Translating the Four Nikāyas

Oh, you mean like this:

We’ve got lots of people contributing in all kinds of areas, mostly volunteers, but our current main developer is paid full-time, and in addition we have outsourced various things to contractors.

So yes, I am a great fan of the open source model. I am very aware that all of our content, from the basic code to the color scheme, and all of the text, is only made possible because of the work of others. For this reason, we also want to give back; we don’t just adopt materials from elsewhere, but improve it. For example, we have fixed tens of thousands of punctuation and other errors in various files.

And everything we do is offered freely back to the community. This is quite unlike some commercial Buddhist publishers, who take the unpaid work of volunteers, then claim ownership over it and sell it it the marketplace.

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Yes It’s a bit like that but with 1000s of people working on it for good merit. Because with what you are trying to achieve I think It’s going to be a lot of work for 4 people. May be these 4 can kick start the project and other 996 can join in later by making it open in the middle of doing the work rather than waiting for its completion. Because I’m also a great fan of Linus Torvalds and He once said when finding bugs in code more eyes you have looking at the bugs more the bugs you’re going to find. :smile:

Dear Bhante Sujathophonetics for human beigns.pdf (362.6 KB) ,
I’ve created a new Phonetics standard that is capable of representing any language in the world and this makes it really easy to write languages like Pali. I would like you to consider this standard (alphabet) when you write Pali terms and verses in your Nikhaya Translation Project.
By the way this work is not fully complete, your advice and suggestions would be thoroughly appreciated.

Dear Bhante,

(1) SuttaCentral has been immensely helpful to me in my Dhamma and Pali studies. SC nowadays seems such a mature project that it will hopefully survive your temporary absence. Thank you again for your and the team’s outstanding work! Anumodana.

(2) I feel the Dhamma in good hands in your new translation project, however I would like to issue some tentative caveats:

(a) One of the strengths of SC, to my mind, is the availability of renowned and trustworthy translations (like those by Bhikkhu Bodhi) and links to auxillary alternative translations that shed a slightly different light on seemingly familiar texts (like those by Thanissaro or some of the older translations). Yet another set of translation seems well warranted if it encompasses the full set of texts and is internally consistent. Consistency with regard to the translation of doctrinal terms, to my mind, is of utmost importance in order to enable students of the Dhamma unfamiliar with Pali to construct, over time, a comprehensive grasp of the meaning and of the diverse connotations of a given technical term. I would be very uncomfortable with using variant translations for a given doctrinal term according to context since this may lead to a certain fuzziness of concepts. Consistent usage of wording would be well-accompanied by an extensive glossary which could then discuss variant translations of a given term that might be encountered by the student in other well-circulated translations.

(b) I must confess to feeling very uneasy with the idea of ‘secondary’ translations from an English one into other languages, no matter how excellent that base translation (yours) might be. Translation always loses meaning and the more often this process is iterated, the greater the danger of significant loss. The world already is full with well-meant but rather poorly executed translations of the favourite doctrinal texts. Someone not proficient in Pali may, for his own spiritual purposes, construe a translation of his own, but I am not sure what will be gained by widespread distribution.

© The open format of the project with envisioned multiple parallel translations may cause more problems than it solves, because few people will have the ability, experience and temporal resources to provide comprehensive translations of large amounts of text. Thus I fear that we might end up with a plethora of unfinished/ inconsistent/ misleading translations.

(3) On a general note, I suggest to anybody new to translating Pali texts for more than personal usage to read “K. R. Norman: A Philological Approach to Buddhism. Pali Text Society, Oxford, 2008”, an excellent book aimed at non-philologists, which makes a stimulating yet rather humbling reading.

(4) I wish for a successful retreat with regard to both your translation and spiritual development.

Kind regards


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i agree, secondary translation is prone to be lacking and sometimes inadequate, yet the source Pali texts are readily available, can always be consulted and the translation be gauged against them
SC makes a great resource for such a task providing the embedded Pali dictionary
so it’s really a responsibility of a translator to refer to the source texts

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Thanks for the feedback, you’ve raised some important points, so allow me to respond at some length.

Just to clarify, Ven Bodhi doesn’t translate terms the same way all the time. They are varied both when the meaning changes, but also when the parts of speech in English don’t match those in Pali.

Eg. viññāṇa is “consciousness”, while vijānāti is “cognizes”. Paññā is “wisdom”, while pajānāti is “understands”. On the other hand, saññā is “perception” while sañjānāti is “perceives”. And sometimes vijānāti means “understands” and must be translated as such. Sometimes pajānāti means “knows”, as does sañjānāti and vijānāti. And so on.

To further complicate things, “wisdom” and its derivatives are used for a variety of other Pali terms, which are not connected with paññā at all: paṇḍita, dhīra (which is sometimes rendered “steadfast”), medhāvī, viññū, and so on.

There are countless issues like this, faced in virtually every sentence. It’s quite simply impossible to translate one language to another and keep a simple one to one relation between terms. Language just doesn’t work like that. The translator who came closest was the late-period Ñāṇamoli, but no translator has followed his path, which is understandable if you’re ever read those texts.

I’m using a glossary of terms, originally based on Ven Bodhi’s usage, which I’m expanding and adapting as I go. Currently there’s 1675 technical terms and phrases. Every time I encounter a new context, I look at how the word works in the context, and try to work out what is the best possible rendering of the phrase in English. If it uses any technical tem, I see if the term has the same meaning I’ve used before, and if so, can it be rendered consistently. If not, how best express it? And on it goes, every time. Translation is slow and uncertain work, and no rule is absolute.

On the whole, however, the balance of consistency vs. context in my translation will be not very different from Ven Bodhi’s recent work. The main difference is that I strive to use the simplest expression possible, using more common and colloquial terms, and simplifying the syntax as far as possible.

As for secondary translations, be clear: this is what is happening, and will continue to happen, whatever you or I think about it.

If you want to do translations from the Pali into the world’s languages, great! Here’s how.

We’d need around 10 or so full-time Pali students each year. (Just to be clear, I don’t think there’s a single University level course in the non-Buddhist world that consistently attracts ten students per year to study Pali.)

After five years or so of full time study, and then some postgrad work, some might be ready to do mature translations. Of course, most will have dropped out, or not be very good, or have good Pali but not write well in their native language, or not be interested, and so on. And they’d have to be not just language students, but serious Dhamma practitioners, who not only had some depth and maturity of practice themselves, but had been part of a Dhamma community for a long time.

Say, then, we spend $50,000 per student per year. That’s maybe $5,000,000 per language over a ten year period, to even have a reasonable chance of getting decent translators working in the field. We’ve got texts from 30 languages on SC, so multiply that by thirty, and we’ve got $150 million over the ten years. Given that ten years is not very long, and that there’s a lot more than thirty languages in the world, let’s say, ballpark figure, half a billion dollars to equip and prepare competent translators.

I’m not joking about this, this is an entirely reasonable scenario. These kinds of numbers are in fact what’s involved in the Christian world of Bible translations. There are multiple institutions, hundreds of scholars, Universities, courses, and so on, translating the Bible into over a thousand languages. (The whole Bible is, incidentally, a little shorter than the four nikayas).

And you know what? They still rely on amateur, untrained translators doing secondary translations from “plain language”, non-literal primary translations. Typically the first Bible translations are done by missionaries working in obscure locations, and only later, if at all, are “professional” translations produced.

Google, incidentally, does the same. When you use Google Translate to go from, say, French to Hindi, it actually translates French to English, then English to Hindi. Obviously the people at Google know this is not ideal, and obviously the translations are not great. But that’s missing the point. Google is driven by data, and their decision is based on: what is the best that’s actually achievable? And it clearly makes more sense for them to work on improving translations to and from English, rather than attempt direct translations of the world’s language pairs.

So we also have to consider, what’s actually achievable? Years ago we had a guy staying at the monastery called Peter. We were making a shoe-rack for visitors, and trying to figure out the best place for it. Peter said, “put the shoe rack where people put their shoes”. Brilliant! So that’s what I’ve been doing. Look at how people are in fact producing translations, and ask, what can we practically achieve that can help make better ones?

There are good people all around the world, trying to translate the Dhamma into their own language. Of course they are well aware of their own limitations, and the difficulties and compromises involved. But they are making a start, and I am happy that we can do a little to support them. Hopefully once our translation software is widely available, people will start to use it and it will help improve the quality and consistency.

Don’t get fixated on a question like “primary or secondary” translation. It’s just one of many factors. There are so many factors involved in translations, it’s quite possible that a secondary translation can be better than a primary one. Take the case of German, for example. The classic German translations by Neumann were, I believe, made from the Pali. But they are notoriously unreliable, and serve more as a vehicle for the translator’s romantic ideals than anything else. More recently an updated translation of the Majjhima was made by Ven Mettiko, based on Ven Bodhi’s English translation, and it is much better. It’s made by someone who actually understands the Dhamma.

Another example is the several translations made in traditional Buddhist countries. Most of these were made by very good Pali experts, and are very accurate. They’re also, in several cases, terrible translations. They are archaic, difficult, overly literal, and often virtually unreadable by native speakers. The same could be said for some academic translations into English. If you’re not going to do something that native speakers can read, why bother?

Don’t be afraid of diversity. We’ll keep our own version here, and would be happy to host other versions, if they are good. But the world is what it is, and poor work will fall by the wayside.

For anyone who’s interested in these issues, there are some good, in-depth articles on Bible translation here. Obviously some of the issues are different, but many of them are similar. I found this site very useful, mainly because I disagree with the author’s position on many things, but I still found him persuasive and well-argued.

And check this out for a project somewhat similar to what we’re doing:


Personal remark: The Nikayas on the one hand and SC on the other are so important and your project so intriguing that I responded on impulse. No offence is meant by my comments which are unsolicitated and may be unqualified with regard to my lack of academic or monastic track record.

I am rather aware of the epistemological, historical, cultural, psychological, philological, linguistic (add a few more) complexities of translation. What I intended to point out was the importance of inner consistency, propably not on a word-by-word basis but on a concept-by-concept basis. Many translators have struggled with the question of consistency over time, even within their own translating career, because they felt that with increasing experience, familiarity with more numerous texts and maturing grasp of the contents, they arrived at better ways to express certain phrases in their respective target language even during the course of translating a single work. This may, however, introduce bewilderment for the general reader, especially with a set of independent texts which may be read in any different order. It is sometimes difficult to retain a clear Idea of meaning when encountering variant renderings (differently connotated) of the same root expression within the same body of translation, unless it is made transparent (e.g. by footnotes or by an accomanying glossary). When translating a comprehensive textual entity like the four Nikayas, consistency (in the broader sense detailed above) will be very helpful for any serious Dhamma student to build a clear idea of the meaning of important terms.

I am in genuine awe of the task you have set yourself and, as I have stated before, I am confident that the Dhamma is in good hands with you. When struggling with the Pali root texts I personally tend to compare several existing translations and by having them side-by-side gain a much better grasp of what was ‘really’ said in the original. Thus, a contemporary new translation will be a wellcome addition.

On a different aspect: Could your work on the glossary possibly lead to a contemporary human-readable Pali-English dictionary as a by-product? That would be wonderful, indeed. The most comprehensive dictionary we have still is the PTS-PED from 1921-1925, a time when many manuscripts were still unavailable and even more yet untranslated; besides, William Stede is said to have commented on Rhys Davids “His mind was bent on
other aims than dictionary work, which was not his strongest point”… The Concise PED by A.P. Buddhatta Mahathera is a great tool for beginning Pali studies but simply too concise for translational work; Nyanatiloka’s Manual of Buddhist Terms is helpful for approaching the Dhamma but may perplex when applied to translation; the Critical Pali Dictionary since 2001 remains truncated at the letter ‘K’ and will not ever be completed.

These are staggering numbers, indeed. OK, you have convinced me, that a kind of multinational volunteer project is warranted.

Yet, the Teaching is way too important to be handled in translation like an Owner’s Manual for a consumer product, where Google may render barely usable results. If ‘what is achievable’ was not even rudimentarilly on a par with the scope of the subject at hand, I would rather wish for abstaining from circulating it. But, I must admit, these qualms should not defer the attempt. It is just so that truly “This Dhamma […] is profound, hard to see and hard to understand, peaceful and sublime […]” (MN26) and warrants meticulous translation which in secondary or even tertiary iteration will be a profound challenge.

K. E. Neumann’s translations were indeed influenced rather strongly by German Romanticism and are nearly unreadable today. However he has to be granted the achievment of making the Dhamma available and thus approachable for the first time at all for many many people. Neumann’s translations are a good case in point with regard to fervently motivated but rather lacking translations. Eugene Burnouf, Hermann Oldenberg and the Rhys-Davids’ also brought their cultural preconceptions and misconceptions into their translations, as did Schopenhauer before them but as do we with our 21st century preconceptions, lest we forget. Thus translating and retranslating always involves a metachronic as well as a synchronic axis. Our own changing linguistic environment makes it all the more worthwile to re-translate many texts that are available only in early translations, especially keeping in mind the incredible wealth of technical tools available to us today. On the other hand, some very early translations, like those into English by F. Max Müller, stand the test of time even today.

With regard to academic translations

vs. translations by the faithful

a careful balance of both faculties should be aimed at, because there is always a danger of rendering what ‘one feels, the text says’ or even ‘what one feels, the text should say’ as opposed to what ‘the text (the words) do say’ in fact. But in this respect different translations from the academic and the faithful ‘camps’ help to broaden our vista of the Dhamma, and an enlightened translation would unify both.

[quote=“sujato, post:66, topic:341”]
Don’t be afraid of diversity.
[/quote] So I am not. But diversity within a given translation is problematic, I still hold up.

Thank you very much for pointing out this stimulating and, I agree, controversial website.
[Off topic: I was quite struck by Martin Luther’s so to speak immodest lack of modesty with regard to his own translation expounded in his “Open Letter on Translating” found on that website.]

At least, he was very aware of that predicament and explicitly professed to it: “Literalness, however, on the one hand and considerations of clarity and style on the other make irreconcilable claims on a translator […]” (Translator’s Preface to ‘Visuddhimagga’). Moreover he tried to make his guiding rules, at least partially, explicit and transparent to the reader.

With Metta


Good luck on your translations!

Just a quick point about your example: “If they make a bad choice, consciousness goes to a bad place.”

I like your thoughts on upaga and vinnana. Awareness as vinnana may not be that bad, although consciousness seems to work fine. At times it also seems like sanna could be awareness. In “the cessation of perception and feeling” for example, or in DN1 speaking about different types of wrong view about “immortal perception”. In English one doesn’t really say that.

It’s more understandable, but what would be a “imperturbable choice” then? How can you make a choice in such a state of mind?

The concept of sankhara seems much broader than choice, as it includes just will in general. I’d say even the anusaya (“underlying tendencies”) fall under them, because these also lead to the rebirth of consciousness, so must be included in sankhara in dependent arising.

I also think unmeritorious is not too obscure, especially in Buddhist circles.

In lack of a better word for sankhara I like “activities” in general. So just a quick draft:

“If he does an unmeritorious act, consciousness goes to a place in accordance with that.”

Just my thoughts.



Respectful Greetings, Ajahn Sujato,

Thank you so much for Getting It™ when it comes to releasing your works under Creative Commons licensing. Regardless of the quality of readable translation that comes out of this process (which I’m confident will be very good, if not excellent), the value in having it in a reusable, non-proprietary format is intensely valuable. The average reader/user may not have a sufficient technical background to appreciate this, but I feel it’s an aspect pretty much worth more than the translation itself (since it facilitates future, easier translations, and opens many new doors to future contributors).

Thank you for taking the time to make a technically clean and geek-compatible implementation of your work. I think it will seriously pay off in the longer term. In time, you might just become the “Linus Torvalds of Buddhist written teachings” (in the sense of imbuing “Openness” into all the underlying media conveying these teachings).

I feel this development in Buddhist history is akin to inventing the printing press.


Sounds reasonable. The problem with act or activities is that it sounds very external. We don’t usually use it of a purely mental event. In addition, I feel that “choice” has a more ethical orientation to it. But I recognize the problems that you raise. On the whole, it would be best to use the rendering that offers the most clear meaning in common contexts, and when it gets to something obscure like anenjasankhara, well do our best!

Thanks so much, this makes me happy! We are in a new world, and we need Buddhist texts for it. I can’t wait to put these translations out there, and see what people do with them!

The translating software you picked, Virtaal, is very cross-platform. It’s already in my “Software Manager” in Linux Mint (and it got a 4 out of 5 stars rating there). Here are a few screenshots (which I couldn’t find any of either in Wikipedia, or on Virtaal’s website), for anyone interested in what it looks like, to actually use:



In fact we’re no longer using Virtaal. We are using Pootle, which is from the same team. It seems they have more or less ceased development of Virtaal. They both use the same underlying technology, but Pootle has the great advantage of being a web app. So you just point it to a URL and anyone can use it to edit in their browser, no installation needed.

The files are still 100% compatible with Virtaal and other local PO editors, but only on Pootle will you have access to the special features like Pali lookup and so on.

You may find useful a Pali morphological analyzer:




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Thanks for letting us know about these. @blake and @vimala, when you get a moment you might want to check these out.

@blake, it turns out that @vimala and I are fairly near where the author of these programs lives, for these next few days. Vimala has contacted them, and we are trying to arrange a meeting. May I ask you to check them out right away, if possible, so you can give us some feedback for the meeting? Thanks.

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Dear Bhante

Apologies for raking up this old post. I would like to ask for your thoughts on the nature of the “moral choice” that is made as saṅkhāra. The principal issue for me is of course the possibility of free choice in these matters, especially when we enter the realm of the anusayas.

I have in mind the Cetanā Suttas in SN 12.38 -40. Three layers of saṅkhāra are discussed, denoted by the verbs ceteti, pakappeti and finally anuseti.

The activities denoted by the first 2 verbs fit perfectly into the “choice” interpretation, but does one floundering around without meditation have much, if any choice with his/her anusayas? Certainly, the notion that one can veto choices is another choice in itself. But for the MN 64 infant mired in its latent tendencies, what choice does it exercise when it anuseti?

Skillful meditators would indeed have a choice when they become aware of the anusayas. But I’m not so sure if “choice” can be meaningfully attributed to untrained persons in relation to latent tendencies.

What does Bhante think?

None at all. Because the link between an underlying defilement and an explicit moral choice requires a certain maturity of mind and thought, which they have not yet developed—which is, in fact, the point of that very passage.

Why not? People make choices that go against their defilements all the time. “I want an extra piece of cake—no, that’s being greedy!” “I’m really angry, I want to hit him—no, calm down, breathe, let it go.”

Anusayas influence choices, but they don’t determine them.

these are examples of so to speak gross expression of anusayas, which are very clear and visible, but more subtle automatic reactions i think are also governed or influenced by them and these are a lot harder to subject to free will without training