Translating Pāli Words (essay inside, not link)

This is an appendix from my book What You Might Not Know about Jhāna & Samādhi:

In Part 2, I proposed English words I deemed better fit the meaning and usage of some Pāli words. They may not suit you, and that’s okay, because from a practical viewpoint, the question for each of us as spiritual practitioners is this: Do the words I depend on to understand the practice work for me? In other words, do they help me to practise in a way that leads to ending suffering? If so, then let me use them. If not, then let me avoid them. Personal pragmatism is sufficient for personal use.

However, to communicate with others, more is needed. To communicate, how we normally use words is not as important as how the audience understands them. While we know what we mean, others may not. This matter is particularly pertinent when we translate for others. Since in this case one is not translating for oneself, using words that merely satisfy oneself is inadequate. So is merely going by popular translations. When the audience misunderstands, the translation has failed. For example, in translating samādhi, if one intends to mean “collectedness”, yet translates it as “concentration”, and the reader takes it to mean “focused attention”—the translation has failed. In translating, w e need to put our audience first.

Choose Only the Best One

Although translations cannot be perfect, we should try our best. When translating a word, we should try to choose from the vast supply in the target language t he one word that our audience is most likely to understand correctly. To this end, we need to consider how the majority is most likely to perceive a considered word within the context. By all means, we should be finicky. For example, Āyasmā Anālayo and Ajahn Ṭhānissaro both use “absorption” for jhāna, yet they widely disagree on what it means. I think for most people “absorption” aligns better with Āyasmā Anālayo’s idea of jhāna. They are likely to think of it like “absorbed in thought”, meaning being so occupied with thinking that one is not conscious of anything else. This isn’t like what Ajahn Ṭhānissaro means by the same word, as we can see in the instances quoted in this book. To convey his idea of jhāna, perhaps he could find a more suitable English word.

To achieve this goal of choosing the best word, we should choose the word most semantically congruent to the source. For example, if a Pāli word can mean x, y and z, we should try to choose a word in the target language that can also mean x, y and z. If that word is available, yet we choose two words instead—say, one that can mean only x and another only y and z—and decide for ourselves which to use where, we have overstepped the translator’s job: We have added interpretations, narrowing down the meaning in each case.

Thus, using multiple words when we have the option to use one makes it too easy for us to be influenced by our biases. In doing so, we may convey meanings unintended in the original. A case in point is switching between “pleasure” and “bliss” for sukha as one deems fit. The risk is unnecessary because we can choose just one word: “happiness”. Moreover, when readers find different English words, especially within the same piece of translation, they will likely assume the words are translated from different Pāli words, thus possibly misconstrue what they read. Such problems can be avoided simply by choosing only one most semantically congruent word.

Another aspect to consider is metaphor. A spiritual teacher is likely to understand the power of metaphor in conveying spiritual teachings, and therefore try to use it effectively. Thus the translator should also aim for metaphoric congruence. Combined with the earlier principle, this means choosing the best word to deliver both literal and figurative meanings of the original, e.g. translating kaṇṭaka as “thorn”. Doing so has an added advantage: As the Pāli word shifts between the literal and figurative within a text, we can then more easily translate consistently.

Admittedly, limiting ourselves to only one choice for each Pāli word is sometimes unworkable. Sometimes, we just have to use more than one. If the case is merely a matter of usage, not meaning, then perhaps there’s no reason to object; e.g. using “inner” and “internal” for ajjhattaṁ, or “thought” and “thinking” for vitakka.

However, if it’s not merely a matter of usage, I would try to reduce the number of translations. I would avail to myself the least possible options. For instance, a word is being translated in four different ways. Perhaps two of them can be replaced with another that covers both meanings, and of the remaining two, one can actually cover the meaning of the other. Thus, only two remain. Or perhaps—in the context of translating the Suttas—one of them should actually be discarded because it is there only to convey a commentarial meaning not supported by the Suttas.

In any case, we should not assume we need to use multiple options whenever we find it unworkable to stick to just one. We should ask if it only seems unworkable because we are going by certain possibly incorrect interpretations—traditional, popular, idiosyncratic or otherwise. To sidestep that possibility, we experiment with various translations, picking one of them each time and using it consistently, even when it is inflected to different parts of speech. (There’s a good chance this is possible in translating Pāli to English as both belong to the same language group: Indo-European.) We exhaust all possible translations to try to find one that fits consistently .

Some noteworthy attempts are Ajahn Ṭhānissaro’s consistent rendering of saṅkhāra as “fabrication” and saṅkhata as “fabricated”, and pajānāti as “discern” and paññā as “discernment” (instead of “know” or “understand” and “wisdom”).1 I’ve also attempted at the same in this book, compiled in Summary of Translations (p100).

Adhering to this principle forces the translator to consider from more angles, thus limiting the possibility of translating according to mistaken interpretations. If we find consistency possible yet resist it, perhaps it would be good to ask why.

Caveat: Consistency should be applied judiciously within the same textual stratum, but not across different textual strata. If one believes that the meaning of a word has changed, one should use a different translation (perhaps with an explanation) to avoid misleading the reader. For example, I would translate jhāna in the Suttas as “meditation” and samādhi as “collectedness”, while in the Visuddhi­magga I will have them as “absorption” and “concentration” accordingly. Imposing consistency in translating words across different textual strata is unnecessary and potentially misleading.

To sum up, here are my principles of translation in order of importance:

  1. Pragmatic, fulfilling the purpose of the audience
  2. Most likely for the audience to understand correctly
  3. Most semantically congruent to the source
  4. Most metaphorically congruent to the source
  5. Most possible to translate consistently

For my translations in this book, I have tried my best to go by all the above. If you find any failure in that, please tell me.

1“Discernment” succinctly conveys what Sayadaw U Tejaniya calls “awareness+wisdom”, and what the Thai forest tradition calls “sati-paññā”. In my opinion, paññā itself covers both elements. The sayadaw says that when he practices “awareness”, it always has some level of wisdom. But since he learnt that many people don’t regard “awareness” as carrying this notion, he began to emphasise “awareness+wisdom”.

These compounds seem to be created to cope with the traditional use of sati to mean “awareness”, when it actually means “remembering” or “remembrance”. Thus, with the “awareness” part of paññā ‘hijacked’, teachers have to create new expressions to convey the original full meaning of paññā.