Translating the Four Nikāyas

Dear Bhante,

I for one would greatly appreciate the new translation, with respect and gratitude to Bhikkhu Bodhi for all the wonderful work that he has done. But take me as example, I don’t use words that takes a person to look the meaning up. Sometimes when I read the translations I have to open up a second screen to look up the meaning :blush:

From my perspective, I am not trying to learn “big” words but would just like to understand what is being taught in a simple and easy to comprehend kind of way. I just want to learn the teachings in a way that I may be able to explain it to someone without confounding them. If I wanted to learn “big” words, I would just go back to school but frankly I have no need of further schooling as what I’ve learnt at school was so different from the life experiences I have gone through. They never prepared me for the reality of life, at least that’s just my take on it.

The Bhagava encouraged the use of the local lingo when giving the teachings. I am confident that when there’s an easier and simple translation, it would be easier for the masses to read. There is no need for flowery words when it comes to the teachings. My Pali is at beginners level but I can see that the early text don’t have any flowery words, only simple easy to understand words. So why don’t we follow suit and can’t we have something similar? The Buddha always taught by example and there is evidence enough that he did use simple and easy to understand words when conveying his teachings. The whole of Buddhism is grounded in simplicity.

There is not enough words to convey my gratitude to you or anyone for having the compassion in undertaking this endeavor.

with respect and gratitude,


Thank you for that explanation. It seems you are attempting to walk a middle path between confusingly complicated language and oversimplified language. I was hoping that you would be using such an approach. On a side note, you mentioned how translating Pali brings up gender issues and I want to say something about that. I have always found it fascinating that some languages make a great issue of gender. It is just plain unnecessary for people to live that way. Many languages don’t have any gender specific pronouns or nouns and the speakers of those languages have been surviving just fine for thousands of years. One of the languages I grew up speaking is gender neutral and it never seemed strange to me to use the same word for he and she and the same word for him and her. Using words like he, she, him and her is just one style of speaking and using gender neutral words is just another style of speaking. I wonder if such linguistic issues say something about our species. I wonder why the human species has wasted much of its time and energy thinking about gender.


Thanks for the support!

In translation theory, there are different approaches, which are suitable for different cases. Think about someone translating Shakespeare, compared to someone translating a set of instructions for operating a dishwasher.

Now, if you’re translating Shakespeare, you want to capture the feel, the rhythm, the color, the rich, unexpected playing on words, and all of that stuff. And you know that you’ll never get it even close to the original, but you try. You mimic syntax; in Thai, for example, you might try to mimic Shakespears characteristic conjunction of Germanic with Latinate constructions by using native Thai and Sanskritic forms, and so on. The point is that it is all about the experience of reading.

If you’re translating instructions for a dishwasher, none of this matters. Only one thing matters: can the person use the machine? So you don’t care at all about the syntax, the language, the forms: you only want to convey the meaning. In some cases the meaning might adapt to different cultures, perhaps, depending on the type of water that is available, for example (just as Chinese translators sometimes translated “mango” as “peach”.) But at the end of the day, all that matters is: can anyone wash their dishes? If you give the manual to someone and they successfully use it to operate the machine, you’ve done your job.

I think the Suttas have been translated rather more like one would translate Shakespeare, whereas, strange as it may seem, they are more like dishwasher instructions. All that matters is: do they get you where you need to go? Trying to represent the linguistic details of syntax and the like in English, in general, doesn’t help with this. There are exceptions—no rule is absolute—but overall the main emphasis in the Suttas is on practical comprehension, on the purpose of the Dhamma, not on linguistic forms. Even most of the verses are merely didactic restatements of the prose, and literary beauty for its own sake is rare.


I agree completely about the way language handles gender. We should try to translate the texts in a way that gender becomes no more visible than it needs to be.

It is curious that gender is so hardwired into many languages, whereas it is actually unnecessary for communication, as the existence of ungendered languages prove. I wonder whether this ultimately stems from a baby’s first words, “mama” and “dada”, making a distinction that has somehow persisted in the roots of linguistic forms?


Dear Bhante,

Sadhu! Sadhu! Sadhu! Very well explained. I am in agreement with you that the suttas are like an instruction manual or like a trouble shooting guide even :heart_eyes: Much of the complications of over-thinking what the suttas really say will be greatly reduced and easier for the practitioner to use when translated in a simple and concise manner.

with respect and gratitude,


Dear Armen,

I share the same similar language experience with you. The Insular SEA dialect I grew up using until my teenage years before we immigrated to the US did not have gender specific pronouns and nouns. We don’t have a word for “s/he”. We simply don’t have that concept. Also, I discovered that before the Spaniards came, colonized and imposed their religion and ways to the country I was born in, my ancestors had a strong matriarchal society where women held equal status as the men of the community and sometimes held more power than the men. Moreover, it is quite interesting that my research also showed that homosexuals played a special role in the society and they were never treated badly or discriminated upon until the colonists came.

with añjali and metta :pray: ,


These types of questions sound like they would make the basis for a very interesting research study. I wish I had the time and resources to conduct such a study. Oh well, maybe in the future I will be able to look more deeply into such issues.

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How do you then specify the gender of a person when it’s needed? Or does it follow from the context? Do the verbs have gender conjugation?



It follows the context. I apologize if my answer is short because I don’t want to deviate from the purpose of this thread out of respect for the poster. Here is an example (BTW the dialect is of malayo-indonesian with borrowed indic words:

Q: Nangan isu nan? Has s/he eaten?
nangan = has eaten
isu = s/he, third person indicating "that individual"
nan= indicates and emphasizes past tense

A: Wen, nanganen [isu nan]. Yes, [s/he] has eaten.
wen= Yes/affirmative
nanganin=has eaten

The word for “I/me” is "siak " and it literally would mean “this person”. The word fore mine is “bāgik” meaning “belonging to this body/person” (bagi = body).

with añjali and metta,


Thank you. May you achieve your goal. I appreciate all you’re doing to share the Dhamma.

Thank you thank you!

Sankhara superbly illustrates the difficulties of translation. Sankhara does not have significantly different meanings depending on context – rather sankhara simply does not exist in English nor in common Western (nor Australian) thought. Sankhara is what binds/propagates the intensional self to the action and thus its result. It is the karmic glue. The Buddha likely stepped on ants, but did not sankhara (conditioned by ignorance), did not generate good/bad karma.

A translator could anglify the word (a la sankharization) or choose consistent words linked to the Pali, but it would be a disservice to obscure eminently important concepts to innumerable and different contextual renderings.

A simplified translation of the Pali has value but far more important will be the dynamic links to the Pali. I look forward to reading (and helping to make possible) translations in any language linked to alternatives translations and indeed to the Pali (at word, phrase, section, and sutta levels).

Dear Ven Bhante,

That is great, your translation makes it much simpler & easier to understand.

Would it be better to say " If a bad choice is made, consciousness goes to a bad place", that way, it could be he, she, they or even a it, like an animal.

Just a suggestion only. What you have put up is wonderful.

Wish you all the success in your new project.

With Metta,

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Dear Bhante,

I think this project of yours is a great and very worthwhile endeavour which will be of the benefit of many.

Somehow, I always liked the language used by Bhikkhu Bodhi, because it gave the teaching the flavor of being something special and sacred, while I could still understand it quite well. However, when reading the DN translations by Rhys Davids, I sometimes start finding the language a bit confusing.

Nevertheless, I think your envisaged approach to formulate the teaching a simple as possible helps to apply it in the daily live. After all, the teaching is not meant to be some aloof philosophy, but one of its purposes is to be applicable and to offer guidance in everyday life situations. So, I think it is better to have a translation that is a easy to understand as possible (to brifge this gap) and if someone wants the teaching in a ‘sacred’ language that is pretty much reserved for the teaching only they can study Pāli (or the like), which will then add that inspiring dimension including the idea to be closer to the Buddhas own words.

Regearding the translation of gender, Ven. Anālayo often uses “one” instead of “a Bhikkhu” or passive forms to render the translations gender neutral in the book ‘Perspectives on Satipaṭṭhāna’:

p. 13 (from the Ekottarika-āgam version)

"What are the four [satipaṭṭhānas]? Here, in regard to the body …
one abides contemplating the body, diligent, clearly knowing,
and mindful, free from desires and discontent with regard to the
> world. In regard to feelings … the mind … dharmas one abides
contemplating dharmas, diligent, clearly knowing, and mindful, free
from desires and discontent with regard to the world. "

Or a passive form on page 15 (Majjhima-nikāya version):

In regard to feelings one abides contemplating feelings internally …
externally … internally and externally.
Or one abides contemplating the nature of arising … the nature of
passing away … the nature of arising and passing away in feelings.
Or mindfulness that “there is feeling” is established in oneself
just for the sake of bare knowledge and for the sake of continuous
mindfulness. And one abides independent, not clinging to anything
in the world.

In the first quoted passage, he also deviated from the usual translation of “covetousnes and grief for the world”. He did such deviations not only for this expression, but in several cases. However, he maintained to translate “samādhi” as “concentration”, because this is the common way (and most people know by now that the meaning is not concentration, but samādhi. In fact also “stillness” does not do justice to samādhi in my humble opinion… So I would humbly agree with you that it is best to leave this untranslated). He also used the sanskitized word “Dharma” (somewhat to my despair), because he sees that this expression prevailed by now in publications. (However, I think that good monks an nuns can also dare to set a standard… :wink: )

I imagine, that defining and using a consistent table for the ‘technical terms’ will be some significant work (well maybe not so much for you, since you already have quite some experience with publications in the field, so I guess you already have pretty much a detailed vision).

I am currently working on a translating Anālayo’s book into German and I am struggling with a gender neutral translation, while using normal language. The German language puts much more emphasiz on discriminating between genders than English does (e.g. with its three cases “der Mann/die Frau/das Kind” is simply “the man/the woman/the child”)…

I wish you much success for this endeavour. If there is anything I can do, I will be happy to help! :slight_smile:

With much mettā,


Thanks so much Robert, all good thoughts.

An interesting choice. It leads to another dilemma, however, because “one” is a fairly formal, elevated usage in English, rarely found in colloquial speech. Normally you’d say “you”, as I did just now. Typically I try to avoid using “one” in such contexts, although of course this is not an absolute rule. Another option is to use the gender-neutral “monastic” instead of “monk”, which is definitely justified by the Pali, but which is another fairly rare term.

The passive voice is extremely common in Pali, much less so in English (and Word will warn you against it!). Kalupahana argued that this was a philosophical choice, as the passive voice suggests an impersonal process rather than an agent. Be that as it may, passive constructions and complex syntax are two hallmarks of Pali that I think should be minimized in modern English.

I’m not sure why he avoids “covetousness”, as the Pali term abhijjā is specifically defined as a longing for the possessions of others, i.e. covetousness. He must think it has a different nuance in this context. Domanassa as “discontent” is pretty good, I might just nick that one!

I agree with you about samādhi, and am leaving it mostly untranslated. I also agree we should generally speaking not use Sanskritized forms. Normally Analayo uses Pali forms in his academic work, so I’m a bit disappointed with this. If you’re doing a body of translations, you’ll use a few Indic forms, and being exposed to occasional technical terms in one dialectical form or the other is not going to affect people. Anyway, dharma, like say karma or nirvāṇa, has distinct Hindu overtones that are alien to the Early Buddhist Texts, and I would suggest that we should positively seek ways to alert readers to this.

Defining a table of technical terms is not difficult, as I have the work of Ven Bodhi to start with. I’ll change some of his renderings, but I won’t just switch thgs around more than necessary.

Translating Analayo into German, kind of ironic (because he’s German!), and also difficult, so I wish you the best!

Reading this has given me an idea; perhaps I’ll post some translations here from time to time and seek feedback….


This came up in a comment made earlier, but it is another example of the passive voice. Yes, you can do it, but it is best to avoid it where possible. Passive voice in English tends to be formal, cold, and distancing.

Pali uses the passive voice much more than English, and on the whole I try to express these in an active sense. I would be very reluctant to go the other way, to turn an active voice into a passive.

If you listen to normal spoken English, the most common way to express this would be using “they”, and I’d prefer to stick with that, unless there are contextual reasons why not.


Dear Ven Bhante,

Thank you for your views which make a lot of sense & with which I do agree.

It occurred to me that another reason for using passive voice could be that it takes away any semblance on the presence of a self, even the presence of the “conventional I”. It is interesting that you mentioned “Pali uses the passive voice more…”. I wonder whether it was done deliberately by those Arahants, (when they wrote the Pali Canon, all those years ago), to send an additional message that there is no self but, only a process!

Just a thought, Bhante

With Metta,

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This was the suggestion of Kalupahana, who saw a philosophical significance in this. Maybe, but at the same time, the Dhamma must conform to the language it’s expressed in. Perhaps in appropriate passages, where not-self was the defining feature, we could retain the passive voice.


is it certain, bhante, that passive voice in the Nikayas is a conventional everyday colloquial language and not a deliberate choice?

this probably could be ascertained on the suttas where both doctrinal and belles-lettres parts are present, for example Sakkapanha sutta (DN 21).

Dear Venerable Sujato.

Best regards and wishes on your great effort. Wishing you a great success in the translation. May the Noble Triple Gems, the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha, protect and bless you.


Venerable Phra Baidika Dr. K. Dhammadinna Thera,
Buddhist Maha Vihara,
Brickfields, Kuala Lumpur,


I wouldn’t read too much into it. The Buddha was not about hiding secret messages in grammatical forms; he was about telling it how it is. Of course there may be some contexts where it is significant, but I would not hold my breath.

In any case, this kind of linguistic nuance is exactly the kind of thing that can’t really be translated. Even if it has a certain feel to it one language, there’s no way that the use of a parallel kind of grammatical form has the same connotations in another language.