Translation Philosophy for Sanskrit Names

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Translation Philosophy for Sanskrit Names

Postby Zhen Li » Tue Jun 11, 2013 12:24 pm

As you surely know, Thomas Cleary made the Avatamsaka Sutra extremely accessible to less read Buddhists and non-Buddhists by translating just about everything, save "Buddha," from Sanskrit/Chinese.

I have been grappling with this for some time, and I do have my own list of English Bodhisattva (i.e. Enlightening Being) names which I occasionally have the mood to use.

What are your thoughts on what terms to keep in the English and Sanskrit? I'd be interested in hearing from people who may have published translations in particular. :reading:
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Re: Translation Philosophy for Sanskrit Names

Postby Indrajala » Tue Jun 11, 2013 12:35 pm

As much as possible use the Sanskrit because otherwise everyone has different terms for technical jargon and you can't always identify what they're referring to.

Sanskrit transliterates and sounds easy enough in English.

For really specific stuff like Vinaya terms this requires Sanskrit, otherwise you end up with terms like "defeat" and "downfall", and it sounds awkward. The Chinese often transliterated these terms as well with good reason:

    pārājika
    saṃghāvaśeṣa
    aniyata
    naiḥsargika-prāyaścittika
    śuddha-prāyaścittika
    pratideśanīya
    śaikṣā-dharma
    adhikaraṇa-śamatha
    sthūlātyaya
    pāyattika
    duṣkṛta

For other subjects as well, the technical terms from Sanskrit function best.

In many languages like Hindi for example a lot of English technical vocabulary is preserved as is. To come up with equivalents is easy enough, but sometimes the vocabulary from a foreign language just functions well as is.
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Re: Translation Philosophy for Sanskrit Names

Postby Huifeng » Tue Jun 11, 2013 1:15 pm

For any "translation philosophy", one of the first questions has to be:
Who is your audience?
Before this is dealt with, not much else can be discussed.

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Re: Translation Philosophy for Sanskrit Names

Postby Zhen Li » Tue Jun 11, 2013 2:07 pm

Personally, I love the term "defeat," but to each their own.

As for audience, you're quite correct.

More or less, if it is for academic purposes, the intentions will be clear. First time translations of a text should ideally be closer to literal and retain unclear terms. Then of course there are those who will re-translate a text with literary intent, which Cleary obviously did with the Qu'ran, but it's strange that he did that with the Avatamsakasutra.

I suppose what I'm more or less into translating these days is stuff for practitioners to read for study and prayer/recitation, so I want it to be clear and sound chantable, but I'm really on the fence with regards helping those who are new to texts by translating the Sanskrit names or terms, and helping those who are experienced but not Sanskritists who will be able to figure out the names or terms.
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Re: Translation Philosophy for Sanskrit Names

Postby Jainarayan » Tue Jun 11, 2013 2:19 pm

Fwiw, and for my part I prefer using Sanskrit in my sadhana and when I recite a shloka. Some translations into English sound not only awkward as Indrajala said, but I think some of them sound downright silly. Sanskrit is a highly inflected language, saying a lot with a little. Sometimes there is the proverbial "lost in the translation" issue. But I do like to see translations so I know what the gist of the the shloka is in Sanskrit. Moreover the meter and intonation of Sanskrit shlokas sounds very melodic and poetic. Without this meter and intonation I think it defeats the purpose of a chant. As a side note, I was told by someone that unless Sanskrit is pronounced absolutely perfectly, it has no value. So I guess the prayers and chants of someone with a speech impediment are worthless? :roll: I called b.s. on that. ;)
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Re: Translation Philosophy for Sanskrit Names

Postby Zhen Li » Wed Jun 12, 2013 1:46 am

I would definitely agree with you with regards to any mantras or dharanis - which unfortunately is lost in most non-Indian Buddhist traditions, except perhaps Shingon where Siddham is used, though I know not to what degree they pronounce it correctly, especially with the semi-vowel and vocalic Rs in Sanskrit, which Japanese seem to have issues with regardless. As for all verses and prayers however, especially if they are prayers, I think that understanding is what matters. I'm not sure why chanting something wholeheartedly and understandingly, if it is not an invocation, dharani or mantra, would have any less effect. And moreover, elegant melody and intonation can be captured in English, but people these days tend to be too lazy to attempt the endeavour.

What are your thoughts?
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Re: Translation Philosophy for Sanskrit Names

Postby Jainarayan » Wed Jun 12, 2013 3:32 pm

I agree that the local vernacular can be used to great effect, as long as the translator has a good grasp of both languages. I further agree that oftentimes, it's a half-assed attempt, and therein lies the problem of the awkwardness and silliness of the translation. I have no idea how a Sanskrit dhāranī translates into Tibetan viz. its accuracy. I've heard the Lotus Sutra in Japanese, and was totally mesmerized by the meter and melody. Is it faithful to the original? Beats me! :shrug: And as I said, when using a language that is not one's mother tongue, I don't think that a horrible accent renders the mantra or dhāranī useless or unacceptable to the deities. At the risk of offending anyone, I call dogmatic b.s. on that one, as I mentioned. I think it goes to chapter 9 verse 26 of the Bhagavad Gita: "If one offers Me with love and devotion a leaf, a flower, fruit or water, I will accept it"... i.e. it's the thought that counts (regarding the pronunciation, the translation should have some resemblance to the original ;) ). Btw, I was also told by this person that the verse refers to offering a physical item, not a heartfelt devotion. :roll: But I think I'm pontificating now. :oops:
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Re: Translation Philosophy for Sanskrit Names

Postby kirtu » Wed Jun 12, 2013 11:24 pm

Very common Sanskrit terms should not be translated: karma for example.

Names of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas should not be translated: I'm annoyed with some translations done in the late 80's early 90's referring to Diamond Sow, Buddha Vajra Holder, Bodhisattva Vajra-in-Hand, Bodhisattva Loving Kindness, etc. It's almost unreadable.

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