The Faithful Translation of Sacred Texts - Chinese

Professor Pinchas Giller, Richard Brzustowicz, and Professor Evgueny Tortchinov

posted on the Donmeh mail list
note - three posts have here been integrated into one page

Professor Pinchas Giller writes
Not everybody feels the way that I do about whether faithful translation is possible.

Richard Brzustowicz replies
The translation of works with "depth" is always problematic, no matter how useful (in one way or another) such translations may be.  Often the easier they are to read the more suspect they are; the attempt to get at what the texts are, in their proper context, encourages the production of a representation of some more or less central reading, embedded in massive notes and commentary.

Professor Pinchas Giller writes
For instance, it seems to be that with the circulation of the Buddhist dharma, that the great transitional moment between Sanskrit and Chinese was accomplished without much fuss over the numinosity or possibility of multiple meanings, in the Sanskrit or Pali original,even though the translators were using Taoist terminology to describe Indian Buddhist phenomena.

Richard Brzustowicz replies
The earliest translations (An Shih Kao vintage) were thick with "transliterations" -- representations of technical and other terms via characters used as phonetic approximations, rather than as semantic units.  (I mean, the Chinese characters were used for their sound value rather than for their meaning.)  Of course, the particulars can depend on older or now-lost dialectal pronunciations of the
Chinese characters in question ...

Professor Pinchas Giller writes
I have not yet met a scholar of Buddhism who wanted to wade into the chasm between the two religions and figure out what moved the Chinese translators to make certain exegetical leaps (I hope that there are some out there).

Richard Brzustowicz replies
There are people working on such things, not only philologically (especially for the earlier translations) but also conceptually.

Professor Pinchas Giller writes
And today, studies are written without recourse to the "original." In this view, a translation is a
translation; this word means that one. In this, a Christological emphasis on the logos/meaning as standing behind the manifestation in the word has spread to Eastern studies.

Richard Brzustowicz replies
For certain purposes; other kinds of studies wait on elucidation of just these kinds of issues.  -- I am not myself, I should point out, engaged in any work of this sort, but I have known people who are.

Translations of Taoist texts are subject to the same sorts of constraints, by the way.  And not only Taoist texts.  Any text with a large and complex set of reading traditions is (in a sense) seriously
msirepresented when presented in a "straightforward" translation.

Professor Evgueny Tortchinov writes
Richard Brzustowicz's post on the faithful translation of sacred texts was extremely interesting for me. Now I would like to add some details to your examination of the history of the translations of the Sanscrit Buddhist texts into Chinese. I think that there were three principal periods of this process:

1. An early (archaic) stage from An Shi-gao (An Shih-kao) to Kumarajiva (2-4 C.E.) when the translators used the traditional Chinese (mostly, Taoist /Daoist) notions for rendering the Sanscrit terms. Such a method made the texts more understandable for the Chinese public but corrupted
greatly their meaning changing the Buddhist ideas and approaches into the Daoist ones.

2. Classical period (from Kumarajiva to Xuanzang / Hsuan-tsang -- 5-7 C.E.). Kumarajiva, who was a really great translator, developed a system of "ge yi" (ke i), or "chosing the meaning). It is a method of semantical translation. Kumarajiva and his followers (Bodhiruci, Paramartha, etc.) used the Chinese words of daily use as technical terms (such words had no Daoist connotations which could change the semantics of the Sanscrit word), they also created a lot of neologisms which had
only technical Buddhist sense and in some difficult cases they used Chinese characters as phonetical means to transcribe the pronunciation of the Sanscrit word -- alohan -- arahant, nepan -- nirvana, boruo bolomi -- prajnaparamita, putisaduo -- bodhisattva, etc.).

3. Late period (beginning from the time of Xuanzang's activities; 7-12 C.E.). It is connected with the translational techniques of Xuanzang who was a great translator and the Buddhist thinker. Xuanzang sudied in India in the monastic university of Nalanda, and his knowledge of Sanscrit was brilliant (he had even translated Dao-de jing / Tao-te ching from Chinese into Sanscrit) and his translational skill is surprisingly high. Nevertheless, his very Sanscritized renderings of the Buddhist texts were too difficult for the Chinese readers who continued to prefer more "sinitic" texts of Kumarajiva and his school.

The example of the Tibetan translations is even more striking. If the problems of Chinese was a strong differences between the approaches of the native and Indian traditions, Tibetans simply had no words to translate sophisticated texts of Buddhis. And between 7-9 centuries the
Tibetan translators (lotsavas) in fact created quite new artificial language full of composed neologisms to express the Buddhist ideas. Philologically perfect, these translations sometimes seem to be calked
from the Sanscrit originals.

Richard Brzustowicz replies
Thank you to Professor Yevgueny Tortchinov for providing a much more precise and useful (and informed!) summary of Buddhist translations than my own hasty note.

Professor Evgueny Tortchinov writes
I am sure that history of the translations of the Buddhist texts from Sanscrit into Chinese and Tibetan can serve much for everybody translating philosophical or mystical texts created by the people with
cultural traditions alien to his / her own.

Richard Brzustowicz replies
It is an example that cuts both ways, in that it was a heroic enterprise that made the texts available, and that led to a real transmission of Buddhism -- but at the same time to deal with the texts one has to have a great deal of ancillary training.  They are not transparent, free-standing texts -- but neither were the originals, of course.

No translation of any worthwhile text can be unproblematic -- and these complex texts least of all.  But the work of making such a translation, when done with care and integrity, can be a major contribution, since it inevitably involves facing up to the text and the traditions that make up its context.

Of course, ideally, everyone has complete philological control of all texts from every time and place, and can always go to all the originals.  But ars longa, vita brevis -- at least in the current state of the educational art -- and until that day when philological mastery can be downloaded in childhood,
there will continue to be a place for translation...

Faithful Translation of Sacred Texts
Faithful Translation of Sacred Texts: The Gospels

posted on the Donmeh mail list
Fri, 11 Jun 1999


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