Lost in translation

If you don’t know me personally and haven’t read my previous blogs, you may not know much about my background. Before I was an atheist, and long before I was ever a Buddhist, I was an evangelical Christian. In the early 1990s I spent three years in theological seminary to gain a degree in Theology and a diploma in Evangelism.

As part of my degree course I studied Hebrew and Koine Greek, the languages in which most of the Bible was originally written. As well as studying the texts in the original languages, we were also taught the basics of translation. I have since had some further experience of translation in a different field, i.e. translating between Welsh and English (I speak both languages), so I know some of the skills and pitfalls of translating texts from one language to another. The difficulties are only magnified when the text you’re translating from is written in a dead language.

There are parallels here within Buddhism, as I have discovered. The various bodies of canonical texts were written in other languages. Some, such as Pali and Sanskrit, are no longer spoken except as liturgical languages. Since I have not learned Pali or Sanskrit (or Tibetan, Japanese, Chinese… you get the picture), I have to rely on English translations of the texts.

One thing that always got on my nerves when I was a Christian was the way certain factions venerated an English translation of the Bible that was done in the seventeenth century, even though the form of English it used was so archaic that few people now understood it. There were even “modern” translations that used similar forms of words, as this had come to be seen as the “proper” way to venerate the text, to make it sound mysterious and ancient.

To me, that mindset completely missed the point of having a translation in the first place. If you want  to make the text sound mysterious and ancient, use the original languages. However, if you want to make a translation, surely the whole point of doing so is for people to be able to ead and understand the meaning of the texts.

The reason I bring all this up is that I have seen a similar thing in a Buddhist context recently. I ordered a copy of the Prajnaparamita Diamond Sutra and Heart Sutra, in English translation as it was originally written in Sanskrit. Here is a sample of the text:

The Buddha said, “Very well said, very well said, Subhuti, just as thou hast said that the Thus-Adventist has been very well mindfully protecting the Pusas and very well entrusting and instructing the Pusas. Now hearken soothly, and I will expound it for you.”

“Verily, Your World-Veneration, we would fain hear Thy instructions.”

Good grief! It seems that the translator has taken a leaf out of the traditionalist Christians’ book and assumed that to sound authoritative, the text must be translated into archaic English. How on earth is that going to aid understanding, which is the very point of translating it into English in the first place?

Thankfully, I was able to get a different translation of the same text later. It’s not perfect (there’s no such thing as a perfect translation, though I’d have liked to see terms such as Tatagatha translated), but it is far easier to read and understand, purely because it’s in more modern English.

Here’s the same passage as quoted above, from this second translation:

After these words the Lord said to the venerable Subhuti: ‘Well said, well said, Subhuti! So it is, Subhuti, so it is, as you say! The Tatagatha, Subhuti, has helped the Bodhisattvas, the great beings with the greatest help, and he has favoured them with the highest favour. Therefore, Subhuti, listen well and attentively!”

‘So be it, O Lord,’ replied the Venerable Subhuti and listened.

Do you see the difference? If you want to read the Buddhist scriptures, make sure you get a translation that you can understand. And if you’re in the business of translating anything, let alone canonical works: please, please, please keep your audience in mind and make it as easy for them to read and understand as possible. To do otherwise is to do a disservice both to the text you are translating and to the reader.


One thought on “Lost in translation

  1. You can find very readable, contemporary-sounding translations of the theravadan canon at http://www.accesstoinsight.org

    My feeling is that some Buddhist terms are best left untranslated, because they really don’t translate; though it is helpful to understand what the terms actually denoted/connoted/etc; for example:

    “Tathāgata: Literally, “one who has truly gone (tatha-gata)” or “one who has become authentic “(tatha-agata),” an epithet used in ancient India for a person who has attained the highest spiritual goal. In Buddhism, it usually denotes the Buddha, although occasionally it also denotes any of his arahant disciples.” — from http://www.accesstoinsight.org/glossary.html#t


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