I’d like to take the chance to announce a project that I have been working towards for the past several months. Many people have heard about this already, so it is no great secret, but I haven’t taken the chance to formally announce it in public.
I am taking an 18 month sabbatical, during which time I plan to translate the 4 nikāyas from Pali into English; or at least, as much of them as I can.
My aim in doing this is to create an entirely new set of translations, which will differ from previous translations in several ways:
- Plain English: I aim to use the simplest, most direct language possible, with a special consideration for people who have English as a second language.
- Natively Digital: The translation is intended from the outset to be a digital text, and will be matched sentence by sentence with the underlying Pali.
- No Copyright: In accordance with 2500 years of Buddhist tradition, the translation will be entirely free of copyright restrictions. It will be dedicated to the Public Domain via Creative Commons Zero.
- Consistent: It will use the same phrasing and terminology across the 4 nikāyas, so you can easily search over the entire corpus.
I’ll be spending the time on a tiny island in between Taiwan and China, called Qimei. Here it is:
There, I’ll be supported by my good friend Dustin and his family. I plan to not have any internet for most of this period. I am working with the SuttaCentral team to ensure that progress on SuttaCentral is ongoing while I am absent. Over the next several months I will try to wrap up certain things, and prepare for my time away. I’ll be leaving directly after the Global Buddhism Conference in Perth in early August, and will enter the second vassa in Taiwan. 18 months is my estimated time, but it may be longer, so I am not making any plans for the period following the sabbatical.
One exception to this is my teachings in Europe towards the end of the year. These were organized before my sabbatical took shape, so I will keep this commitment. Barring emergencies, however, I won’t be returning to Australia for this period.
It goes without saying that a project of this size is quite uncertain. Who knows whether I will succeed; but at least it is something I think worth trying. Today, the Buddha’s words, which are so beautiful and so profound, are not freely available in a complete, accurate, readable form. It think this is a dreadful thing, and I want to change it.
Together with Blake, our SuttaCentral developer, I’m developing a software to help translate the Pali as easily as possible. We are using Virtaal as a basis. This speeds up translation and makes it more accurate by doing such things as making fuzzy matching of translatable phrases so they can be reused. We want to take the already very powerful and useful features of Virtaal and create a dedicated platform for translating Pali texts.
Once the English translation is complete, we aim to make the software available in a trilinear version: Pali→English→Target language. Then it can be used by those who are translating into their own languages from English. They can see the Pali and English together to help them, and the translated text will be exported in a form that can be directly used on SuttaCentral or any other website. In this way we hope to not merely create a new generation of English translations, but to foster the translation of Pali into even more of the world’s languages.
A similar approach can be used for the other early Buddhist texts, in Chinese and Tibetan, but that is not on our immediate agenda, mainly because translations by excellent scholars of some of these texts are expected to become available over the next several years.
As a public domain digital text, it will not be fixed or final like traditional editions. Anyone can take it and make whatever changes they like. I can correct mistakes on an ongoing basis, and if you don’t like how I’ve translated something, make your own! The text does not belong to me, and I have no right to tell anyone what they can or cannot do with it. Obviously we will retain control over the text that appears on SuttaCentral, but it would be lovely to see a variety of editions appear, each with its own emphasis.
Even though the text is intended to be primarily digital, I would also love to create a printed edition. We’re currently experimenting with a printed edition of the Theragatha translation I made last year, and I see this as a pilot for a more comprehensive printed text. This could be made available via print on demand services such as Lulu.com, and also as a free distribution version.
This project is scary and exciting, and I am very much looking forward to it. The two things I love most in the world are the early Buddhist texts and meditation, and I have the chance to spend 18 months or more doing just these two things.