[INDOLOGY] Accuracy in translations

David and Nancy Reigle dnreigle at gmail.com
Thu Jun 7 21:17:09 UTC 2018

Dear all,

My interest here is in what legacy modern translators of Sanskrit texts are
leaving for future generations, and what we can learn from the legacies
left by Chinese translations and by Tibetan translations of Sanskrit texts
in history. What Gadjin Nagao said about four different Chinese
translations of a Sanskrit text that were made in the past can easily apply
to four different English translations of a Sanskrit text that were made in
the present. After describing the four Chinese translations of the
*Mahāyānasaṃgraha*, those by Hsüan-tsang, Dharmagupta, Paramārtha, and
Buddhaśānta, Gadjin Nagao wrote (*An Index to Asaṅga’s Mahāyānasaṃgraha*,
Part One, p. xiii-xiv):

“As one reads through the Chinese translations of the *Mahāyānasaṃgraha*
many points come to one’s notice. We remark with surprise that various
translators deal entirely differently with what we may suppose to have been
more or less the same original. This is in virtually diametric opposition
to the practice of the Tibetan translators who in most cases followed
standardized renderings, for instance those listed in the *Mahāvyutpatti*.
In the Chinese versions it is not rare even for the same term in the same
paragraph to be rendered with a variety of, albeit synonymous, terms. This
is one reason that the Chinese-Sanskrit portion of the index has grown to
such an unexpectedly huge size. Hsüan-tsang’s attempt to standardize his
rendering of a given Sanskrit term must be seen, in this light, as an
exception rather than as the rule.”

This could just as well say: “As one reads through the English translations
of such-and-such a Sanskrit text, we remark with surprise that various
translators deal entirely differently with the same original.” There are
many instances of this at present. In fact, what led me to study Sanskrit
was comparing several translations of Patañjali’s *Yogasūtra*, which in
some cases were so different that you could not tell they were translating
the same Sanskrit sūtra.

Gadjin Nagao made a similar observation regarding the Chinese translations
(p. xv): “Not a few times as we engaged in the work of compiling this index
we were puzzled by how to understand a certain difficult passage or how to
interpret the disagreement between the various versions.”

So how can current and future generations understand English translations
of Sanskrit texts when these translations disagree with each other? When
the translations disagree, they do not provide a stable basis for serious
engagement with the ideas found in the Sanskrit texts. I suggest that we
can learn from the Tibetan translations of Sanskrit texts, translations
that were more literal and used standardized translation terms, and thereby
provided a stable basis for serious engagement with their ideas.

The issue of accuracy in translation, of course, is not limited to
Indological texts. It has a long history in Bible translations. With no
cognizance of the history of translations of Sanskrit texts into Chinese
and into Tibetan, Bible translation has on its own moved from less literal
to more literal. Today, the New Revised Standard Version has gained wide
acceptance, and has been adopted in influential publications including the *New
Oxford Annotated Bible*. Released in 1989, the New Revised Standard Version
was produced by a team of thirty translators under the mandate, “As literal
as possible, as free as necessary.”

Best regards,

David Reigle
Colorado, U.S.A.

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