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On the Importance of the Pali Text Society Translations

 

When on rare occasions in the past I had a visitor that was intrested in learning about Buddhism my practice was to begin by taking them to my shelf of Pali Text Society Pali [PTS] Texts and Translations.

In and of itself that is an impressive beginning: some 25 volumes warn ragged by use.

I pointed out their position in the highest place in the room that was still reachable.

"This is the Buddha's teaching as we have it today. It is placed in a high spot to show respect.

This top set is the Pali.

The Pali is the language used by Gotama in teaching what is called the Dhamma, or his "Way". And this collection, called the Sutta Pitaka, or collection of suttas, is acknowledged by all schools of Buddhism as the most authoritative account of what Gotama actually taught.

They say:

'This is the Pali. This is the most authoritative account of what Gotama taught.' And then they point to the interpretations of it and commentaries on it, and digestions of it by the authorities that founded their schools and describe how what their doctrines say is an advance on what Gotama said. Alternatively people with little or no experience with either study of the texts or actual practice claim insight into 'the original meaning' of what Gotama taught.

This second row of books is the PTS translation of the first set of books.

The whole work was done by three or four editors, five different translators and took a 100 years to complete.

One of the first problems one encounters is that because of the time factor, the newness factor, the vast extent of the literature, and the multiple translators, the vocabulary is not consistent from one translator to the next.

It largely is and partly isn't.

There are multiple translations of single terms and some of the translated terms are used for multiple words in the Pali. Multiple terms for a single Pali word is not much of a problem and is at one level necessary to capture meaning. Multiple use of a single term for more than one Pali word (e.g., 'conditioned' for 'nidana', 'paccaya' and 'sankhara'; 'desire' for a dozen different Pali terms) can be very confusing and lead to doctrinal errors and drain the life out of a sutta.

Probably the most important thing to bear in mind concerning these translations is the fact that the translators were not originally Buddhists, but linguists.

This is important because where there is bias in these translations, it is a clearly Christian bias or a clearly linguistic bias (as in the unquestioned assumption that Sanskrit preceded Pali — the translators were all originally Sanskrit scholars).

This sort of bias is, to the Dhamma researcher interested in the accomplishment of the goal, harmless because it is visible.

These translations have two other things going on in them that are important.

First there is a pervasive aura of discovery. The translators were finding things in these suttas that had never been heard before in English or found in the Sanskrit or Christian literature.

This excitement brings a real life to these translations.

Secondly, because theirs was an emerging discipline, there was no loss of face in admitting not understanding of something — the translations hardly go a page without a footnote attempting to bring to the attention of the reader the complexity of understanding a word or concept.

The footnotes in these translations managed to bring into conscious awareness virtually every question that appears even down to this time on the various discussion boards throughout the internet, and more importantly, in the footnotes that accompany all the later translations.

The subsequent translations are, in effect, in dialog with the Pali Text Society Translations concerning the issues raised in these footnotes and translations.

If you don't read the PTS translations, you only hear half the dialog.

Now the interest of the PTS translators being, at least initially, scholarly study of the language, they all base the bulk of their understanding of the actual system not on the results of putting the system into practice, but on common sense, pre-conceived notions, context, and commentaries which they themselves translate all of which depend for their meaning on this work: The Pali English Dictionary [PED] by Rhys Davids and Stede which itself is derivative of two predecessor dictionaries: The Critical Pali Dictionary begun by Trenckner, and A Dictionary of the Pali Language by Childers.

As the translations that follow-up on the PTS translations are in dialog with those translations, so the PTS translations are in dialog with the PED.

The distinction is that whereas the PTS translations are focused on the discovery and understanding of the Pali Text, the subsequent translators are focused on the PTS translations as understood from various doctrinal positions which themselves are translations by various Buddhist teachers in Asian countries using the PTS vocabulary.

So what we have in the entire series of translations from the PTS on is Buddhism according to Rhys Davids. The process has become incestuous, with the degradation in the gene pool that results from such inbreeding.

The newer translations are, simply put, editings with doctrinal bias of the Pali Text Society Translations.

One plus one makes two.

The reader of subsequent translations is largely in the dark concerning the arguments behind the footnotes of Walshe, Bhk. Bodhi, Bhk. Thanissaro unless he is familiar with the issue as raised by the Pali Text Society translator.

That makes the PTS translations essential reading for any serious student of Gotama's teaching.

 


 

A side issue concerns one frequently heard statement made primarily in the service of selling the new translations or rationalizing the fact that the new translations were, to this point, the only one's available, is that the PTS translations are quite old. The language used is not quite the English we use today.

This objection is flawed on several grounds.

The first is that Gotama's language use was even older ... by some 2400 years. The earlier we get in English the closer we get to the way language was used by Gotama.

A second is that there is no reason to assume that language has become clearer over time.

The other thing is the level of language use used by the Pali scholars. Regardless of their comprehension of the doctine their use of language is an education in itself.

We hear the term "antiquated". I say "Educated." Truly scholarly, especially if one takes the time, as one should, to make sure one understands the words being used. A stop and think about it use of language.

That is a value.

 


 

The most important value provided by the PTS translations is that they engage directly with the Pali texts.

Any new translator has one serious obstacle to overcome: 'Trust.'

The reader focused on his salvation, freedom of mind, is in essence putting his life on the line. No matter what may be said by the convert to Buddhism, the mind will not let go of it's previous point of view until it is completely convinced of the effacacy of a new point of view in accomplishing it's stated goals.

Any new translation claiming a true (or truer) exposition of Gotama's original teaching based on actual practice or vision or revelation or better understanding of the Pali will need to demonstrate it's superior literal and doctrinal adherance to the Pali over those of any of the other translators that followed the Pali Text Society translations, and the Pali Text Society translations themselves.

How on earth could anyone make a statement claiming such superiority and hope to convince anyone?

It is only with the freely available, easily available Pali Text Society translations for comparison that the truth of the assertion that virtually all the other translations out there today are only editings of the Pali Text Society translations could be varified.

When the conscientious reader concerned with his mental well being has gone as far as to check a new translation against the other translations he will find it necessary to go further and check it again against the PTS translation. At that point, he will come to realize that the only final way to resolve the conflicts he will find between versions, is a study of the Pali itself.

The Pali Text Society translations are the bridge to the Pali. They are a vital link, in many cases the only hope, a new translation has of establishing trust.

That is their primary importance.

 


 

Now at this point the question may arise as to how someone not familiar with the Pali and likely not really interested in learning it as a language is going to do this sort of research reliably.

Here what we can say is that the Pali English Dictionary will do for the least biased window on the Pali. Words in this dictionary are often given along with an etymology. The etymology does not need to be taken as given, what it can be taken as is relevant to the understanding of the word. Comparing the definition, the etymology, and the existing translations in the context of a given sutta and along-side studious examination of the results of actual practice, one can be expected to arrive at a reasonable testable hypothesis as to the original intent of it's use.

 


 

Here today, on this site for the first time, are all the tools necessary for the reader to judge for himself the relative merits of the various available translations and the doctrine and discipline to which they point. As a translator of this work and it's vital role in the liberation of people's minds, one can only see that having the Pali Text Society Translations freely available is the only way a path is opened up to the possibility of trust outside blind faith based on academic credentials, interpretations, commentaries, digestions, and the color of one's clothes.


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