Tibetan textbook

Paul Hackett ph2046 at COLUMBIA.EDU
Thu Nov 10 13:06:43 UTC 2011

Dear Adriano,

On Nov 10, 2011, at 5:11 AM, Adriano Aprigliano wrote:
> Which textbook (as well as a grammar and dictionary) would you 
> recommend for classical Tibetan, especially the translation literature?
   Unfortunately, there aren't any real textbooks for classical Tibetan literature.  There have been attempts over the years to publish various "readers," but the authors usually lacked a sufficient command of Tibetan grammar to make them very useful. At present there are only two textbook projects underway that I am aware of: my own work geared specifically towards classical Tibetan religious & philosophical literature (_A Classical Tibetan Reader_, to be published by Snow Lion), and another by Matthew Kapstein which I believe is more generic in scope (I have not actually seen it, so cannot say).  Neither one is published.

  Regarding grammar presentations, the two best ones are Michael Hahn's _Textbook of Classical Literary Tibetan_, portions of which seem to be available online at Harvard:


and Joe Wilson's _Translating Buddhism From Tibetan_ (Ithaca: Snow Lion).  Although Hahn's book gives an excellent concise overview of the components of Tibetan grammar, it is weak on the practicalities of dissecting the more idiosyncratic Tibetan sentence formations, particularly those seen in the philosophical literature.  For this reason, although Hahn's is a useful resource to have, I am more partial to Joe Wilson's textbook since it offers a systematic presentation of Tibetan grammar specifically geared both to classical Tibetan literature and pedagogically for students interested in practical advice for translating.  Other presentations either attempt to include theoretical linguistic models which tend to be not very useful, or worse yet, conflate literary Tibetan with colloquial Tibetan, which simply confuses the issue (they are sufficiently distinct) leading to a watered-down, lowest-common-denominator presentation that loses may key attributes of dealing exclusively with literary classical Tibetan.  Be aware that Wilson's book is geared specifically towards translating Tibetan into English.  If you goal is translating into Portuguese, his approach will undoubtedly require some reformulation.

   As for dictionaries, it is much more difficult.  Believe it or not, one of the best dictionaries for classical Tibetan is still Sarat Chadra Das, _Tibetan-English Dictionary_ (1902), available from several publishers in India.  The only weakness is its coverage of tantra and the more abstruse philosophical vocabulary.  Jeffrey Hopkins's dictionary was an attempt to rectify this lacuna regarding tantra and philosophy, but it is not yet published and currently only an old only version is available online from the University of Virginia as part of the "Tibetan Dictionary Tool" (though be advise that the bulk of the data there is more quantity than quality and needs to be used with some caution).  I published a dictionary of Tibetan verbs a few years ago (_A Tibetan Verb Lexicon_ Ithaca: Snow Lion, 2003) as both a ready reference and prolegomenon to my "Classical Tibetan Reader" designed to be used in conjunction with Joe Wilson textbook, and which students tell me they find quite useful, though it has its own limitations as well (a second edition will require several more years of work).  Otherwise, there is the Tibetan-Tibetan-Chinese Dictionary from almost twenty years ago, but it is not for novice students, requiring a certain degree of facility in Tibetan to be useful and even then it is very weak in terms of philosophical vocabulary and is geared much more towards generic literature.

Hope that helps.


Paul Hackett
Columbia University

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