Translation Project - Early Buddhism

Would anyone be interested in joining a collaborative “Critical Edition/Scholarly Translation” project, tentatively called the “Bible Project,”
to examine/evaluate the early Buddhist textual manuscripts and further hone the already excellent English translations that are already available today?

Critical Editions:
The study of manuscripts or printings to determine the original or most authoritative form of a text, stressing close reading and detailed analysis of a particular texts.

Scholarly Translations:
The translation of canonical texts into modern vernaculars.

I was able to form an organization in 2017, which is intended to be based squarely on the Dhamma-Vinaya taught by the Buddha as its “foundation” and “head/authority” (DN 16).

In order to clearly and explicitly define this foundation and convey it others,
I wish to learn Sanskrit, Prakrit, Pali, and Dhamma-Vinaya as suitably as I am able to in order to build on the excellent English translations that are already being refined today.

The end goal would be a Buddhist equivalent of the Christian Bible.
(A comprehensive reference source.)

In order to fund this project, I hope to apply through the organization to one or more grants:

(NEH: Projects must be undertaken by at least two scholars working collaboratively.)

I will likely attempt to apply some years down the line, not in the immediate future.
Because I am rather slow, I wish to begin planning/preparing for this ahead of time.

Some preliminary ideas :bulb::

  1. Try to undertake the translations not contrary to and in accordance with Dhamma-Vinaya.
  2. Try to translate “early” Buddhist texts ONLY, thus narrow the scope considerably.
  3. Try to collaborate with both internal and external translators (no need to join organization).
  4. Try to fairly credit each translator based on contribution.
  5. Try to fairly credit translators whose translation it is built upon.
  6. Try to distribute translations completely for free.
  7. Try to share everything freely with all other translators (e.g. SuttaCentral).
  8. Try to emphasize the most suitable translations possible (not all translations are equal).
  9. Try to emphasize translational accuracy, precision, and rigor.
  10. Try to update the entire translation annually each Vesak Day.

Even if you wish to at the very least discuss the possibility of and assess the suitability of working together on this Bible Project, please let me know.

Worse comes to worst, if upon discussing, we find it to be unsuitable for us to work together on it, please feel free to apply for these and other grants independently!

Lol I think you are describing Sutta Central… But it is not a ‘life long’ institution, but a collaboration among Kalyana Mittas, dedicated to EBTs

Perhaps have a look at some of the history and background pages on the SC site :slightly_smiling_face:

Great idea, by the way. And a laudable aspiration :blush::slightly_smiling_face::pray:


Are you suggesting…we are looking for the entire SC team?..but it’s difficult to see the forest when you’re standing right in the middle of it? :thinking::thinking::thinking::thinking::thinking::thinking:

Yup sounds about right. Where have you guys been, we’ve been looking for you all!!! :rofl::sweat_smile:

(I swear, I have had that thought independently for some years now! You can ask an SC user who is in my program - I’ve told him, and one day he put two and two together and said SuttaCentral was doing almost exactly what I said I had in mind - I remember that my response was pretty much “good, less work for me :rofl:” - all of this “belongs” to the Buddha anyway and “competition” is an illusion according to Buddhism (though a very seductive one). At the end of the day - i.e. life -, I just want the Dhamma-Vinaya to be conveyed clearly. Can’t force anyone to believe or accept it, but we can do our best to convey and present it as clearly as possible - just like its being at SC.

Will do! Thank you for suggesting it!

Likewise! …except ours is a mere idea, SC is actually a living, breathing, dream-come-true entity.

I don’t know why I didn’t think of what you just told me (even though my friend connected the dots for me already before) - I can be rather dull, if you haven’t noticed already, now hopefully you can!

Anyway, I shall try to think of where and how our idea can realistically complement SuttaCentral and not merely duplicate efforts.

Unlike SC, the purpose of the organization is actually not translations, but the translations are so fundamentally important because how can the Dhamma-Vinaya serve as a foundation if we can’t even understand what it actually even is?

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Hey, thanks for the ideas and enthusiasm.

If I may just offer a few reflections that might be handy in thinking about this, based on my little bit of experience in this area.

When I gradually came around to thinking of creating a new generation of translations, I went through a lot of possible ideas.

The most obvious traditional approach would be to do something like, say, the Pali text Society, that is, set up a formal institution for creating translations. But this has its difficulties: lots of red tape, hard to get funding, and hard to find people.

I then thought of forming a small “crack team” of experienced scholars to pull it together, but again, hard to organize. Most experienced people are busy with their own work.

I also thought of something closer to what you are proposing, but there is a major stumbling-block to this as well: if our aim is to train people in the languages for making translations, very few people get to a sufficient language level to make a difference; it’s impossible to tell who that will be; and even among those who persist, not all will have the talent or (dare I say) the wisdom to translate well. So there is a major investment of time and maybe money for an uncertain result long down the road.

Anyway, as you know, my conclusion was, “Okay, just do it myself”, and that has worked out okay. Now we have a complete, consistent, and readable translation of the four nikayas’; the Vinaya is coming along nicely, and within a year or two I’ll finish off the rest of the 6 early books of the Khuddaka.

Now, this is not to say that any of the above approaches are wrong per se; they just didn’t satisfy my need at the time to produce a good set of translations in a fairly short time frame.

Now, where to go from here?

One thing that I bear in mind is what we at Santi dubbed the “peter Principle”, after a gentleman named, you guessed it, Peter. We were discussing where to put the shoe rack. Some said by the door, some said at the entrance, some said round the corner. The problem is, how do we know that people will actually put their shoes on the rack? Peter said, “Put the shoe rack where people put their shoes”. Which we did, and it worked out great.

So, let’s apply the Peter principle: where are people putting their shoes? Which means, let’s look at what people are actually doing and see if we can help them to do it better.

So one of the major things that stands out is that people are making translations from English into their own languages. Now, obviously this is problematic. At the same time, it is inevitable. Google translate does the same thing. If you translate from German to Hindi, it goes German to English, English to Hindi. Bible translations—which have a vastly greater base of resources than us—also do the same thing; most of the hundreds of extant Bible translations are made from English.

The underlying reason behind this is simple, and will not change: there are simply not the scholars in all the world’s languages who are competent in the original languages and have the time and motivation to do this work.

So our main thrust at the moment is to build a platform (Bilara) that can support translations into third languages. And we aim to help people do that better, by providing a platform they can simply use, and not have to think about making websites and all the other stuff. They can just translate. Moreover, we can develop tools that will help keep people closer to the original language when translating, for example, by using our Pali lookup tool.

Now, these things are underway and we have to stay the course through our development process.

What other things may be useful?

Well, one important thing is to recognize talented people working in the field and give support to them. I am thinking of those such as Charles Patton, a regular here on Discourse, who is developing a new set of Chinese translations.

Which brings us to another area: while we have a reasonable handle on getting the EBTs from Pali available in translation, the same is not the case for the texts in Chinese, Sanskrit, and Tibetan. I may, if I get around to it, end up translating the Sanskritic texts, but I’m not going to be learning Tibetan or Chinese in this life. So this is a major area where we need improvement.

I also like you idea of supporting original language learning. For anyone who is translating, even if they are primarily working from English, it is of course better to have some knowledge of the original languages, even if only a little. Perhaps we could arrange SC courses in the languages for potential translators?


Bhante, what an amazing response :astonished: I need some time think, reflect, and respond!


As a former start-up guy, I love this advice… But you may want to pick a different name, as that one is already taken :smile:


Unfortunately so, but then, aren’t all the good names taken? As they say, in computer science, there are two hard problems: cache invalidation, naming things, and off-by-one errors.


How about the “Silā principle”? Peter = “rock” = silā. :wink:

But I guess the name is just connected to a nice memory and so likely won’t easily change.

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It reminds me a bit of “desire paths” (not to mention many concepts in UXD) but perhaps “the shoe rack principle” might suffice as a clear pointer :man_shrugging:


What are all the languages that the early Buddhist textual sources can be found in?

Does this list accurately identify all the languages?
If not, can you add, subtract, modify this list?

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