Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Buddhism: lost in translation

I've been listening, often repeatedly, to some talks by the teacher/scholar Stephen Batchelor, and I've decided to eventually learn Pali, the language of the earliest Buddhist texts. It's kind of a spoken form of Sanskrit, and in fact the word Pali just means "text," so someone in the early days saw the words "Pali language" and didn't get that it's just "the language of the texts".

Pretty much all of Batchelor's talks are awesome, but I recommend "The Life and Death of Siddartha Gotama" and the ones on "secular Buddhism" to get a sense of what struck me. Essentially, he's looking at the earliest Buddhist texts with the rule of thumb that anything in the canon that could have been said by anyone in 5th-century B.C. India probably isn't a part of what made the Buddha's teaching special even at the time, and has enabled it to continue to the present day.

Why bother with Pali when I'm not interested in learning Japanese or Chinese--Japanese especially being the liturgical language of Soto Zen? (I'll learn some eventually.)

For one thing, I think Pali will be easier. It's Indo-European and written with an accented Roman alphabet. I should say "can be written": Pali, as a spoken language, doesn't have a native alphabet, and everyone has always written it using their own native alphabet, like Brahmi, Sinhalese, Thai, and now Roman. Unlike Chinese and (literary) Japanese, though, it does have an alphabet, which is already a big step in comprehensibility.

The other thing, and the root reason for learning it at all, is that Chinese and Japanese are often additional layers of translation, and learning Pali will let me look behind the curtain of translation a bit and judge for myself what a passage means. Here's an example:

In the Ariyapariyesana Sutta, the "Discourse on the Noble Quest," the Buddha gives a little backstory of his awakening experience. After his realization, he hangs out for a bit, then thinks
This Dhamma that I have attained is deep, hard to see, hard to realize, peaceful, refined, beyond the scope of conjecture, subtle, to-be-experienced by the wise. But this generation delights in attachment, is excited by attachment, enjoys attachment. For a generation delighting in attachment, excited by attachment, enjoying attachment, this conditionality & dependent co-arising are hard to see.
From Stephen Batchelor I learn that instead of "delights in attachment," he actually says "people love their place," where "place" is "alaya," as in "Himalaya": "place of the snows". Thanissaro's translation isn't wrong, but it takes the Buddha's metaphor and substitutes the more direct Buddhist terminology that everyone has standardized on in English (which I deeply dislike, and being able to write about that more clearly is another reason to learn Pali). There's a lot of flavor lost there, like how the buddha views home and place, and why they thought of "going forth from home into homelessness" as being such an unusual and good thing. That context matters, if, as Batchelor suggests, we want to identify what parts of the Buddhist canon are timeless and speak to our situation now, and what is just a sort of hangover from ancient India.

The older the English translation, the more rewarding to look closely at the original. The final words of the Buddha, according to Rhys-Davids (late 1800s):
"Decay is inherent in all component things! Work out your salvation with diligence!"
In researching this I found it quoted a fair bit by Christians explaining why every other religion's idea of "salvation" is wrong (in this case, that salvation can be achieved by works). Except that line is actually based on Philippians 2:12 (Revised Standard Version, my emphasis):
Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling...
And the word "salvation" doesn't appear in the Pali. Vajira and Story's version:
"Behold now, bhikkhus, I exhort you: All compounded things are subject to vanish. Strive with earnestness!"
The Christian apologists quoting the Rhys-Davids translation don't look too hard to see that they're using a translation benighted in 19th-century colonialist projection. (Although they might not notice: most conservative Christians themselves seem quite comfortable benighted in 19th-century colonialist projection.) That's sort of an egregious example, but we're stuck with many longstanding bad translations made by people who didn't understand the material: any time you see the words "Void," "suffering," and "enlightenment," you're looking at a bad translation that barely scratches the surface. (Those are shunyata, dukkha, and either nirvana or bodhi.) The very name "Buddhism" comes from that old Western worldview: Buddhism isn't an "-ism" in the sense of a system of beliefs, but that's all those scholars could imagine. We have to be somewhat cautious about taking the translators' word for it.

It seems well worth the effort to read past that.


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  2. So I'm trying to get back into blogging and I stumbled upon your blog again after signing into blogspot. Anyway, just thought I'd let you know I especially enjoyed this post as I constantly find myself surrounded by thoughtless and rediculous garbage on TV and on the internet. I am still in Chile so you know what I'm talking about (not to excuse our country), but you know what I mean. Goodluck with Pali... Could it be harder that Chileno?? :)


  3. Thanks! I think it will be hard, but having taken a semester of Chinese, I can't overstate how useful it is for a language to have an alphabet.

    One of the things that's always so striking about Buddha's teaching is how directly applicable it is to our lives 2500 years in the future from his: they didn't have TV or lolcats, but chasing after distraction was very clearly a problem for them, too. =)