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Translation Bias

Is the Pali the Word of the Buddha?

There are two issues bound up together here which need to be made clearly distinct from each other:

One issue is: What is the language we see before us when we look at what we are calling "The Pali" as represented by the Pali Text Society Editions, VRI, Burmese editions of the Buddhist Cannon?

The other issue is: Is what we have before us in what we call The Pali, the language used by The Buddha?

On BuddhaDust where the aim is first and only the presentation of the Dhamma in a way useful as a tool for attaining Nibbāna, the first issue is of little importance.

The first issue with regard to the second issue is: does it matter?

In one way it does not matter. What we have in the Pali is all we know about what the Buddha taught, so as a practical matter, that is the Buddha and the language he used.

However, what we have in the Pali is largely incomprehensible to most people in the world today and therefore requires "translation." Translation is a form of Interpretation, and therefore the bias of the Interpreter concering what he believes he is interpreting is an important issue.

My purpose here is to clarify the nature of my own bias.

I believe that the Buddha's statement concerning his use of language should be understood as follows:

The statement: "I allow you, Beggars, to use only the precise words I have used to teach Dhamma, you should not translate my words into other dialects."

In the same way that today, if when asked, we could point to Strunk and White (or some other manual of style) if asked: "What is English?" but we would be excluding more of what is English today than we would be including, I am suggesting that what the Buddha did with the languages available to him at the time, was what I attempt to do with English in my translations, that is: selectively use the words of the language in such a way as to have it be understood by the most people who claim to be using the English language. I suggest he was not saying: "Use Maghadhi, or Pali, (or whatever)," but "Use the precise words I am using."...(but in the sense to be described below.)

In the Aranavibhangasutta we have:

"In different areas of the country, in different social classes, and across Time, a patta has come to be known as a bowl, a platter, a plate, a tin, a cup, a trencher, a saucer, a dish, a vessel, a pan, a pot, a mug, a basin, china, and so forth.

One denegrates the local idiom and adheres rigidly only to what is accceptable speech in certain circles by saying: "This is a patta, (or a bowl, a platter, a plate, a tin, a cup, a trencher, a saucer, a dish, a vessel, a pan, a pot, a mug, a basin, and so forth). This and this alone is the proper word for this, all other words for this are incorrect."

One does not denegrate the local idiom or adhere rigidly only to what is acceptable speech in certain circles saying: "This which here is called a patta, those there call a bowl (or a platter, a plate, a tin, a cup, a trencher, a saucer, a dish, a vessel, a pan, a pot, a mug, a basin, and so forth), so when the word "bowl (or platter, or plate, or tin, or cup, or trencher, or saucer, or dish, or vessel, or pan, or pot, or mug, or basin, and so forth) is used you should understand the meaning to be "patta"."

How this is to be reconciled to my position is by understanding that this is a discussion of "bias", not "communication." In the context of this discussion what is intended might be said: "Use the precise words I have used as your frame of reference, using these words as the way to explain the meaning of the Dhamma. For example: "Although you say, "trencher," what we understand by that in the Pali is "patta" ... which construction then allows for the original meaning of the word "patta" to be opened up, and allows, as well, discussion of the distinctions between a patta and a trencher.

Today we have the King's English, Canadian English, New York Bronx/Brooklyn/Manhattan/Queens English, Ghetto English, The Southern Accent, California English, Valley English, Television English, Rap Music English, Australian English, Indian English, and so forth. To use my favorite example: If we wanted to communicate the meaning of "dukkha" to all of these different English speakers without changing our words for each (in order to preserve our intent for the longest time possible) we would choose (if possible) a word common to all of them: Pain, or Shit. We would not use a word that was considered acceptable by only one classification of the language, or bound to one time period, or that was used by only one stratum of society such as "suffering" or "tension" or "anxiety" or 'angst" or "stress".

Following this method, it turns out that in choosing the word which would be most broadly understood, we would be choosing from among the oldest words in the language, the root words, the concrete, basic words most closely relating to the earliest need to communicate and the ways to communicate: words relating to hunting, farming, weaving, cooking, sex, bodily functions, nature, animal sounds, etc.

In the same way, I am sure that there was no thing there at the time of the Buddha that was the 'true' Pali, or Maghadhi, or Sanskrit, but there were words there understood by all. I am suggesting that among those words were the most direct descendents of Old Pali, or the Original Language of Man, the roots, even, of our very own English. I am suggesting that those were the types of words chosen by the Buddha. And I am suggesting that this is how we should be choosing our words for our translations. This is my bias.

I further hold that in the absence of computers, television, movies, radio, and books, as well as in the absence of the need for concern about one's welfare in terms of food, clothing medicine, and shelter, (just think for a minute about what percentage of your mind is occupied by these influences and about what it might be capable of if they were absent) and in the face of evidence even today that the entire Pali can be committed to memory, and in the face of the discipline of repetition of the Dhamma that represented a good half of the Order at the time (hundreds and hundreds of Bhikkhus memorizing the Dhamma), and in the face of evidence that there are people today with exceptional memories such that they are able to recall totally everything that has happened to them since birth, and in consideration of the fact that there is no little evidence that memory is greatly enhanced by the practice of the Satipatthana, and in considering that the maximum time we are speaking of that the Suttas needed to have been carried in memory is around 400 years, or, probably no more than 5 generations, I find it not difficult to imagine that the Dhamma as we have it (that is, the units of instruction of the system — it is clear that a great number of the actual suttas were compiled and edited at a time subsequent to the Buddha's life) were more or less precisely preserved as uttered (or, if not as uttered, as approved of by the Buddha).

And, although there is one theory that holds that the suttas were first set down in writing only in 100 BC, that is not my belief. In the face of the fact that the Brahman youths that wanted to translate the Dhamma were apparently speaking of a text already committed to writing (Culla-vagga Vin II 139), I find it highly unlikely that the material was not also set down in writing in it's original form as well. That we have no physical evidence of the fact that the suttas may have been written down as early as the time of the Buddha means nothing. The weak minded (such as myself today) would have an overwhelming desire to set down the most important documents of the day at the first appearance of writing.[1]

Finally, I am asserting that the Suttas themselves act as a self-preserving mechanism in that their high degree of redundancy tends to make holding on to internally incompatible interpretations very difficult. A translator of one Sutta, or One Book, or even One Nikaya might make a consistent error, but to do it across the entire collection of Suttas (at least in terms of the important terminology - for example, the units of the sambojjhangas) would require a deliberate effort to distort.

To restate my conclusion:

1. What we have in what we call The Pali today is, for the most part, the word of the Buddha as spoken by him.[2]

2. What we have in what we call "The Pali" should be translated, at least in so far as the important concepts are concerned, not as a derivative of any other dialect that may have existed at the time, but as an example of an original, earlier language, based on the meanings of letters and syllables (sounds) that are largely universal in meaning. Translating this way will lead backwards to a word more likely to be broadly understood than would translating through rules belonging to grammars of what we must understand can only have been incomplete, erroneous, stylized dialects or languages.


[1] For more on the script that would have been available to those interested in writing at the time, see DhammaTalk: Brahmi

[2] Again, I allow that there may be glaring exceptions in the form of the way many suttas and sutta collections have been put together (most especially to my mind the suttas of the Digha Nikaya) but note that the contents of the collected suttas is for the most part consistent with the rest of the sutta collection. See the references below for more on this subject.




See also on this subject the chapters on writing and language in Rhys Davids, Buddhist India:
Writing — The Beginnings
Writing — Its Development
Language and Literature — General View
Language and Literature — The Pali Books

Chronology Of The Pali Canon, B.C. Law, History of Pali Literature. An investigation of the likely dates for the formation of the various books of the Pali Buddhist Canon.

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