[INDOLOGY] Accuracy in translations
David and Nancy Reigle
dnreigle at gmail.com
Wed Jun 6 02:49:58 UTC 2018
Sincere thanks to Dan, Jonathan, and Matthew, for very helpful comments and
corrections to my post (Dan Lusthaus’ reply to the list inadvertently went
only to me, so it is given below). One of the great values of this forum is
that posts like mine can get quick feedback from experts in the field. This
can save a person from veering too far off the path of accuracy in thought
and speech on a given subject.
Since the subject is no longer “Brackets in modern Sanskrit translations,”
I have changed the heading to “Accuracy in translations.”
Thank you, Dan, for providing a better perspective on the Chinese
translations of the Buddhist canon. My brief generalizations did not do
them justice. Yes, as you and Jonathan both pointed out, one cannot really
say that Buddhism did not flourish in China. More Buddhists rely on Chinese
translations than on Tibetan translations. By my rather poor choice of the
term “flourish” I intended the vigorous interaction between the various
schools of thought seen in Tibetan Buddhism and the consequent growth and
development (“flourish” in that sense) of these schools of thought up to
the present. This is in contrast to D. T. Suzuki’s observation made in
1898: “. . . in China where Buddhism is at present in a comatose state”
(“Notes on the Mādhyamika Philosophy,” *Journal of the Buddhist Text and
Anthropological Society*, vol. 6, part 3, p. 20).
Your example of the one Tibetan word 'dus pa translating both Sanskrit
words samūha and saṃcita, thereby obscuring the view that there are three
items rather than two, well illustrates an important fact about the Tibetan
translations. Since Tibetan has a considerably smaller vocabulary than
Sanskrit, a single Tibetan word must often do duty for translating two or
more Sanskrit words. This indeed causes loss of precision and resultant
inaccuracy, and explains the other example you gave of the Tibetan word
“don” translating several Sanskrit words.
I appreciate your comments on the “myth of the alleged disparity between
the Chinese and Tibetan translations,” i.e., the latter being “more literal
or accurate.” What has contributed to this myth (if it is one), are the
many introductions to editions and translations of Sanskrit texts where the
editors or translators say that the Tibetan translations were of
indispensable help, while the Chinese translations were of more limited
help. A single example will suffice, this from Gadjin Nagao’s *Index to the
Mahāyāna-sūtrālaṃkāra *(Part Two: Tibetan-Sanskrit & Chinese-Sanskrit, pp.
v-vi): “As is generally known, Tibetan translations coincide very well with
Sanskrit originals. This is the case with our text. . . . On the contrary,
the case is quite different with the Chinese version. First, in our Chinese
text, we have many expressions which convey only the *meaning *but not
*For example, . . . These are by no means literal translations. The reader
is, therefore, requested to be cautious of these *equivalents *and is
requested to go back to the original text to understand them in their
Thank you, Jonathan and Matthew, for pointing out that my use of the word
“literary” for the Chinese translations, in contrast to literal for the
Tibetan translations, was “incautious” (Jonathan), a “red herring”
(Matthew). I gratefully accept this corrective. My use of literary versus
literal was indeed far too simplistic, the use of “literary” being simply
inaccurate. What I intended by it was something along the lines of “less
literal.” The Chinese translators were free to try to find an equivalent
that well expressed the meaning in a given context, while the Tibetan
translators were often constrained to use a standardized translation term,
whether or not it well expressed the meaning in a given context.
I will try to refine my model to bring it within the bounds of accuracy.
Even with all the examples cited in the replies (thanks also to James), of
Chinese translations being in many cases literal, and of Tibetan
translations being in many cases not literal, I think that valid
generalizations can be made. When we have a large number of translations,
the entire Buddhist canon, the sample is large enough to allow for
reasonably accurate conclusions. I believe it is true to say that the
Tibetan translations, in general, are significantly more literally accurate
than the Chinese translations. I do think that this had a profound impact
on the development of Buddhism in Tibet and in China, respectively.
I hope that this rather long post has clarified why I think that Buddhism
has developed more vigorously in Tibet than in China. Suzuki’s comment
about Buddhism being comatose in China was made before Mao and Communism. I
regard the cumulative evidence of editors and translators of Sanskrit texts
to have generated a reasonably accurate picture of the differences between
the Tibetan translations and the Chinese translations, in general. That is,
that the Tibetan translations are more literal, and that the Chinese
translations are less literal, in general, with an important feature of the
Tibetan translations being the standardized translation of technical terms.
The consistently same translation of technical terms throughout the Tibetan
Buddhist canon would have provided a more stable basis for the various
schools of thought to build upon.
With thanks and best regards,
On Mon, Jun 4, 2018 at 8:56 PM, Dan Lusthaus <prajnapti at gmail.com> wrote:
> Like David, I was going to avoid getting into the crosshairs on this,
> despite agreeing with the Jean-Luc and the beginning of David’s response.
> But David's “myth” of the alleged disparity between the Chinese and Tibetan
> translations and even the supposed disparity in social consequences, a myth
> that has been in circulation for too long in Buddhist studies, requires
> some comment.
> First, as to the agreement. For exactly the reason that David mentions,
> brackets (and parentheses) should separate what can legitimately be
> attributed to the original underlying text and what is being added for
> clarity by the translator. Over the years, many undergraduate students have
> written papers or essays spinning out detailed and clever interpretations
> of texts they read in translation, but primarily extrapolating and
> unpacking implications of a word that they are unaware has no counterpart
> in the original text.
> Sanskrit in many genres puts a premium on conciseness, and can sometimes
> be so condensed as to require a bit of extra padding in translation to make
> explicit what is tacit. On such occasions brackets and parentheses may be
> optional at the discretion of a translator. And there is a principle by
> which things already stated needn’t be repeated, but remain implicit in
> later passages by context. Then, too, filling in the gaps for clarity in a
> translation is often necessary, and whether to use brackets or parentheses
> can be optional (perhaps determined by how much extra is being supplied).
> But there can be entire arguments that are presented in cryptic, ellitical
> shorthand; then, depending on the degree of confidence a translator has at
> identifying the fully developed argument, brackets, and or parentheses, and
> or additional annotations, may be necessary.
> It is true that a certain stylistic vogue took hold during the 20th c.
> that way overdid such interpolations, so that frequently, not just
> occasionally, more than 50% of a translation resided in brackets that added
> little clarity but made reading more difficut rather than easier. So the
> push-back against overuse of brackets and parentheses is understandable and
> necessary. As Buddha might recommend, however, a middle way — a more
> efficient and effective use of interpolative graphics rather than banning
> them altogether, should be the goal.
> As for the myths:
> First, the Chinese translations are, in general, no less literal or
> accurate than the Tibetan. Both take liberties, and one reason another 20th
> century vogue — back-translating texts from Tibetan and/or Chinese into
> Sanskrit — has gone out of style is the continual recovery of lost Indic
> texts (not always in pure Sanskrit) which highlighted how inaccurate the
> back-translations often were, whether constructed from Chinese, Tibetan or
> The idea that TIbetan translations are more literal or accurate is a myth
> that doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. Matt Kapstein’s recent comments on this
> list about the calques of Tibetan titles for Indian texts is only the tip
> of the iceberg. Sometimes the Chinese texts are more accurate than the
> Tibetan. One example should suffice. In Dignāga’s Ālambana-parīkṣā for
> which only a few passages survive in Sanskrit, but three Chinese
> translations (by Paramārtha, Xuanzang, and Yijing — three of the most
> famous translators, the Yijing translation embedded within his translation
> of Dharmapāla’s commentary which also doesn’t survive in Sanskrit) and a
> pair in Tibetan (the verses alone, and another with the verses inserted
> into the svavṛtti) plus a translation of Vinītadeva’s commentary which, as
> chance would have it, quotes and relies heavily on Dharmapāla’s commentary.
> The most “literal” (and therefore difficult to decipher) is the Dharmapāla;
> one can recognize many of the parallels between it and the Tibetan version
> of the Vinītadeva, but the latter is often equally cryptic in places (a
> group working on it frequently asked a group working on the Chinese for
> help clarifying passages). And here is perhaps the most significant example
> of where the accuracy of the Chinese easily eclipses the Tibetan. Dignāga
> devotes five of the eight verses to refuting three different theories of
> how atoms could serve as ālambana:
> 1. that the ālambana is a paramāṇu,
> 2. that it is a samūha of paramāṇus, and
> 3. that it is a saṃcita (or saṃcita-ākāra) of paramāṇus (Dharmapāla
> differentiates this from a paramāṇu by calling it an aṇu, which is
> considered the minimum amount of paramāṇus necessary to be perceived - not
> all discussions in India adhered to that terminological distinction)
> The main difference between two and three is that, in the jargon of some
> Buddhists of the day, a samūha is simply a prajñapti, and thus cannot cause
> anything, including being unable to cause a perception, and thus cannot be
> an ālambana, while a saṃcita is, its advocates claim, a dravya and thus can
> cause a perception as well as convey its own svarūpa to the perception —
> the two requirements Dignāga stipulates for an ālambana to be an ālambana
> (based on the abhidharmic assumptions of his pūrvapakṣas).
> All three Chinese versions distinguish the three theories by using
> different terms for each; the Tibetan uses only ‘dus pa for both the second
> and third theories, the result being that when a respected Tibetan geshe
> was asked to give instruction on the text for the group preparing a
> translation from Tibetan, the geshe was surprised to learn there was a
> third position (and the book the group published makes serious
> equivocations about whether there is or isn’t a third position — despite
> the fact that the Vinītadeva text preserved in Tibetan explicitly announces
> the third position as “the third” when coming to it (but the anonymous
> Tibetan translator, perhaps the same translator[s] that translated the
> verses and verse+svavṛtti versions, also used ‘dus pa for samūha and
> saṃcita in that text as well). On the other hand, the easiest of the
> translations to read—and *least* literal—is Xuanzang’s translation which
> takes a number of interesting liberties — some of which, like the practice
> of the aforementioned undergraduates, became the fodder for extensive
> doctrinal exegesis in East Asian circles, unrecognized as Xuanzang’s own
> contributions. He didn’t use brackets or parentheses.
> To further easily test whether Tibetan is as isomorphic to Sanskrit as the
> propaganda insists, start with the Tibetan term don. Usually presumed to be
> the Tibetan for artha, in fact, according to the online Tibetan translation
> tool at http://www.thlib.org/reference/dictionaries/
> tibetan-dictionary/translate.php it is used as an attested equivalent for kārya,
> kāryatva, parakārya, artha, arthatas, bhāva, vastu [and I would add that
> yul, the main Tibetan equivalent for viṣaya has a similar spread and
> overlap - the translation tool lists deṣa.diś, pradeṣa, *-antara, viṣaya,
> gamya as equivalents, but I would suggest in practice there are more].
> Not only is there no one-to-one literal correspondence, which can
> complicate discussions of epistemology when terminological precision is
> required, but inflections can also get murky. Chinese translations,
> incidentally, can be fastidious about indicating Sanskrit inflections
> (though many modern readers overlook them).
> As for Buddhism being successful in Tibet but not China — there are more
> East Asian Buddhists, all of whom rely on the Chinese canon, than there
> have ever been Tibetan Buddhists. When the PRC relaxed its suppression of
> all religions starting in the 1980s, Buddhism, which had been underground,
> reemerged into plain sight in vast numbers, and continues to flourish.
> Despite being persecuted for centuries by Confucians in Korea, Buddhism
> remains the largest religion there, and one needn’t point out its continued
> cultural significance in Japan.
> Dan Lusthaus
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