or-less complete thought (like I’m about to do), they indicate they are moving to a new one by doing this:

Āgama texts, however, weren’t originally written documents, and ancient languages like classical Chinese often didn’t employ the concept of paragraphs, so it wasn’t possible to use this method to indicate when perspective or subject changes. Instead, Buddhist texts use explicit cues like “at that time” or “thereupon” to start what is essentially a new paragraph.

In English translation, these expressions are extraneous and repetitive. I’ve found myself “modernizing without deleting” these expressions by varying how I translate them and treating them like overly used transition words. Most of these cues can safely disappear.

Mnemonic-Aiding Repetitions

Buddhist texts repeat word-for-word formulas, and there was a good reason for that: Human memory needs to be standardized and refreshed often to avoid losing data. Thus, oral traditions designed to be memorized and recited repeated the most important information they contained.

In Āgama texts, we see what I call the “triplicate rule.” A good example of this is when a character in a narrative has a thought occur to them, they immediately tell someone else what they thought, and then the second character tells someone else or performs what they were told. Each time, the same formula is repeated with slight changes in pronouns and verb tense. Another variation of the triplicate rule is when a formula is stated, it’s opposite is stated, and then it’s positive expression is reaffirmed.

This type of repetition is the most difficult to remove when creating a modern English translation because the repetitions often form part of the narrative (like characters first thinking, then speaking and acting). Aside from the triplicate rule, Buddhist texts present repetition as a fact of life and sometimes depict the exact same formulaic events reoccurring in the same story.

Most translators like Bodhi and Sujato omit the most egregious repetitions in Pali texts with ellipses or even silently. When it comes to Chinese Āgamas, we discover that the translators were ahead of us with this problem, but they weren’t all in agreement about the best way to handle it. Literary Chinese readers didn’t like repetition any more than modern English readers, and so we see attempts to make texts flow better by referring back to the initial formula with pronouns or simple statements (e.g. “and then he told so-and-so what he had thought”). Other translators, however, felt a literal preservation of the original text was more important, so they reproduced the repetitions as unaltered as possible. The Madhyama Āgama is a good example of a literal Chinese translation in comparison to the other three Āgamas.

Producing a modern translation that eliminates mnemonic repetition will mean some of these passages are rewritten a bit if they can’t be deleted or omitted.

[More ideas are likely to occur to me and others, so I expect this essay to be continued]


Having personally benefited from repetition in modern translations, I would make an appeal to preserve repetition (even if only as a user preference). Pedagogically, repetition reinforces content and highlights differences. Deeper understandings emerge with repetition, understandings that would be lost in a non-repetitive gloss.

Intellectually this seems odd, given that “no concept is lost.” Yet there is indeed information in repetition. That lost information is emphasis and the communication of relative importance of topic.


I’m trying to memorize the suttas and these nuanced repetitions are absolutely crucial.


Yes, which is why I would produce more traditional literal translations as well. There is the repetitive chanting aspect to Buddhist scriptures. A literary translation doesn’t gain anything from the repetition. Someone who isn’t a Buddhist ends up wondering why they have to slog through a thousand words to read a couple hundred worth of actual content.


Thank you for sharing your thoughts on modern translations, Charles. There are many good points!

As @karl_lew already points out, listeners do perhaps have slightly different needs compared to readers. They need a bit more repetition for the text to be easily intelligible; not the full scale of what is already abbreviated in the root texts though (Pali too has already a lot of abbreviation)—in that case a sutta like MN 1 would take over 4 hours to listen to! :scream:

In my translation work I try to have both readers and listeners in mind. :slightly_smiling_face:



Yes, I’ve done the same since I’m only producing one version of the text.

To be clear, I’m not proposing that I would put these more concise translations on SuttaCentral. Preserving the existing texts more-or-less as they are in Chinese is the higher priority, and those translations would be what SuttaCentral is interested in sharing.

There is a general audience out there, though, who have cultural norms that make traditional Buddhist texts difficult to read. I’m just thinking of creative ways to make the wisdom that exists in ancient texts more accessible to a wider audience.


:bowing_woman: Yes, that’s great!


Thanks for the considerations. These all sound well-thought out as always.

In the Bible world, they have multiple sets of good translations, with different emphases and focuses. People have their preferences. I certainly think there’s room for more “dynamic” than literal translations.

It is really affected by the translation scope, as well. Doing a few suttas for a class or a compilation, it’s a lot easier to be free with the renderings. I constantly encountered cases where I thought a freer rendering would work, then had to backtrack because of some other context.