Buddhist Books and Texts: Translation

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Translation practices have been central to the ongoing reinterpretation and transformation of the Buddhist tradition. Translation ensures both continuitythrough the transmission of the vast sacred literature of the traditionand change, as different ways of interpreting Buddhist thought and practice are opened up or closed off in the process of translation. As an interpretive practice, translation depends upon and illuminates historical conceptions of Buddhist literature and of the process of translation itself, neither of which necessarily coincide with contemporary English conceptions. The translation of Buddhist literature reveals the different ways in which various Buddhist communities have located and recreated the value and power of their textual traditions in light of their individual cultural and historical contexts.

A frequently cited passage in the Pali canon (Vinaya 2.139) both prescribes and exemplifies the complex and crucial role that translation has played in the transmission of the Buddhist tradition. In this passage, two monks of the Brāhma class report to the Buddha that the teachings are being disseminated by monks of widely varying backgrounds sakāya niruttiyā, "in own language," and suggest to him that his words be rendered in chandaso (usually interpreted to mean "Sanskrit meter"). No, he replies to them, they should be disseminated "in own language." Numerous interpreters, ancient and modern, have viewed this passage as clearly defining the normative stance on the question of whether or not to translate texts, but they have not agreed on just what stance is being prescribed.

How one interprets this passage determines and is determined by one's opinion on whether to translate the word of the Buddha. Does the phrase "in own language" refer to the language of the preaching monk, or to the language of the Buddha himself? The passage admits multiple interpretations (not all of which have been summarized here). Thus, whereas many interpreters see here the Buddha's stamp of approval for translation practices, others, including the highly influential fifth century commentator Buddhaghosathought to be responsible for the translation of Theravādin commentarial literature from Sinhalese into Paliview "in own language" as referring to the Buddha's own language. According to Buddhaghosa, that language was Pali.

The different historical interpretations of this putatively normative passage mirror the multiple approaches to and conceptions of translation taken in different times and places. The preservation of the Theravādin tipiaka in Pali, as compared to the translation of the tripiaka into Chinese and Tibetan, for instance, would appear to demarcate one of the most significant distinctions among Buddhist conceptions of translation. If one looks beyond general preferences regarding canonical language, however, the situation becomes considerably more complicated: Theravādin Buddhist communities have translated numerous texts into local languages, and have produced bilingual versions of canonical texts in which Pali is interspersed with local languages. Conversely, certain texts or parts of texts (like mantra and dhāraī ) have been preserved in Buddhist Sanskrit by the same communities that chose, for the most part, to translate the canon. Buddhist conceptions of translation are reflected not simply in the question of whether to translate, but whatand how, and whyto translate.

The practices of premodern Buddhist translators clearly indicate that the answers to these questions were multiple. One stands a better chance of understanding the multiplicity of Buddhist conceptions of translation if one begins with the premise that the practice of translation in the vast majority of premodern Buddhist communities was a religious practice. Much of Buddhist literature is thought to embody not only meaning, but also tremendous efficacy and transformative powerthe power to heal, bring prosperity, or even enlighten audiences. The production of translations is thus closely related to other religiousand even devotionalpractices. Situating the questions of whether, how, and why Buddhists translated their sacred literature within this context of religious practice illuminates possible motivations and explanations that might otherwise remain obscure.

Techniques of Translation

Whereas the conceptions of translation that inform Buddhist translation practices are only rarely examined explicitly by translators, the techniques used in translation can shed considerable light on diverse answers not only to the question of how to translate, but also to the question of why. The approach taken by a translator or community of translators is not arbitrary; it is shaped by the conception of Buddhist literature and its translation that is held by the translator. On the other hand, interpreting techniques of translation with the aim of understanding conceptions of translation is by no means straightforward. For instance, the late-eighth-century Tibetan king Khri Srong-lde'u-bstan (742c. 800 ce) is credited with normalizing previously idiosyncratic translation practices, prescribing methods for rendering Sanskrit syntax and dictating precise one-to-one correspondences between Sanskrit and Tibetan terms. The result is a highly artificial style, a kind of "translationese," that had been adopted by Tibetan translators to such an extent that some modern scholars of Buddhism have thought that Tibetan translations could be used to produce "back-translations," reconstructions of Sanskrit texts that are no longer extant.

One can attempt to derive from this translation technique, employed in all editions of the Tibetan canon, the conception of translation that informs it. Any such attempt is itself, however, a kind of back-translation: an interpretive reconstruction that is necessarily flawed even though potentially illuminating. Does the deep concern for establishing equivalence between the two languages indicate that, despite the practice of translation, the power of the text was still thought to reside in the Sanskrit forms of the language, or does it suggest an extreme skepticism regarding a translator's ability to correctly grasp and render the meaning and transformative power of a text? Techniques of translation can indeed suggest the concerns and conceptions of the translator(s), but the techniques themselves are open to interpretation.

In contrast to the regularization of translation techniques in Tibet, Chinese translations exhibit a wide range of approaches. Early Chinese translators, such as An Shigao (second century ce), tended to borrow Daoist vocabulary for the rendering of Buddhist ideas. Many texts were produced by translation teams, in which different members assumed specific roles in the interpretive and editorial processes under the leadership of an illustrious translator. Particular translators cultivated distinctive techniques. Some, such as the monk Hsüan-tsang (602664 ce), actively preserved the foreign flavor of a text through literal renderings. Others, most famously Kumārajīva (344413 ce), attempted to convey the core significance of a text through free translations in elegant literary Chinese. Foreignness and familiarity both breed their own kinds of power, and these different techniques of translation can be interpreted as indicators of where different translators located the power of the religious texts they were translating.

Moreover, several different translations of the "same" text are frequently preserved side-by-side in the Chinese canon, a practice which itself invites interpretation. Perhaps Chinese Buddhist scholars conceived of different translations as illuminating different aspects or functions of a given text, or simply as representing part of a textual history worthy of preservation. This multiplicity provides an important contrast to the Tibetan practice of attempting to determine a single definitive translation, one that suggests a strikingly different conception of Buddhist literature and its translation.

Language Choice

The translation of Buddhist literature is not simply a matter of rendering texts from one vernacular into another. Many of the languages in which Buddhist literature is preserved are literary languages distinct from those spoken by people who produced and used Buddhist literature. These literary languages have their own complex histories of transformation and codification. Thus, "Buddhist Sanskrit" describes a literary language (or, better, a range of language use) closely related to, but not identical with, classical Sanskrit in the normative sense. Indeed, some scholars maintain that the form of Sanskrit in which some Buddhist literature is preserved is itself a kind of translation, an amalgam of prakritic literary languages and Sanskrit, where the former is thought to be the original language of composition. Other scholars counter that Buddhists chose to compose and preserve texts in these "hybrid" literary forms. Likewise, the Pali in which Theravādan canonical texts are preserved was never a vernacular language; whatever its progenitors might have been, it has distinct features that indicate its deliberate construction as a literary language.

As noted above, Tibetan translations employ a highly artificial form of "translationese" that would be abstruse for the uninitiated reader. It is difficult to make generalizations about the language of the Chinese translations, which varies considerably in terms of its conformity with the norms of literary Chinese, itself a form of language very distinct from vernaculars. It is safe to say, however, that even the most colloquially inflected translations became, in the course of a few hundred years, distant from vernacular usage (as, for instance, the language of Shakespeare is for most contemporary English speakers).

Buddhist Sanskrit, Pali, Tibetan, and Chinese all functioned not only as literary languages, but also as translocal languageslanguages in which Buddhist literature was preserved and studied by communities whose spoken language was different. Thus Pali functioned as a translocal language in South and Southeast Asia, Sanskrit in South and Central Asia, Chinese in East Asia and parts of Southeast Asia, and Tibetan in the Himalayas and in Mongolian communities. In this respect, these languages are distinct from local languages that, whether literary or vernacular, did not function beyond the borders of their linguistic communities. Note, however, that "local" and "translocal" are shifting categories. When Tibetan translations were made of Sanskrit Buddhist texts, they were rendered in a local literary language; when Mongolian Buddhists chose to use the Tibetan Buddhist canon, Tibetan was being used as a translocal language.

In addition to the distinctions between literary and vernacular and between local and translocal, a third distinction, between languages from which and languages into which translations were made, is relevant to an examination of Buddhist translation practices. Sanskrit, Pali, Tibetan, and Chinese all functioned as sources for translations into local languages. Sogdians, for instance, chose to translate Buddhist texts from the Chinese, whether due to access or to presumed authority. Once again, however, these categories are flexible and overlapping. Sinhalese commentaries on the tipiaka were translated into Pali, in part to make them accessible to a translocal audience.

Like the techniques of translation employed in different times and places, language choice admits various interpretations. The preservation of the canon in a foreign language does not suggest that translation did not take place. For example, the entire Tibetan canon was translated into Mongolian in the first half of the seventeenth century, but the Tibetan version came to be preferred for liturgical purposes. Preserving canonical texts in a translocal language like Pali can be understood in terms of the reverence for and power invested in what was thought to be the language of the Buddha, but it can also be understood as an element in the construction of a shared translocal culture, or as an attempt to restrict access to canonical texts to a powerful monastic elite. The translation of a massive corpus of texts into Chinese or Tibetan might be interpreted as a sign of the populist nature of the Buddhist movement in a particular time and place, but, since the variety of language employed in the translation is, in most cases, far from the vernacular, the charge of elitism might just as easily be applied. Regardless, it is safe to say that in the vast majority of Buddhist communities both local and translocal languages were employed, the choice between one or the other in the case of a given text being dictated by a complex and fluctuating conjunction of social, literary, and soteriological factors.

Take, for instance, the Thai ceremony for imbuing life in a Buddha image, in which monks chant the biography of the Buddha to the image in Pali. Translations of the text in local languages exist and are used in preaching, but only the Pali version is deemed to have the potency to enliven an image. A similar linguistic "division of labor" might well inform language choice in Khotanese Buddhism. While manuscript evidence suggests that Sanskrit sutras were produced in Khotan, Khotanese translations or summaries of the same texts are also attested. One possible explanation might be derived from the Thai case: perhaps Sanskrit texts served a different function from translated texts. Another explanation, provided by Jan Nattier (1990), suggests that, through the influence of Chinese Buddhist textual practices, a shift in language choice towards a preference for the vernacular took place in Central Asia after the sixth century, prior to which only Buddhist Sanskrit texts were produced. Both the functional and the temporal explanation have merit, and are not mutually exclusive options.

Translation and Acculturation

The complex choices regarding language use outlined abovewhether, what, and how to translatehave profound implications for understanding the acculturation of Buddhism in particular places and times. Translation is a crucial moment in the life of a text; a translator (or team of translators) functions as both reader and author, shaping the text through the interpretive process of translation for all its future readers. This complex intercultural moment, which embodies the paradox of translationthe simultaneous sameness and difference of the translated text from the originalis both a central factor in and a powerful metaphor for processes of acculturation. Particularly in a tradition with so strong a textual orientation as Buddhism, translators' interpretations of key texts can have profound effects on the development of the tradition in its new locales. Central concepts and practices are shaped by the terminology employed to describe them; the influence of a particular text is dependent upon the poetic and rhetorical devices through which its message is rendered. Translation closes certain avenues of interpretation and development, while opening up others that may not have been fully present in the original. These dynamics can be seen not only in textual translation practices, but also in broader processes of adaptation, such as the "translation" of an Indic ritual employing cow dung as a sacred substance into a different cultural context where the substance is viewed as unclean excrement.

The choice to preserve a text in a translocal language, rather than translating it, by no means suggests a refusal of acculturating processes, although a desire to maintain the original purity of the teachings might be part of the motivation. Instead, preserving a body of religious literature in a translocal language forges particular ties to the context of origin. The acculturation of the tradition to a particular locale occurs through the production of new literaturein the translocal as well as in the local languagerather than through rendering a preexistent literary corpus in the local language. The preexistent literature itself can take on a somewhat esoteric (and potentially powerful) quality as a result of its incomprehensibility to the vast majority of practitioners. Preserving a canon in a translocal language also provides the conditions for the maintenance of a clerical elite, as well as for the creation of a translocal community connected by the bonds of religious language and practice. The Theravādan Buddhist world, for all the highly distinctive local variations it encompasses, shares deep relationships born in part from the shared preservation of Pali Buddhist literature and ritual and the maintenance of a monastic elite educated in that language.

This is not to suggest that contexts where translation into local languages was preferred were lacking in translocal relationships, esotericism, or institutional elites, but rather that such factors of acculturation were generated by means other than the preservation of religious literature in a translocal language. In China, translations themselves, with their distinctive locutions, became powerful markers of the context of origin and of the legitimation it imparted to texts. Indeed, the names of illustrious translators alone could lend the stamp of authority; the Chinese canon ascribes to Kumārajīva more texts than he could possibly have translated. By adopting the style and phrasings characteristic of a translation in the composition of a new work, and attributing it to a respected translator, one could create the legitimizing aura of Indic origin, thereby introducing new literature into a corpus whose boundaries were defined by the ostensible origin of texts. Indigenous "transcreations" of this sort occur in the Chinese canon; literature that was later excised from the canon due to its questionable authenticity has been preserved among the manuscripts found at Dunhuang. Transcreations were produced in other Buddhist communities, as well, although the legitimating strategies employed vary. Translations established new genres of literature that could subsequently be employed in the creation and legitimation of indigenous compositions, enabling Buddhist literature to address more directly the pressing questions of particular cultural and historical communities. In this way, translations have provided not only a means of preservation, but also a pretext for innovation within the tradition.


The conceptions of translation that underlie the practices outlined above are multiple, and clearly do not always coincide with the concept invoked by the English term. "Translation" tends to be used narrowly, such that only a text that attempts to render "faithfully" the meaning of another in a different language is usually deemed to be a translation. This contemporary conception of translation has generally guided scholarly studies of Buddhist translation practices. Did premodern Buddhist translators conceive of translation in such a manner, or were some Buddhist conceptions of translation more fluid? For instance, two Sanskrit terms for translation, anuvāda and vivaraa, both refer to exegetical as well as translation practices; how clear is the distinction between what English designates as two separate practices? Might some Buddhist translators have conceived of processes of summarization, excerption and anthologizing as processes of "translation"? Both because these questions depend on conceptions of textuality more broadly, and because they have so seldom been asked, no clear answers are yet possible.

It is clear, however, that translation is an interpretive practice. Any translation will privilege the aspects of a text that the translator perceives to be of central importance. Much of Buddhist literature is conceived of as not only conveying meaning, but also possessing transformative potential. The translation of such texts in Buddhist communities, then, involves rendering those qualities of a text that a particular translator or tradition of translation deems to be powerful. In this sense, translation practices have played and continue to play a central role in the ongoing transmission and transformation of the Buddhist tradition, not only in making texts accessible to different cultural and linguistic communities, but also in recreating the interpretive possibilities for Buddhist thought and practice.


No general study of Buddhist translation practices has yet been published in English. Most available case studies tend to focus on the technical aspects of translation, and have therefore been omitted from the following list. While several of the works listed are not specifically focused on translation, all address issues central to its study.

Buswell, Robert E., Jr., ed. Chinese Buddhist Apocrypha. Honolulu, 1990.

Gómez, Luis O. The Land of Bliss: The Paradise of the Buddha of Measureless Light. Honolulu, 1996. Includes separate English translations of Sanskrit and Chinese versions of two sūtras, as well as a discussion of their differences.

Harrison, Paul. "A Brief History of the Tibetan Bka' 'Gyur." In Tibetan Literature: Studies in Genre, edited by Jose' Ignacio Cabezón and Roger R. Jackson, pp. 7094. Ithaca, N.Y., 1995.

Mair, Victor. "Buddhism and the Rise of the Written Vernacular in East Asia: The Making of National Languages." Journal of Asian Studies 53 (3): 707751.

Mizuno, Kogen. Buddhist Sūtras: Origin, Development, Transmission. Tokyo, 1982. One of the most accessible historical treatments of the transmission and translation of sūtras in China (although unfortunately lacking citations).

Nattier, Jan. "Church Language and Vernacular Language in Central Asian Buddhism." Numen 37 (1990): 195219.

Pollock, Sheldon. "The Sanskrit Cosmopolis, 3001300: Transculturation, Vernacularization, and the Question of Ideology." In Ideology and Status of Sanskrit: Contributions to the History of the Sanskrit Language, edited by Jan E. M. Houben, pp. 197247. Leiden, 1996.

Pollock, Sheldon, ed. Literary Cultures in History: Reconstructions from South Asia. Berkeley, Calif., 2003. The essays by Sheldon Pollock, Steven Collins, Charles Hallisey, and Matthew Kapstein, in particular, examine questions of language choice relevant to the transmission of Buddhist literature.

Ruegg, David Seyfort. "On Translating the Buddhist Canon." In Studies in Indo-Asian Art and Culture 3, edited by P. Ratnam, pp. 243261. New Delhi, 1973.

Natalie Gummer (2005)

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