Translating the Four Nikāyas


(Ayya’s posting some threads on Facebook, which is generating some new hits.)


A line from another thread, reminded me of a point I’ve been intrigued to know for a while:

Working on the assumption that the primary motivation for extensive abbreviation has hitherto been to save on material resources, as the new translations are natively digital, will they have the abbreviations filled in? On the other hand, knowing that the repetition in the suttas can sometime be taken as a bit of an access barrier, I wonder if, indeed, the abbreviations will be kept just as they are.

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Like most things when it comes to the suttas, this is more complex than it seems.

Sure, there are plenty of places where the abbreviation of a formula like the jhanas or the recollection of the triple gem is obvious, and expanding it would seem to be unproblematic.

But the process rapidly runs into snags. Consider, for example, the suttas of the first chapter of the Digha, where a very long passage requires expansion, and it is not always obvious how they vary from sutta to sutta. Ven Anandajoti is one of the few people to have tried to properly expand a heavily abbreviated text—the Satipatthana Vibhanga at Vb 7—and he said it was one of the the hardest things he’s ever done. You can read his detailed and excellent study on his website.

Even harder is the repetition series. If we fill all these out, what have we created? Certainly nothing like any manuscript that has ever existed. Nor, I am sure, have all these ever been actually recited. Can we say they existed in memory? Maybe. But really, they’re more like procedurally generated web pages, something like a search results page, which might in principle exist if someone searches for that exact string, but in fact no one has ever done so. These series are undoubtedly artificial, so what exactly is the purpose of expanding them?

Then consider the Chinese texts. Like all early Buddhist texts, they have lots of abbreviations. yet they handle them somewhat differently than the Pali. For example, they often have a short statement saying that the passage is to be expanded. If we expand them according to instructions, is the instruction still a part of the sutta, or not?

The expansions themselves are also not clear. In the Satipatthana Sutta, for example, the Chinese text usually has a short version of the satipatthana formula. But this is not an obviously truncated text, it reads perfectly well. You’d think it was just a variant of the Pali formula that happened to be used in that tradition. But half-way through the collection, the full formula appears, together with a note to the effect that all the suttas of the collection should be expanded in the same way. So the short version is an abbreviation, not simply a variant. Maybe we decide to expand them in that case. But the same short formula appears in other related texts outside the Satipatthana Samyutta. Are we to assume that the instructions for expanding the text apply there as well?

In other cases, we encounter “double-abbreviated” texts. A certain text is abbreviated, and instructs that you should expand according to another text; but that text too is abbreviated, and must be expanded following a third text.

Okay, so let’s say we can develop a markup system that categorizes all these various kinds of expansion. We work through 10,000,000 words of text in four ancient languages to apply the markup consistently. Goodbye weekends! Ha ha, only joking, monks don’t get weekends.

At the end of the day, we don’t have anything that resembles any traditional corpus. Nor is the process objective; it would require constant subjective decisions about what kind of markup applies and how the expansions are to be handled. But plain old marked up text is pretty useless. Next, we’d have to make use of it, for example, by developing a search engine that filters results according to the specified markup scheme.

Then there is, of course, the question of translations. For a translation, the abbreviations pose an entirely new kind of problem, that of readability. So no matter what scheme you developed to handle the original languages, you’d need a whole new scheme for the translations. But these are also not unified. You’d want separate versions, say, for print and web. Or for different translation styles.

And so it goes.

Practically speaking, I discussed this briefly with Ven Brahmali. We are both using a similar strategy in our translations. We try, so far as seems reasonable, to minimize repetitions within a particular text, but to expand passages if they require referring to another text.

In terms of detailed expansions of texts, for the forseeable future, this is something that will only really work in specialized studies like those of Ven Anandajoti.


En mi experiencia como traductor de Pāli a Español puedo decirte que el 85℅ del éxito de la traducción no son ni las gramáticas ni los diccionarios. Son las jhanas. Con ellas entiendes qué dice y por qué lo dice y lo mejor es para qué lo dice.
Hay palabras pésimamente traducidas que vuelven esotéricos los textos por lo absurdas que son. Tales con los casos de Cetana o Viññana. Si te guías por bhikkhus medievales que solo traducen y no practican el resultado volverá a ser otro"texto sagrado" o sea, absurdo y que haya que emplear la fe para creerlo y no la razón y la física estadística. Suerte!

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Best of luck to you, Bhante!

What is the progress of this project?
Sorry I am bit behind with this discussion.

I’ve translated about 90% of the 4 nikayas, and expect to have the first draft finished in about three months. Following that, I anticipate perhaps 6 months of proofing and corrections.

I am just finishing off DN 5, and there is such a lovely passage at the end, where the brahmin has been persuaded to call off his sacrifice:

And these bulls, bullocks, heifers, goats and rams—seven hundred of each—I release them, I grant them life! Let them eat green grass and drink cool water, and may a cool breeze blow upon them!

To have the privilege of translating such beautiful texts is the greatest honor of my life.


Sadhu, Sadhu, Sadhu
This is wonderful Bhante!!!

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Anumodana! You’ve made exceptional progress in just over 2 years. And I’m sure you’d agree: we stand on the shoulders of giants. From teachings passed down in an oral tradition 2400 years ago, later being written down and passed down and practiced from generation to generation, and now the same teachings soon to be freely available to anyone with access to an internet connection…it’s nothing short of incredible. This is history in the making folks, no exaggeration.


Also I’m glad you’ve given a generous time-window for editing and proofing. Take as long as it needs to be excellent. There is no rush.

These days, so many products are released that are unfinished, faulty, full of bugs, have an unthoughtful design, prone to breakage, etc. I’m sure y’all will not fall prey to this unfortunate trend.


I am not sure whether this is a good idea. What I am saying is there should be some form of control like BPS.
What is the possibility, someone with malicious thought copy the whole text and printed it with incorporating their own views?
This is one possibility why Buddha never wanted to propagate Dhamma in writing. ( I assumed, there were some form of writing in Buddha’s days)

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I wanted to make the same comment before but decided not to.
Now you have done it.

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I think it’s really important that we approach our tradition with a spirit of generosity and love and openness, not fear and suspicion. We Buddhists have been doing this for 2500 years, and we don’t need western copyright laws to tell us how to maintain the integrity of a text.

I believe these texts belong to humanity, and I am simply performing a service to humanity. The texts don’t belong to me, and I have no right to make legal claims of ownership over them, or to treat like a criminal someone who does something with them that I dislike.

As a technical note, the translations will be placed under the incredible version control system of Github, and any changes will be logged more clearly and precisely than any text before them. In addition, I hope in the future to use the blockchain to create an indelible, unalterable public record of every single character. This will be a far more effective way of ensuring long term fidelity than relying on making legal threats via DMCA.


Will the first draft be made available in any way? Or will everything be put on suttacentral in about 9 months time?

I’m seriously jonesing for these new translations, bhante!

It goes without saying that these translations and making them available will be for the benefit of many people for a long time; I rejoice in that! :anjal:


I quite agree on Bhante.
The point I am trying to make is open translation work make easier for unqualified people to make their own interpretations and which could be quite damaging.
I can recall in one sutta it is translated as “The monks rejoice with the Buddhas word” and in another translation, it says "The monks were unhappy with the Buddhas words"
This translation error could be so damaging and it gives the completely different meaning to the spirit of the Sutta.

I would venture that getting the full teaching into the open a la Wikipedia is a great starting point.

There is always room for errors, but with a wide and open body of text subsequent proof reading will be made easier than with elite groups being able to access it exclusively.

Access to data is the starting point, quality will increase from there on (because we all know that Bhante @sujato work is going to be great but cannot be perfect).

Good enough for me!

This is not a translation error, but a manuscript variant.

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Would that be the actual translation data, Bhante ? If so, it would be great ! I can convert them into PDFs or even Texinfo and read them on a small, low-powered computer, bypassing all this modern Javascript bloat. :slight_smile:

Indeed. All our data is freely available on Github, so you can do this already:

The difference will be that our online editor will natively sync up with Github, so any edit in the translation will be recorded.

As for low powered machines, supporting these, as well as low bandwidth areas, is one of our major priorities. In fact, our new site is built on the same platform as the new Twitter Lite app, which was designed specifically for mobiles in developing countries.

In addition, we have developed, and will gradually deploy, native PDF creation of our texts using LaTeX (similar to Wikipedia). I’d also like to deploy a bare-bones site, without JS or CSS, maybe, which would just serve the HTML text files in simple folders. But anyway, maybe you could do that for us!


Thanks, I cloned this repo some time ago.

I have zero experience or knowledge about website creation/maintenance. :slight_smile: But, fortunately, conversion into more formats is easy these days with tools like pandoc.

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