In Translation, but not just from the Pali to English

October 18th, 2009

I spent the day yesterday making my first fool attempt at translating a sutta from Pali into English.  I did this for a few reasons.  One is that the particular sutta, MN 117, suddenly seems important to me, since I saw something in its depths that I don’t think others have noticed (see my previous post for the details).  The other reason is that I really wanted to know what words were used in certain spots, and where else they had been used, and what other translators and dictionaries had given as translations of those words, because the varieties I have seen are so different from each other, and the possible meanings carry a lot of weight when trying to understand what’s being said by someone so important and so far away in time and culture.

The aspects that are of greatest concern to me in this sutta are that:

(1) It starts off saying it is about Right Concentration with its supports and requisites – and then says very little about concentration, which would indicate that it is an indirect lesson and likely full of subtlety.

(2) From the evidence of the references at the end, it is clearly an answer to three doctrines current in the day, “non-causality”, “the doctrine of non-doing”, and “nihilism”, and these are reflected in the text. In his last lines the Buddha says these three philosophers would not consider rejecting this teaching for fear of blame, attack and confutation, so he feels he’s answered their points.

(3) The sutta lists two “Right Views” and I want to know what he meant that the difference is between them.

There is no way I can answer these questions yet; I didn’t get that far.  For one thing, the dictionaries I have access to didn’t have all of the critical terms I needed, for another, I don’t know Pali grammar yet.  I have a lot more work to do, and you’ll probably get to watch me struggling, now and then, with these concepts as this blog proceeds onward.

One interesting word captured most of my time and attention, and that was “sasava”.

The two phrases for the difference between the two kinds of Right Views, in Pali, is:

(a) sammadinnhi sasava pubbabhagiya upadhivepakka
(b) sammadinnhi ariya anasava lokuttara maggaiga

In these two versions, “sammadinni” is “right belief” (right views) and the difference between these two ways of believing are in the following three or four words in the phrases.  “Sasava” I found listed as  “connected with the depravities” in two dictionaries.  “pubbabhagiya” means “former or previous” and though I didn’t find “upadhivepakka” spelled just that way (the one-letter change could be a grammatical shift) “upadhi” means “substratum of rebirth; attachment” and “vipakka” is “fully ripe”.  So just slamming these words together in a tentative translation I have:

(a) right belief connected with the depravities previous attachments (or rebirth?) fully ripe

Doing the same for (b) we have the difference beginning at “ariya” which is, of course, “noble”, “anasava” which is “free from intoxicants; passionless”, “lukuttara” which is “super-mundane”, and “maggaiga” which is “the constituents of the path”.  So:

(b) right belief noble, passionless, super-mundane, constituent of the path.

Making an attempt to smooth these out a bit we have two forms of Right View:

(a) Right belief connected to the depravities, fully ripened in their attachments (or rebirth?);
(b) Noble right belief which is passionless, supramundane, a factor of the path.

In looking at various translations, I noticed that the entry for MN 117 on Access to Insight (1) referenced the word “asava” instead of the “sasava” that I found on the Sri Lankan Tipitaka site (2) (at the end of the 7th paragraph down).  I thought I should go check the meaning of “asava” in case it is the opposite of  “sasava” but no, the definition I found was multiple: “that which flows; spirit; discharge from a sore; ideas which intoxicate the mind” so not the opposite of “sasava”.  I found the opposite to be “anasava” which means “free from intoxicants, passionless”.

This definition of “asava” explained the mildly worded “with effluents” on Access to Insight, “effluents” being something which flows. And I suppose that “taints” (as seen in the Nanamoli/Bodhi translation of the Majjhima Nikaya (3)) is a very polite word for “discharge from a sore” – quite understated.

I find it illuminating to look at the choices of words used in a translation, and what other words can be used.

The translations I have for phrase (a) are:

From (1): “There is right view with effluents [asava], siding with merit, resulting in the acquisitions [of becoming]
From (3)  “…right view that is affected by taints, partaking of merit, ripening in the acquisitions”

Where might “merit” and “acquisitions” come from?  From “upadhivepakka” where “upadhi” means “substratum of rebirth; attachment” and “vipakka” is “fully ripe”?

I had wanted to know what [the brackets] meant. In (1) it refers to the word being translated [perhaps meaning something like: “I used “asava” instead of “sasava” here] and since “bhava” is the word I know as “becoming” and it isn’t in there, nor any version of “becoming” that I could find in any of the Pali dictionary entries I had, I assume [the brackets] around “of becoming” mean “I’m adding for clarification because I feel it should be in the original but isn’t; or it is somehow ‘understood'”.

Then, just in time to distract me from all this – sort of — the book I’d been looking forward to, “What the Buddha Thought” by Richard Gombrich arrived, and so I’ll drop my attempts at translation and learning Pali until I have thoroughly digested this great read.  However I will note that even in his Introduction, he has several things to say that shed light on the issues of translating the Pali suttas into English.  For example this from a section called “Terminology and Clarity”:

One of my teachers, the Ven. Dr Walpola Rahula, was given to saying that one could teach Buddhism to a non-Buddhist audience in their own language without using any foreign words at all.  I agree.  And yet at the same time I have always held that if one wants fully to grasp the meaning of a Buddhist text, one needs to read it in the original language…

[He then goes on to point out that the words explaining a “system of ideas” are not as concrete as nouns like “nose, tree, cup” and even “cup” comes with context – my coffee cup looking quite different from one that holds tea in China.  He finishes this thought and goes on:] …Nevertheless, once the word ‘cup’ is used in a context, it is often no problem to convey what it refers to with enough precision to serve the needs of communication.

The translation of abstractions is much more problematic.  This is not just because the terms do not have precise equivalents in foreign languages, though in the case of abstractions the ambiguities and semantic range of a term may well baffle translators and those dependent on their translations….

… The meaning of Buddhist texts is never going to be clear to us if we stick to reading word-for-word translations, or exegesis which clings closely to such translations….

But how huge might be the influence of the translators’ understanding of the underlying meaning on end results of their translations? What words do we choose, and why?  Even a word as vague and insubstantial as “supermundane” has a wide range of synonyms, all of which give it a different twist:

  • abstract
  • bodiless
  • deep
  • difficult
  • eternal
  • fundamental
  • high-flown
  • ideal
  • intangible
  • intellectual
  • mystical
  • nonmaterial
  • profound
  • supernatural
  • theoretical
  • transcendental
  • universal

are just some from  What different spins of meaning do we get from calling the second “Right View” “mystical” or “difficult”?  We have probably seen this word translated in texts as “eternal” and “profound” as well as “transcendental” but maybe “bodiless” and “intellectual” and “non-material” are what’s meant, in a sutta about the supports for meditation, “Right Concentration”?

My short foray into translating failed to convince me that the translations I see of “The Great Forty” (MN 117) have found the full meaning of its teaching, but continuing to read, in this case a bit of A.K. Warder’s “On the Relationship Between Early Buddhism and Other Contemporary Systems” (available for a fee at while I waited for the Gombrich book to arrive, shifts me back from “I don’t think the Buddha taught karma as part of his path” toward “Surely he was truly an agnostic.” In this section Warder is talking about the competing heretical philosophies of the day:

Whereas the Ajivakas as determinists were concerned with exact analysis and prediction, and the Jainas with the detailed compensation and elimination of the undesirable tendencies, the Buddhists saw their release from suffering as a simple relinquishing or transcending of all tendencies or categories whatsoever. Penance was unnecessary to wear out bad karma, knowledge of the causation of suffering sufficient to turn the suffering person away from the cause of his troubles even in ‘serious cases ‘ of bad karma; a good teacher could thus effect the sudden release of many people who otherwise might have gone on in ignorance transmigrating according to past karma and building up more undesirable tendencies for the future. Hence the obscurity of the meanings of the terms did not matter and the primary interest was directed to an overall picture of the Universe…

This caused me to think of the end of the Kalama sutta, in which the Buddha argues that the current views don’t really matter, because you have assurance that by following his path, “if” karma is an actual Law of the Universe, you’re covered; if it is not, well, you’ve reduced your suffering in this life; if the Universal Law requires that you are punished for evil actions, with this path  you won’t be doing those acts; if that is not the Law, you’ll still have led a good life.  Maybe the Buddha really didn’t know which set of Laws ruled, maybe he simply knew that it didn’t matter, since his path had every which way covered.  Maybe that’s why he included karma and rebirth in his teachings, since it was the predominant view and it was a good enough path (though not as good at relieving suffering as having no views at all) and just maybe, given the difficulty of translating from words that were left vague in the first place, we have not yet got a precise understanding of what the Buddha actually taught.  I know I don’t.

2 Responses to “In Translation, but not just from the Pali to English”

  1. Ian says:

    This is fascinating and I applaud your research and focus!

    Could you explain your logic for point 1 above?

    “…and then says very little about concentration, which would indicate that it is an indirect lesson and likely full of subtlety.”

    Are there other suttas that you are thinking of that follow this model, or do you have other reasons for saying this?


  2. star says:

    Thanks for your kind words, Ian, I appreciate it.

    This subtlety is certainly a pattern I’ve noticed, though I am sure I have not documented it in my notes (in other words, I couldn’t easily find you another one in that pattern; but I will pay more attention when I return to my sutta reading).

    I am now sure how much of the subtlety is a feature of the Buddha’s way of speaking and how much is simple obscurity due to the multiple translations between our reading now, and his words then. But basically, when he says “this is a teaching about X” and then hardly ever mentions “X” I’ve found it’s not a corruption of the text or a loss of pieces, it’s that he really is talking about “X” but we need to really see deeply into what he’s saying to get an understanding of how the pieces fit together. Perhaps this was intentional: making us work hard to fit the pieces together is what’s necessary for a strong understanding? Or perhaps it’s a “value added feature” of the murkiness of translations!

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