[INDOLOGY] Brackets in modern sanskrit translations

Matthew Kapstein mkapstei at uchicago.edu
Tue Jun 5 12:05:45 UTC 2018

Dear David,

Of course, this thread is about the use of brackets, not translation per se, but because the issue was raised I wish to say, despite my customary agreement with you, that the issue of "literary" vs. "literal" in Tibetan translation from Sanskrit is a red herring. Some Tibetan translations do indeed have the status of major literary works in Tibet, others are virtually unreadable, even for suitably educated Tibetans. And the storied Tibetan literalism, the reputation for translations that are word for word calques, is generally misleading.

It is true that the Tibetans worked with a highly standardized translation lexicon, but they departed from this when it was clearly warranted to do so. Moreover, given the polysemy of Sanskrit, the better translators recognized that choices had to be made on many occasions. In addition, there are many features of Tibetan translation that are not explicitly represented in the Sanskrit at all; for instance, compounds, in Tibetan translation, often in fact give the vigraha of the compound.

I cannot imagine that anyone might consider the Tibetan translation of a phrase from the BCA, rasajātam ativa vedhanīyam as gser 'gyur rtsi yi rnam pa mchog lta bu, "like the best form of the gold-transforming-ointment," to be precisely "literal," but in the context of the verse in which it occurs, it works perfectly well.

As for Tibetan translations from Chinese, as Stein showed some decades ago, some are really very approximate paraphrases (e.g. the Tibetan Shujing), others attempt to "Indianize" certain Buddhist works of Chinese origin, while others still adopt a distinctive lexicon for the representation of Buddhist ideas.

as ever,

all best,


Matthew Kapstein
Directeur d'études,
Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes

Numata Visiting Professor of Buddhist Studies,
The University of Chicago
From: INDOLOGY <indology-bounces at list.indology.info> on behalf of Jonathan Silk via INDOLOGY <indology at list.indology.info>
Sent: Tuesday, June 5, 2018 3:46:49 AM
To: David and Nancy Reigle
Cc: Indology
Subject: Re: [INDOLOGY] Brackets in modern sanskrit translations

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<mailto: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
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