[INDOLOGY] Brackets in modern sanskrit translations

Jonathan Silk kauzeya at gmail.com
Tue Jun 5 08:46:49 UTC 2018

Dear David, dear all

I am not very sure about engaging here, but my great appreciation for David
and his contributions (as well as his personal kindnesses to me) prompts me
to try to correct what I see as a few misunderstandings here.
First, there is a wide variation in not only the quality but also the
approach to translations into Chinese from, let us say for ease of
conversation, Sanskrit. From a Chinese perspective, the use of the word
"literary" is incautious; I think there is probably close to nothing
translated into Chinese of Buddhist literature which was considered
literary (yes, I know, one could argue a few cases, but on the whole this
is true, I believe). But let us assume for the moment that there is a good
distinction between "literal" and "literary" (which I think there is not):
the distinction between Tibetan and Chinese translations is in any case not
of this type, and one main reason is that, contrary to the 'evidence' of
one modern Tibetan, we have almost no idea how contemporary readers
understood their texts. BUT wait, we actually do have at least one way of
seeking this out: I have been working recently on a corpus of materials
translated from Chinese into Tibetan, mostly but not exclusively in
Dunhuang. And guess what: when the Tibetan readers recorded in Tibetan
their understanding of the Chinese translations, it comes out looking every
bit as "precise" and "literal" as the translations from Sanskrit. So
something is a bit wrong with this picture.
I am not going to go into the issue of royal decrees here, but I would
suggest that there is much more of the political here than there is concern
with fidelity, or better, that these are deeply intertwined.
I confess to finding it a bit difficult to understand the claim that
Buddhism did not flourish in China. I had to read the paragraph several
times (even without parentheses!) to discover that this is indeed the
intended meaning. But by almost any measure, this is clearly simply wrong
(not to mention that, uh, it ignores the deep Tibetan debt to China for
part of its own Buddhist traditions...). The rest of that paragraph would
require a bit of unpacking; I think I know what it means, and I disagree
with it, but I might be wrong, so I'll leave it aside.
As for the last paragraph, please refer to what I wrote above about the
Tibetan translations from Chinese, first of all, but second of all: the
more we learn about Indian Buddhist texts, the more we learn that --at
least as far as scriptures are concerned, and it might be somewhat
different in the case of śāstras-- the fluidity of vocabulary, even
technical vocabulary, is much greater than we might expect (1), and since
there is virtually no case in which we know exactly which Sanskrit text
served as the Vorlage for a Tibetan translation, we simply cannot know what
they were attempting to render in any given case (of course there are
patterns, but again, even with śāstras, fluidity exists) (2).
So in all, I think that we need to seriously reconsider the model David
offers here.
None of this however is really relevant to the question of parentheses in
translations--apologies for the rant!
David, please don't take this as in any way ad hominem--it is not meant
that way in the least!!
Very best, Jonathan

On Tue, Jun 5, 2018 at 1:35 AM, David and Nancy Reigle via INDOLOGY <
indology at list.indology.info> wrote:

> Jean-Luc's reply has emboldened me to present a couple of observations on
> this issue. But first, a clarification. In American English the word
> "brackets" refers to square brackets [like this], while the word
> "parentheses" refers to round brackets (like this). From some things I have
> read by British writers, this may not be the usage in British English.
> Many times I have noticed something particularly interesting to me in an
> English translation of a Sanskrit text, and have then looked it up to find
> the Sanskrit behind it. Many times the Sanskrit is not there; the
> interesting English portion was silently supplied by the translator. The
> problem here, for me, is that things get attributed to a Sanskrit writer
> that are in fact by an English-language translator. So brackets are very
> helpful to me, at least in technical writings (obviously excluding such
> writings as novels).
> This pertains to the issue of accuracy, which can be more important than
> readability. The large-scale translation of the Buddhist scriptures from
> Sanskrit, first into Chinese, and later into Tibetan, is probably the
> largest example known to history from which the effects of literary versus
> literal translations can be studied. The Chinese translations were
> literary, while the Tibetan translations were literal, so literally
> accurate that brackets were not required. In general, nothing was added
> that was not in the Sanskrit. The Tibetan translations were made literally
> by early royal decree, the idea being that the Buddha's words were too
> sacred to risk interpretation by translators. The resulting translations
> were not readily comprehensible to the people, as Geshe Lozang Jamspal
> assured me. The canonical translations were usually studied in Tibet by way
> of later commentaries on them written in native Tibetan.
> In brief, Buddhism did not flourish in China, at least partly due to
> confusion of the meaning of the Buddhist texts resulting from their more
> literary translations, and contradictions between the different Chinese
> translations of the same Sanskrit text. By contrast, Buddhism flourished in
> Tibet, at least partly due to the consistency of the literally accurate
> translations of the Buddhist texts, with their standardized translation
> terms. The various Buddhist schools could arise in Tibet, with their
> various interpretations of the Buddhist texts, because they all started
> from the consistently same basis. The interpretations came later; they were
> not built in to the translations of the core texts by the translators.
> No one in Tibet wondered, for example, whether a Sanskrit core text spoke
> of dhyāna or samādhi, because dhyāna was consistently translated as bsam
> gtan, while samādhi was consistently translated as ting nge 'dzin. The
> Tibetans did not have to contend with "meditation" or "concentration" or
> "meditative absorption" or "meditative stabilization" used variously for
> these two words in translations, like we have in English translations
> today, and apparently like what occurred in the Chinese translations. Since
> we do not have standardized translation terms, adding the Sanskrit word in
> parentheses is something I find helpful. Nor did the Tibetans have to
> wonder whether a word or phrase was added to the translation by the
> translator. When words or phrases are added, as I believe is often
> necessary in translations of terse Sanskrit into English, I find brackets
> to be helpful.
> Best regards,
> David Reigle
> Colorado, U.S.A.
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J. Silk
Leiden University
Leiden University Institute for Area Studies, LIAS
Matthias de Vrieshof 3, Room 0.05b
2311 BZ Leiden
The Netherlands

copies of my publications may be found at

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