Translating the Four Nikāyas

Indeed dear friend :smiley:

Thanks for posting this, and allow me to explain in a little detail. Essentially my idea is to make it as simple as possible, but no simpler. Simplicity itself is not an aim; removing unnecessary obstacles to understanding is.

Let me take one phrase as an example. This is taken from SN 12.51, with Ven Bodhi’s translation. I am choosing this not because it deserves criticism, but because it is the best available.

Apuññañce saṅkhāraṃ abhisaṅkharoti, apuññūpagaṃ hoti viññāṇaṃ.

if he generates a demeritorious volitional formation, consciousness fares on to the demeritorious.

This is in the context of dependent origination. Let’s analyze the Pali as translated by Ven Bodhi, then I will propose a “simple” version.

Here is a discussion of the substantive terms.

  • apuñña: rendered as 'demeritorious". But puñña is a common everyday word in Pali, while demeritorious not so much. We do get “demerit points” for speeding, so it’s not totally obscure. However auto-analysis suggests that only some English speakers will likely know this word. Moreover, the examples for usage of the term on wordnik are from a Hindu book, a book on 18th century Scottish philosophy, and the Summa Theologica. So we’ve turned an everyday word into something obscure, and for what? Do we actually gain anything from this? I think not.
  • saṅkhāra: Another important everyday word, this has a variety of nuances and should be translated in a variety of ways. Here it means essentially “intention, moral choice”. Notice a couple of things about Ven Bodhi’s rendering. He translates what is essentially the same word in two totally different ways in the same sentence, using “generates” and “volitional formations”. The two words are, it is true, distinguished by the prefix abhi-, but that hardly does anything. Basically we have the verb and noun form of the same word, a common construction in Pali (and it is not uncommon for Ven Bodhi to translate such constructions in this way). “Generates” is a fine rendering, “volitional formations” not so much. It is pure Buddhist Hybrid English; google the exact phrase and only Buddhist references come up. This might be acceptable if it were an idea unique to Buddhism, but it isn’t. It just means “moral choices or intentions”, and is a basic concept in any language. The use of “formations” is intended to tie this onto other renderings of saṅkhāra used in other contexts. But it does that job very badly, sacrificing readability for an obscure terminological consistency. This is a holdover from the translation project of Ven Nyanamoli, which heavily influenced the basis of Ven Bodhi’s style. In my opinion, saṅkhāra simply doesn’t mean “formation”, whatever this is supposed to mean anyway. Ven Bodhi has changed this to “activity” in the Anguttara (a rendering I used previously, and urged him to adopt), however “volitional activities” is not much more comprehensible.
    -upaga: Rendered as “fares on to”, and combined with “the demeritorious”. Once again this is an alien, unidiomatic, and highly formal way of rendering a simple concept. It needs a slightly more idiomatic approach.
  • viññāṅa: I’m not entirely happy with this rendering, and have experimented with “cognition” before; perhaps “awareness” would be best. But I am not ready to change it yet.

There is a further rendering problem, one that is more stylistic. The sentence begins by mentioning a purisapuggala, rendered as a “person”. Fair enough; but we notice that purisa means specifically male; and the nouns are likewise masculine. Yet there is, of course, nothing exclusively male about the passage, and this is just the normal way that Pali defaults to the masculine gender. This is a purely grammatical convention; and the relevant grammatical convention in modern English is to use gender-neutral language as far as is possible. There is no one right way to do this. You could use “one”, but that is distancing and formal. You could use “they”, which is normal in spoken English, and quite acceptable in written; also “you” is common in such constructs, and more engaging. I’ll pick “they”, remembering that the passage has already spoken of “a person”, so there will be no confusion in the number.

So I’d suggest translating like this:

If they make a bad choice, consciousness goes to a bad place.

This is, I hope you agree, much more comprehensible. It means the actual thing it says, in language that might be used by an actual English speaker. It is no less precise than Ven Bodhi’s rendering, using a syntax that mirrors the Pali exactly. In fact, it sticks closer to the Pali in using common renderings of common words, and also in not using a phrase to render a word.

The rendering “a bad place” is meant to take account of the fact that what is spoken of here is the process of rebirth: bad kamma leads to a bad rebirth.

It loses, perhaps, some cross-context consistency in that saṅkhāra would be rendered differently elsewhere, but we have already seen that this aim is not really achievable, even within the confines of a single phrase. The terminological consistency project is, in the final analysis, only useful for people who want to learn Pali. For someone who is simply reading the texts it is irrelevant, even potentially misleading.

When you read a passage that forces language into such constructions as “volitional formations”, it conveys a sense that there is a rigorous terminological consistency, an important matter for which readability must have been sacrificed. Yet the reality is that terms have different meanings in different contexts, and the spectrum of these meanings does not map in any simple way across languages. If you want to point out that the word used here is the same word used with a different meaning in, say, aniccā vata saṅkhārā (“all conditions are impermanent”), then point it out. But you don’t need to know this to understand what the passage means.

Ven Bodhi has, in the Anguttara, already severed the connection between these two meanings, since saṅkhāra in this sense is rendered as “conditioned phenomena” whereas in Dependent Origination he uses “volitional activities”.

At the end of the day you can only be partially consistent, as we have seen, so it is arguably less misleading to render in a more idiomatic form that doesn’t subconsciously try to persuade the reader that the text literally renders the Pali. Better, in my opinion, to translate idiomatically, and use the possibilities of a digital text to enable an interested the reader to easily see what the actual Pali used is.

Anyway, there are many more considerations, and things obviously get more complex when you are rendering large bodies of text. But hopefully this conveys something of the approach I am using.


I’m astonished that you would say this, being a translator yourself. All translation is interpretation. There is nothing neutral about being literal, it imposes just as much on the text, only in a different way; see my remarks in my previous comment.

No it hasn’t, I have never even read these textbooks, and hardly even know anyone who has. They were fine for their time, but by today’s standards they are not very good, and are only kept in use because of the Thai veneration for their royal family.

Such as? I am friends with many of the best academic Pali/Indological scholars in the world, and in fact will be meeting one of them this afternoon to discuss this project. But there is effectively no-one with the time to undertake an extensive review of a large body of work such as this. That is why I aim to release it openly, and improve it as time goes on.

This is why Ven Brahmali has undertaken a new translation of the Vinaya, the first parts of which are available on SuttaCentral. He and I share a similar translation philosophy, although of course that doesn’t mean we’ll always do things the same way.

Obviously; but this is already happening. Our aim is to make it happen better.

This is no contradiction: the entire Buddhist tradition has indeed operated free of copyright. Copyright has only been introduced into international law in the last century or so. The difference is that today, translation work is legally copyrighted as soon as it is published, so unless you explicitly say it is free of copyright, you own the rights to it.


Well, having provided some food for thought (which was replied to) I have now come accross some loevly guidelines (originally drawn up 1977):
Filiality: The Human Source (Uncorrected OCR from

"Buddhist Text Translation Society [California]
Eight Regulations

A translator must free himself or herself from
the motives of personal fame and reputation.

A translator must cultivate an attitude free
from arrogance and conceit?.

A translator must refrain from aggrandizing
himself or herself and denigrating others.

A translator must not establish himself or
herself as the standard of correctness and
suppress the work, of others with his or her

A translator must take the Buddha -mind
as his or her own mind .

A translator must use the wisdom of the
5 elective Dharma Ige to determine true

A translator must request the llder Virtu-
ous Ones of the ten directions to certify
his or her translations.

A translator must endeavor to propagate
the teachings hy printing s ut r as, s has tra
texts, and vmaya texts when the trans-
lations are certified as being correct.

  • Namo Bodhisattva Who Regards the Sounds of the World "

With regards to your question regarding quality control may I suggest for starters

  1. Wikipedia: “Translation-quality standards” which is a start but heavy on dry theory, (“2 links only” therefore copy & paste for that one)
  2. The EU translation service’s, thoughts on the matter.

Being aware of all the above ought to help in the endeavour – best of luck for what is to be a fair bit of work.


Thanks for the guidelines and tips, I will bear these in mind. The truest goal of translation, I think, is transparency: stay out of the way as much as possible. So I am looking forward to an extensive training in not-self!

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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.