Theories and Methods in the Translation of Mahāyāna Sūtras

Fri., Aug. 22nd, 14:00-17:00

Are Early Chinese Translations Translatable?

Boucher, Daniel (Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, USA)

The past couple of decades have seen a significant increase of interest in the earliest Chinese translations, particularly of Mahāyāna sūtras. These translations date several centuries before almost all of our Indic source materials and Tibetan translations and are thought to derive from recensions relatively close to their original composition. But despite this new and sustained attention, it is striking that there have been very few attempts to translate any of these texts as our earliest witnesses to the rise of the Mahāyāna. My paper will attempt to reflect on the hesitation to translate these texts in relation to my own encounters with one of the early translators in China. I will reflect on what scholarly translations generally attempt to accomplish and whether these early efforts in China are suited to these goals.


Putting the Vimalakīrti-nirdeśa into English: A Progress Report

Gomez, Luis O. (Ann Arbor, USA); Harrison, Paul (Stanford University, Stanford, CA, USA)

We will present a progress report on the state of our joint translation of the Vimalakīrti-nirdeśa, tracing the history of the project since its initial stage as a translation seminar and workshop at the Mangalam Centers in the summer of 2011. We will discuss briefly our experience with the dynamics of group translation at the workshop, in the team translations that followed the workshop, and the subsequent work by a team of two translators (Harrison and Gómez) responsible for producing a final version.

The Report will describe our experience with some common problems encountered in translations generally and specific issues in the translation of Buddhist texts, particularly the translation of Mahāyāna-sūtras. We (Gómez and Harrison) will take turns addressing as many of the following issues as time permits:

—The “hybrid” nature of our source texts and of the English idiom conventionally adopted to translate those texts. Does hybridity make translation impossible or does it demand special strategies of translation?
—The state of the text and the challenges presented by a text that is, for the time being, a codex unicus.
—Previous attempts at Sanskritizing the Tibetan and Chinese versions or using them as a key to access a putative Sanskrit original. Our use of those sources.
—Problems in the translation of technical terms and consecrated formulas, including the question of deciding when a formulaic translation is in order and when a term is to be taken as part of a word play that crosses the boundaries assumed to separate technical jargon, literary conceit and poetical imagination?
—The artistry of the text and the relationship between literary interpretation and translation strategies.


Translating the Buddha’s Body

Gummer, Natalie (Beloit College, Beloit, USA)

What exactly are Mahāyāna sūtras, and how should we read them? In this paper, I want to explore the implications of our answer to this fundamental question for contemporary translation practices. The scholarly tradition we have inherited generally interprets these texts as repositories of doctrinal teachings, but the sūtras themselves, with their visions of cosmic transformation, elaborate self-referentiality, and striking performative elements, resist (or at least exceed) this characterization. Indeed, I have recently argued that some Mahāyāna sūtras figure their own performance as an aesthetic, dramatic form of sacrificial ritual, one that offers a verbal substitute for the bodily self-sacrifice of the bodhisattva, as well as the flesh offerings of Brahmanical ritual. But how, then, are we to interpret these sūtras? How might historical Buddhist readers (and perhaps more saliently, auditors) have experienced these overtly performative works? How does one read, recite, or hear the ritual body of the Buddha? The obvious fact that these questions resist any definitive answer should not prevent us from asking them. Indeed, if we fail to do so, we are bound to impose uncritically and ahistorically our own assumptions about what a text (not to mention a Mahāyāna sūtra) is, and how it ought to be read—and translated.

Given that our conceptions of what a sūtra is and how to interpret it are historically situated, which understandings do we privilege when we translate, and why? Translating a sūtra as a doctrinal work is quite a different undertaking from translating the aesthetically pleasing, ritually recited body of the Buddha, and such different modes of translation further enable and constrain particular avenues of interpretation for subsequent audiences. Our understanding of Mahāyāna literature would be greatly enriched through a more explicit and deliberate exploration of different interpretations of Mahāyāna sūtras, and the different modes of translation that they warrant. 


Translating a Translation: Methodological Issues in Working with Early Chinese Buddhist Texts

Nattier, Jan (Prachuapkhirikhan, THA)

Several decades ago it was common for scholars to assume that the earliest Chinese translators did a very poor job of rendering Indian Buddhist texts into Chinese. The great sinologist Erik Zürcher, for example, characterized the works of An Shigao as “erratic, crude, full of vulgarisms, often chaotic to the point of unintelligibility.” A number of other scholars, both western and Asian (a leading figure in this regard being the Japanese scholar Ōchō E’nichi) accused Kumārajīva of abbreviating the content of his Indic-language sources in order to produce a more accessible and appealing Chinese version. The treatment of individual words by early translators, too, was often criticized—not only in modern times but already in the medieval period, as reflected in works such as the Yiqiejing yinyi (T2128) completed by Huilin in 807 CE—with early translators being criticized for erroneously transcribing the sounds (or erroneously translating the meaning) of the underlying Sanskrit terms.

The spectacular new manuscript finds of recent years, however—above all, those in Gāndhārī—have put us in a much better position to make an accurate assessment of the nature of the Indic-language scriptures on which these early translators based their work. We now know, for example, that early recensions of Indian Buddhist texts were often much shorter than those previously known, which (if Sanskrit versions had survived at all) were generally preserved only in manuscripts dating from many centuries after the earliest Chinese translations. We also know that most—perhaps all—of the texts transmitted to China during the formative period of Chinese Buddhism were not in classical Sanskrit, but in various Indian vernaculars (the best known of these now being Gāndhārī), or at a slightly later point, in Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit.

Using this new scholarly perspective as my point of departure, I will examine two early Chinese translations of what I have elsewhere referred to as the “smaller Buddhāvataṁsaka,” i.e., the core text out of which the voluminous text by that name appears to have grown: those produced in the late 2nd century CE by Lokakṣema and members of his community (T280, 282, 283) and in the mid-3rd century CE by Zhi Qian (T281). Having discussed the general character of these works in brief, the bulk of my discussion will be devoted to how each of these two very different texts might best be translated into English.

In considering how to go about this project I will engage a number of topics related to the translation enterprise more broadly, in particular the following: (1) how to choose which version of a given scripture should be translated (here engaging in dialogue with other members of this panel as to whether such works should be translated at all); (2) methodological problems specific to the task of translating a text which is itself a translation, when we have access to a certain amount of information—but not as much as we would like—about the nature of its source-text; and (3) the question of the audience for which our translation is intended (reflecting, at the same time, on the question of the audience envisioned by the original Chinese translator himself). While there is surely no such thing as a perfect (or even an ideal) English translation of any Buddhist scripture, I will argue that by reflecting carefully upon our choices at each step of the way, we will have a better chance of producing a final product that will be accessible to the broadest possible audience while at the same time adhering to the highest scholarly standards of accuracy, transparency, and methodological rigor.


Some Reflections on the Translation of Mahāyāna Sūtras

Osto, Douglas (Massey University, Palmerston North, NZL)

In 1981, The Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies published an article by Paul Griffiths titled ‘Buddhist Hybrid English: Some Notes on Philology and Hermeneutics for Buddhologists’ (JIABS, 4:2 (1981), pp. 17–32). In this piece, Griffiths writes, ‘I would suggest, therefore, that a large proportion of the surviving sūtra materials in Sanskrit is better left untranslated’ (p.26). While focusing his attention on Sanskrit texts, Griffiths makes it clear that much of what he is saying may be applied to Mahāyāna sūtras in other languages as well. In the first part of this paper, I discuss the reasons Griffith gives for his suggestion, and argue that these are no longer (if they ever were) good reasons not to translate Mahāyāna sūtras into modern languages. After making the case for the academic utility of translation work on Mahāyāna sūtras, I make some suggestions as to which sūtras we may wish to prioritize in our translations and the audiences we should consider when translating. Following this I propose some guidelines for translation based on general semiotics theory, consider which version of a sūtra is best suited for translation, and discuss the utility of critical editions. Finally, I address the issues of modern technology and electronic/web-based versions of texts, and conjecture about how the use of hypertexts may best serve our future translation work on Mahāyāna sūtras.


IABS 2014 | Universitätsring 1  | 1010 Wien