Lack of good translations of many Mahayana Sutras in English

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Lack of good translations of many Mahayana Sutras in English

Postby JKhedrup » Sat Feb 02, 2013 9:26 am

I just wanted to express my frustration with the lack of good translations of Mahayana Sutras in the English language.

I realize that the canon is vast but the lack of availability of these Sutras in the English language really is a shortcoming in the Buddhist world. Apart from DKR's project to translate the canon, I am not aware of any other major translation efforts regarding the Mahayana sutras. The other thing that is frustrating for me is that it seems to be the same sutras that get translated over and over again, with very little real difference in the translations themselves.

Is it the monumentous volume of material that has led to lack of progress on this very important task?
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Re: Lack of good translations of many Mahayana Sutras in Eng

Postby randomseb » Sat Feb 02, 2013 9:34 am

My problem is that translations are usually made based on the belief of the translator, and sometimes when they put a footnote on stuff to give alternative (from other people) or literal translations, these often make more sense than what the translator puts in the text. The entire meaning of that part of the text can change.. So the accuracy of the teachings appear to be often skewed in translation :thinking:

I suppose I would need to teach myself Sanskrit and Pali and Tibetan to have a clearer original text
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Re: Lack of good translations of many Mahayana Sutras in Eng

Postby Yudron » Sat Feb 02, 2013 9:44 am

JKhedrup wrote:I just wanted to express my frustration with the lack of good translations of Mahayana Sutras in the English language.

I realize that the canon is vast but the lack of availability of these Sutras in the English language really is a shortcoming in the Buddhist world. Apart from DKR's project to translate the canon, I am not aware of any other major translation efforts regarding the Mahayana sutras. The other thing that is frustrating for me is that it seems to be the same sutras that get translated over and over again, with very little real difference in the translations themselves.

Is it the monumentous volume of material that has led to lack of progress on this very important task?


In the Tibetan tradition you would think the FPMT would be doing more of this--considering what the M stands for. A lot of the best translators came out of Kalu Rinpoche's retreat centers in the 70's and 80's, and their translations reflect Kalu Rinpoche's own priorities, the priorities of their other teachers, and to some small degree their own interests. They do not necessarily even have a strong background in sutra.

Do the Gelugs, or any Tibetans for that matter, actually read sutras other than the Prajnaparamita, and a few sutras that are said to have magical powers if read aloud? Don't they tend more towards Shastra? :?:
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Re: Lack of good translations of many Mahayana Sutras in Eng

Postby Huifeng » Sat Feb 02, 2013 10:22 am

Viz OP thread title: Hence the DIY approach I have since taken. :smile:

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Re: Lack of good translations of many Mahayana Sutras in Eng

Postby JKhedrup » Sat Feb 02, 2013 11:38 am

Do the Gelugs, or any Tibetans for that matter, actually read sutras other than the Prajnaparamita, and a few sutras that are said to have magical powers if read aloud? Don't they tend more towards Shastra?


This is an excellent point, and I think in part answers the question about FPMT's lack of progress in this regard. Except for a couple of sutras chosen by Lama Zopa Rinpoche, very few have been translated. Personally I feel this is a shame.

But I think it is very much a matter of resources. In the Masters and Basic Programs, the two main study programs of FPMT, what is being studied is shastra, so the translation efforts are naturally focused there as that what is being used by the Geshes and students at the centres.

I imagine, though, if there were more people willing to sponsor translation work a lot more would get done. I would also love to see two or three qualified Geshes appointed specifically as assistants in translation efforts of difficult tasks, rather than resident teachers. Then the translators could ask questions about how to properly convey the meaning of the text through the use of the most accurate words possible. But again, this takes resources.
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Re: Lack of good translations of many Mahayana Sutras in Eng

Postby Huifeng » Sat Feb 02, 2013 11:43 am

One has to be quite careful if translation of sutra is to be done influenced by heavy sastric / upadesa interpretation. While some commentaries are very helpful, others impose various systems upon a text that at very problematic. See what the Abhisamayalamkara[loka...] did to Conze's work with the Prajnaparamita.

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Re: Lack of good translations of many Mahayana Sutras in Eng

Postby JKhedrup » Sat Feb 02, 2013 11:51 am

Not sure how to get around this problem actually Ven. Huifeng.

Each Buddhist organization I feel will be influenced by their commentarial interpretation when translating the Sutras.

A Pan-Buddhist translation effort from the Sanskrit, Tibetan and Classical Chinese versions of extant Sutras where available would seem to be an attractive option, but how do you get people holding such different ideas and speaking different languages to sit together in a room long enough to do that?
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Re: Lack of good translations of many Mahayana Sutras in Eng

Postby Astus » Sat Feb 02, 2013 12:45 pm

It seems to be that while Tibetan Buddhism followers tend to focus on shastras in translation, from Chinese most of the important Mahayana sutras have been translated already. For instance, all the sutras used in Korean novice training are available in English, although not the commentaries. There are individual translators who make most of the work, like Thomas Cleary, and there are a few groups like the Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai and the Buddhist Text Translation Society publishing different scriptures.
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Re: Lack of good translations of many Mahayana Sutras in Eng

Postby JKhedrup » Sat Feb 02, 2013 12:56 pm

While the most favoured Sutras have been translated already, as you mentioned, I can't help but thinking it would be a tremendous resource to have the complete Mahayana Canon available in English.

Perhaps once translated Sutras seen as obscure long ago will have a new relevance in the modern period.
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Re: Lack of good translations of many Mahayana Sutras in Eng

Postby Astus » Sat Feb 02, 2013 1:08 pm

JKhedrup wrote:While the most favoured Sutras have been translated already, as you mentioned, I can't help but thinking it would be a tremendous resource to have the complete Mahayana Canon available in English.

Perhaps once translated Sutras seen as obscure long ago will have a new relevance in the modern period.


I think it's simply a matter of people who know the canonical language taking the initiative and publishing translations online. This site is a good example. I like what D. T. Suzuki wrote in his preface to the Lankavatara Sutra:

"As regards the English translation of the Sutra, I have decided after much hesitation to send it out to the public with all its many imperfections. It is a bold attempt on the part of the translator to try to render some of the deepest thoughts that have been nourished in the East into a language to which he was not born. But his idea is that if somebody did not make a first attempt, however poor and defective, the precious stones may remain buried unknown except to a few scholars, and this perhaps longer than necessary. And then things develop. As it is illustrated in the long history of the Chinese translations of the Buddhist texts, there must be several attempts before the work assumes something of finality."
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(Sheng-yen: Getting the Buddha Mind, p 73)

“Don’t rashly seek the true Buddha;
True Buddha can’t be found.
Does marvelous nature and spirit
Need tempering or refinement?
Mind is this mind carefree;
This face, the face at birth."

(Nanyue Mingzan: Enjoying the Way, tr. Jeff Shore; T51n2076, p461b24-26)
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Re: Lack of good translations of many Mahayana Sutras in Eng

Postby Huifeng » Sat Feb 02, 2013 1:38 pm

Astus wrote:I think it's simply a matter of people who know the canonical language taking the initiative and publishing translations online.


If only 'twere so simple. These things take expertise and time. Simply knowing classical Buddhist Chinese will not provide the competence to translate any given sutra (or other text). Often years of study of said text and related texts and systems are required, and this takes further time when other activities must be largely curtailed. Moreover, the time required means money - because full time translators still have to eat and have a place to live. Those who are competent are also often in high demand elsewhere, either as religious or academic teachers, or other related things. Moreover, by publishing online, one cannot even sell at cost and break even. The funds required soon dry up. If one ever gets involved in such projects, particularly at the organizational level, it soon becomes obvious that things are not so simple as they sound.

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Re: Lack of good translations of many Mahayana Sutras in Eng

Postby Indrajala » Sat Feb 02, 2013 2:09 pm

Huifeng wrote:If one ever gets involved in such projects, particularly at the organizational level, it soon becomes obvious that things are not so simple as they sound.


Indeed.

Even if you're willing to pay qualified people a good sum of money for their work, quite often they're not willing to sign up.

Scholars usually have their own projects plus teaching, family and other commitments. It isn't so much about money, but time and mental energy. Translations also don't generally count much for tenure consideration.

A text of 100,000 characters in Chinese for example might not sound like much, but if the content is terse and requires extensive research plus additional advice from colleagues, it can take a lot of time. Then you need to factor in proofreading and editing.
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Re: Lack of good translations of many Mahayana Sutras in Eng

Postby Astus » Sat Feb 02, 2013 2:40 pm

What you mean is how to produce high quality translations that contain the necessary references and such to make understanding easier. I assume that those who can read any canonical language also have at least a basic knowledge of their contents, so the translations made are acceptable. As an example, Blofeld studied Buddhist Chinese for decades before he published The Zen Teaching of Huang Po, and still Wright could write a book about how much it shows the influence of non-Buddhist ideas, i.e. Blofeld's own cultural background. So, is it a good or a bad translation? If all translators had to do as much study as Blofeld we could be quite short on Buddhist books in English. And just as Blofeld's work, there must be first something to make people interested. Like the Bible, classical works have to be re-translated regularly anyway to make them up to date with the current language, lest they sink into obscurity. I'm not against quality in translation, what I'm saying is that quantity has its benefits too. Also, while scholars can make a wonderful job, it relies mostly on Buddhists to spread their religion.
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“Don’t rashly seek the true Buddha;
True Buddha can’t be found.
Does marvelous nature and spirit
Need tempering or refinement?
Mind is this mind carefree;
This face, the face at birth."

(Nanyue Mingzan: Enjoying the Way, tr. Jeff Shore; T51n2076, p461b24-26)
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Re: Lack of good translations of many Mahayana Sutras in Eng

Postby Indrajala » Sat Feb 02, 2013 2:47 pm

Yeah, but there are some bad translations published. I mean ones that you read and compare against the original and see vast interpretation, not translation.

However, early on in China Vighna stated, “The Buddha said, 'Rely on the meaning without using adornments. Extract its teachings without embellishing it.' Those who transmit the sūtras should make them easily understood. Do not lose the meaning. This would be good.”
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Re: Lack of good translations of many Mahayana Sutras in Eng

Postby plwk » Sun Feb 03, 2013 2:02 am

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Re: Lack of good translations of many Mahayana Sutras in Eng

Postby Jinzang » Sun Feb 03, 2013 2:59 am

And everyone here knows about the Kangyur translation project as well?
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Re: Lack of good translations of many Mahayana Sutras in Eng

Postby JKhedrup » Sun Feb 03, 2013 8:42 am

Hey Plwk,
That's why I mentioned it here

Apart from DKR's project to translate the canon, I am not aware of any other major translation efforts regarding the Mahayana sutras.


The way that they've arranged the 84,000 Project is very smart because thing are translated as they get the funds. But the progress is extremely slow precisely because I think for many Buddhists this is not the first type of work they think of sponsoring.
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Re: Lack of good translations of many Mahayana Sutras in Eng

Postby plwk » Sun Feb 03, 2013 9:43 am

JKhedrup wrote:Hey Plwk,
That's why I mentioned it here

Apart from DKR's project to translate the canon, I am not aware of any other major translation efforts regarding the Mahayana sutras.


The way that they've arranged the 84,000 Project is very smart because thing are translated as they get the funds. But the progress is extremely slow precisely because I think for many Buddhists this is not the first type of work they think of sponsoring.
Oh ok. What to do? Wealth vases, pujas and amulet pendants are top priority for some than text translations... :spy:
Or why not? For every text translation, one gets a special edition XXL size wealth vase and the latest and unique amulet pendant made with Swarovski crystal? :mrgreen:
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Re: Lack of good translations of many Mahayana Sutras in Eng

Postby JKhedrup » Tue Feb 05, 2013 12:12 pm

Ven. Heng Sure of the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas on Translating the Sutras:
http://theinterfaithobserver.org/journa ... rders.html
Buddhist Translators without Borders

Renewed Community from Ancient Seed

An assembly reciting the Avatamsaka SutraI’m sitting in a retreat bungalow in the Australian bush south of Brisbane, near Mudgeeraba, Queensland. I am translating an ancient Buddhist scripture with twenty other people, most of whom are in different countries.

I’m working with a Macintosh laptop facilitating a wireless Skype conference call. I have as well an iPad 2 running FaceTime, Apple’s videophone software, connected to a room in a Buddhist monastery in California. My word processor, Nisus Writer, has a bilingual Chinese-English edition of the Avatamsaka Sutra, that is, The Buddha’s Flower Garland Scripture. The text is said to be the first teaching the Buddha delivered after his enlightenment beneath the Bodhi tree, some 2500 years ago.

The local broadband provider here in Australia’s Gold Coast has extended its coverage out to the bush, Australian for forest. So, via FaceTime, I can see a room with Buddhist monks, nuns, laymen, laywomen and student interns in Ukiah, California, at the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas. They in turn see my image projected onto a movie screen in their translation room.

The main gate into the City of 10,000 Buddhas in northern California.Joining us remotely online via Skype are translators and auditors in Paris, London, Rotterdam, Taipei, San Jose, Oakland, and Index, Washington, in the Cascade Mountains. I can hear their voices over my computer speakers and they can hear mine, even though the birds chattering outside my window are not California bluejays but kookaburras, cockatoos, and rainbow lorikeets.

All of our software and hardware tools are off-the-shelf, available to anybody with a modest budget, creating a two-way, smooth, audible stream of voices and images. We are creating something collaboratively that would have been unimaginable five years ago.

One Tradition, Many Languages – Now English

Buddhist scriptures have been around in Asian languages since the third century BCE. Four hundred years later they began to move from Pali and Sanskrit, Indian canonical languages, into Chinese. From Chinese they disseminated into East Asia, with translations emerging in Korean, Japanese, and Vietnamese. And the Buddha’s voice can be read in English since the late Chan Master Hsuan Hua came to the United States from his native Manchuria and spent 30 years teaching English speakers and readers. In daily sessions he explicated the Avatamsaka Sutra line by line.

Rev. Heng Sure speaking about the Avatamsaka Sutra at the Berkeley Buddhist Monastery.The task before our translation group is to render it into English, a text known as “the king of kings of Buddhist sutras.” In English we have only one other complete translation extant, and it has a deserved reputation for omissions and other infelicities. The Buddhist Text Translation Society, with whom we work, has published only a few of its forty chapters. Now we have tackled it sequentially from the beginning.

When this scripture was rendered into Chinese from Sanskrit it was done by a committee of monks and scholars numbering in the hundreds, sometimes including the emperor himself, or empress, in some cases, when the reign favored Buddhism or wanted its blessings.

Our collaborative format, aided by technology and the internet, follows along behind great translator-monks of the past … Venerable Kumarajiva (344-413 CE), Master Xuanzang (c. 596 or 602-664), or the Monk Fazang (643-712 CE), a favorite of the Empress Wu Zetian (c.625-705), to name a few. In their assemblies scholar-practitioners gathered to translate the texts, including monks from India and the Silk Road kingdoms who could read the original manuscript aloud in Indian languages.

Then there were pilgrims, editors, polishers, certifiers, clouds of scribes, and musical liturgists who invoked spiritual presence and blessings on the work and who dedicated the merits at the end of each day. Sometimes the imperial ministers present lavishly funded the enterprise, building halls and dwellings for the monastic translators and their staffs and occasionally serving as liaison between the palace and the monastery.

In the Golden Era of the Tang Dynasty (6th to 10th centuries CE), hundreds of monks and scholars took part in imperially sponsored translation assemblies, and manuscripts were painstakingly copied by hand. In the digital age today it is a challenge to find half a dozen monks and nuns to sit together; how much the more difficult is it to gather talented translators or experts in Sanskrit, Buddhist Chinese and English prose. Yet with several key-strokes, today we can send copies of our translations around the world, and the numbers improve.

Some voices lament monks working with technology, as if the only proper monastic vocation is prayer. In fact, monks have always been leaders in technology. The earliest printed book was created in 868 CE, a woodblock print of the Vajra or Diamond Sutra. European monks kept Western civilization alive during barbarian invasions – think Celtic monks illuminating manuscripts in tall towers, tranquil and serene above the Visigoths plundering the market towns and burning the farmhouses below. By preserving and translating textual treasures from the past, monks give readers today and in the future access to the wisdom of the ages. Monks’ tools have moved from quills and colored inks to keyboards and printed circuits, but the intent and the effort is identical with their predecessors throughout history.

Today we enjoy special new tools – the collaborative resources of online wiki-style dictionaries, glossaries, and indices are a reality. Underneath the cursor in one’s browser are resources that heretofore required the presence of an East Asian Library in your neighborhood. These tools live online, in the cloud, and in your browser.

Positive Influence on Buddhist Intrafaith Relations

Another advantage of the digital world for Buddhist translation work is the unprecedented ability to access texts from the different schools of Buddhism. Throughout history the Buddhist community in Asia has experienced partisan schisms: the Theravada, or southern school, avoided the Mahayana, or northern school. The Vajrayana school held itself apart from both the others. Now, though, with the ubiquity of the digital world one can compare texts from all three schools and learn the genuine differences free from bias, stereotypes and bigotry born of distance.

Some people say that translation by committee creates a “camel-leopard,” something that never existed between heaven and earth, a dysfunctional, hybrid animal. Translating the sutra with a group of men and women monastics while balancing Sanskrit, Tang Dynasty Chinese, and contemporary English prose might seem the perfect cradle for the birth of a camel-leopard.

My experience suggests otherwise. The spirit of collaboration, of give-and-take, of mutual joy in the exploration of this ancient wisdom, is the spirit that prevails in our virtual translation room spanning the planet. Someone asked one of our senior translation hands, “How is it that these young interns come back each week to join our translation group? They’re teen-agers. You’d think that translating ancient texts would be boring beyond belief.” The translator answered, “I would say it’s because they like to watch adults having fun with the Dharma.” It’s always been true in the East, and now in the West as well, bringing ancient wisdom into a 21st century world.
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Re: Lack of good translations of many Mahayana Sutras in Eng

Postby Huifeng » Tue Feb 05, 2013 3:22 pm

A valuable question may be: What constitutes a so-called "good translation"?

Translators, for example, tend to think that their translations are "good",
but what criteria are applied to come to such a subjective position?

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