19 July 2013

Translation Strategies.

In June 2012 I had a crack at translating a difficult passage from the Cūḷa-Māluṅkya Sutta (MN 63), and presented some detailed notes in an essay titled Irrelevant Details. I'm in the process of writing this up for publication. In my forthcoming article I compare a number of versions of this text. The Canonical Pāli in it's various recensions (but mainly the PTS and CST versions); three English translations by I. B. Horner, Bodhi & Ñāṇamoli (Ñ&B), and Rupert Gethin; and two Chinese counterparts 箭喻經 Jiàn yù jīng (Arrow Metaphor Sūtra),  T 1.26 ( MĀ 221), and 佛說箭喻經 Fú shuō jiàn yù jīng (The Buddha’s Talk on the Arrow Metaphor SūtraT 1.94. (In the previous essay I only compared the Chinese text of T 1.94). I've also consulted in passing two other translations by Piya Tan and Thanissaro. I have of course produced my own translation of this text. And I make use of Buddhaghosa's all too brief commentary in the Papañcasūdanī (Ps) or Commentary on the Majjhima Nikāya (Majjhimnikāyaṭṭhakathā). 

Horner's translation is from the 1950s, Ñ&B's from 2001, and Gethin's from 2008. MĀ 221 was translated from a Prakrit (probably Gāndārī) original in 398 and T 1.94 some time in the Eastern Jin Dynasty (317–420 CE). 

The passage I studied previously is interesting from a linguistic point of view because it deals with a rare topic in Pāli, i.e. the details of archery. The paragraph in question contains three hapax legomena - words that only occur once in the Canon. None of these words are clarified by the commentary, and in at least one case that Buddhaghosa does not know what the word means, and he's silent about the other two. The text also contains other terms that are obscure. Thus, this passage provides the ideal laboratory for observing the translator's response to lexical items that are not in the lexicon. 

I dealt the the issue of the word sithilahanu in some detail in Irrelevant Details. It comes at the end of a list of birds which might be considered to donate feathers to fletch the arrow. Buddhaghosa with almost British understatement tells us it is "a type of bird" (evaṃ nāmakassa pakkhino Ps iii.142). No previous translator has done better however. Horner gives “some other bird”. Ñ&B translate sithilahanu as "stork". Gethin (2008) leaves the word untranslated. I dealt with the false association of sithilahanu and stork, but Horner and Gethin show two other ways of dealing with an unfamiliar word if we don't believe the dictionary and/or customary translations. Horner admits her ignorance. She is a great scholar who nevertheless seems to be aware of her limitations and not afraid to say she is guessing or just does not know (I'm coming to admire her). Gethin takes another route which might also be humility. The word is untranslatable, so he leaves it untranslated. While I sympathise, having spent many hours on this passage puzzling out the strange terminology, I must admit I find fault with this approach. An untranslated mystery word seems like an abdication of responsibility of the translator. There are other approaches which might be employed. In both the Chinese counterparts for example, the translators simply change all the bird names into ones familiar to their Chinese readers. They don't always use the same strategies however.

The Pāli text refers to two types of bows: cāpa and kodaṇḍa. It's not at all clear what these two words mean from the context, nor from various Pāli or Sanskrit dictionaries, nor from a survey of the minimal usage elsewhere in the Canon. Nor is etymology any great help. Cāpa may come from a PIE root meaning 'to bend', but this tells us nothing more than we already know. The word daṇḍa, meaning 'stick or staff' is a loan word into Sanskrit (and thus Pāli) from Proto-Munda. So, presumably, is kodaṇḍa, though none of the standard studies of loan words directly identify it as such. In any case it is an old loan word already in common use for a millennia by the time the Pāli was composed (e.g. present in the Ṛgveda), so we must be cautious about imputing Munda cultural influence here (as I did previously) So I no longer agree with the suggestion made by Bryan Levman and taken up by Piya Tan that kodaṇḍa is a Munda bow. 

Horner translates “spring-bow and cross-bow” (with an acknowledgement that this is a tentative translation); Ñ&B have ‘long bow or cross bow’; Gethin, again, does not translate. Now spring-bow is not a term I have found any reference to. I presume Horner means a simple bow or self-bow as distinct from a compound bow. Ñ&B have corrected this to long bow which works a little better I think. The point of the text is merely to provide a contrast between types. However, historically the cross-bow was never much used in India and is extremely unlikely to be found in the Buddha's milieu. 

At this point we turn, with hope, to the Chinese to compare what they have made of the words. Firstly it seems clear that their Indic original text was a little different to the Pāli. Both for example give three types of bow instead of two, and where T 94 seems to be striving to preserve Indic terms neither of them could be cāpa or kodaṇḍa. MĀ 221 asks whether the bow was made of Maclura tricuspidata aka silkworm thorn (柘 zhè), mulberry (桑 sāng) or zelkova tree (槻 guī); T 94 distinguishes three types of bows made from different kinds of wood (木mù): sal (薩羅 sà luó), tala (多羅duō luó), or 翅羅鴦掘梨 chì luó yāng jué lí”. In MĀ 221 the translator has overwritten the Indic materials with familiar Chinese materials. Since it's clear from the overall treatment of this subject that the Pāli author is far from being very familiar with archery, there is no need to assume that the Chinese is any better. But the words are designed to produce recognition in a Chinese reader. T. 1.94 however would produce only incomprehension in the average Chinese reader of any era. The unknown translator has tried to transliterate the Indic terms using Chinese characters. We can just make out the first two as common trees in India: the sal tree, and the palmyra tree. But the third term has stubborn refused to resolve itself into any comprehensible. 翅 羅 鴦 掘 梨 in Middle Chinese pronunciation would be: si ra ang gul i. We would expect a Sanskrit word like *kīlāṅguli ‘post-finger’(?) Cf Pāli kīḷāguḷa ‘a ball for playing with’ (DOP). Skt. karāṅguli ‘a finger of the hand’ (MW); Marathi karaṅgaḷī ‘little finger’. However I can identify no plausible material for making bows. 

Even from this brief survey we have now seen all but one of the major strategies used by translators of any time and place when faced with difficult terminology. Apart from non-translation, guessing and substitution, the other option is just to ignore the word altogether. An example of this is found in Ñ&B's translation of the types of arrowhead when they simply leave two terms out of their translated list (salla and nārāca). 

Buddhist scholars (or scholars of Buddhism) are often guilty of parochialism. I know I'm guilty of this myself. Faced with a problem in Pāli I might check my Sanskrit dictionaries, but I would seldom delve into non-Buddhist texts to see how the word is used in practice. In fact it was only secondary sources on Indian archery that lead me to what now seems like an obvious source. The Arthaśāstra (AŚ) is usually attributed to Kauṭilya who is in turn identified with Cāṇakya, a minister in the court of Chandragupta Maurya (ca. 4th century BCE). The identification is plausibly disputed now and AŚ most likely the text dates from ca. 125-150 CE. This text is sometimes likened to Machiavelli's manual The Prince, since it outlines all the knowledge necessary for ruling an empire. 

Amidst this text is a list of types of bow and the materials they are constructed from. Arthaśāstra says that bows are called kārmuka, kodaṇḍa, and drūṇa, and are made from tāla, cāpa, and dārava and śārṅga (wood and horn).  Now this is usually interpreted as saying that a kārmuka bow is made from tāla and so on. Which would mean that a kodaṇḍa bow is made of cāpa. This leaves us with a conundrum. The Pāli makes me want to read the types of bow and the materials as being interchangeable: i.e. one can make a kārmuka bow from either tāla, cāpa or wood and horn. The Sanskrit text of AŚ can be read this way. Arthaśāstra also lists cāpa under types of plant material that the empire needs to stockpile and cāpa is listed under types of veṇu, i.e. cane or bamboo (AŚ. 2.17.5). This case alone demonstrates the value of reading beyond Buddhist literature. 

Thus we can deduce that a cāpa bow is a self-bow made from cane or bamboo, of the type still used by hunter gatherer tribes in Indian right down to the present! The likelihood then is that kodaṇḍa is a kind of composite bow, with its wooden substrate reinforced by horn and/or sinew. 

The problem here is similar to the one dealt with by Murray B. Emeneau (1953: 77) “Philologists working with Sanskrit texts seem to have been quite innocent of [archery] knowledge”… reflecting a fairly general unconcern of the Indian authors.” I acknowledged why this might be so in my original essay. The message of the text is not to be concerned with irrelevant details, and the early translators (the Pāli is also a translation) seem to have taken this to so much to heart that we no longer understand three of the terms used, and struggle to reconstruct several others. 

So what's the point of this kind of archaeological approach to a text whose message seems to be don't bother? 

Producing realistic translations is helpful to the reader. What caught my attention in this passage was bow strings ostensibly made of "bark" or arrow heads made of “an oleander leaf”. This is not realistic. Any astute reader must see these locutions and wonder what the author meant. Like Murray Emeneau I think realistic translations are important. Unrealistic translations create cognitive dissonance. As a philologist I am concerned to understand and translate my text accurately, but as a Buddhism I do this partly in order to try to bring the text alive, or to invoke the period. Jarringly anachronistic or unrealistic details undermine both goals.

It seems to me that the task of curating the "sacred" texts comes with an imperative that goes beyond mere preservation. Conservation includes scope for restoration. This is certainly the case at the level of the text. The Pali Text Society editions of the Pāli are critical editions, in which a skilled editor has compared the various recensions and made a decision on what the "correct" reading ought to be - but still notes the alternatives. As such we are probably overdue for a new critical edition of the Pāli Canon in Pāli since scholarship has advanced so far in the mean time (more than 100 years in many cases). If this argument is valid, then it ought to apply at the level of individual words as well. 

A disappointment with respect to the Chinese Canon is that the translation strategies employed by translators often obscure details just when we'd like them to be clarified. If we lose words from the Pāli texts themselves we may find it impossible ever recover them. There is still a small chance of a Gāndhārī counterpart emerging from the sands of the Swat Valley, but its unlikely that any given text will survive in a Gāndhārī version. In the case of this passage the words might seem relatively insignificant. But a careless attitude to words generally risks greater losses. My attitude is informed by approaches to ecology. The more diversity in the gene pool the healthier the ecosystem. Quite obviously this has little direct impact on enunciation of the Buddhist doctrine, but the value of the Buddhist texts, like for example the value of Buddhist statuary in Afghanistan, goes beyond the value placed on it by pious Buddhists. The Pāli documents are records of humanity in a particular time and place. If they were lost then the human race would be the poorer for it. 



Arthaśāstra by Kauṭilya. (Kangle Ed). 2nd Ed. University of Bombay, 1969.

Emeneau, Murray B. (1953) ‘The Composite Bow in India.’ Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 97(1): 77-87.

Gethin, Rupert. (2008) Sayings of the Buddha. Oxford University Press.

Horner, I. B. (1954-9) The Book of Middle Length Sayings. (3 vols.) Pali Text Society.

Olivelle, Patrick. (2013) King, governance, and law in ancient India: Kauṭilya's Arthaśāstra. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Pant, G.N. (1978) Indian Archery. Delhi: Agam Kala Prakashan.

Thanissaro (2012) ‘Cula-Malunkyovada Sutta: The Shorter Instructions to Malunkya’. Access to Insight. http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.063.than.html
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