Buddhist Translators Workbench

Buddhist Translators Workbench (BTW)

The vast scope of Buddhist literature places almost impossible demands on translators who are seriously committed to conveying the meaning of fundamental texts in modern languages. BTW aims to lighten this load by providing careful analysis of key terms in the Buddhists corpus, with a focus on sūtras and śāstras. The program is designed to support collaboration, an approach widely practiced in ancient times, but less so today. As an open-source, cumulative, and modular system, BTW will eventually let users select levels of access and input and join working groups based on their interest/expertise. This flexibility also allows aspects of BTW to be decoupled for use in other projects.

BTW offers a model for applying open-source technology to any translation work, especially in non-Western/ancient languages, yielding higher quality in less time. Fields such as Linguistics and Asian Languages will benefit from easier access to Buddhist materials. Readers will profit from tested, documented terms, while translators will have a virtual lab for collective study of texts. Academics will gain new methodologies, especially in philology (often a weak point in graduate training). BTW is being supported in its current stage of development by an NEH Level 2 Digital Humanities start-up grant.

Project Description

At the heart of BTW is a lexicon of terms drawn from the sūtras and śāstras of the Indic traditions (teachings attributed to the Buddha and their commentaries). Standard relational database (RDBMS) technology will be used alongside a modern data model and object-relational (ORM) layer. The corpus of materials from which data is drawn will eventually be representative of the language of the sūtras and śāstras; in the current stage, the focus is on the works of Vasubandhu.

In establishing appropriate lexicographic criteria for the task at hand, BTW aims to create a practical tool grounded in actual translation practice. This requires a critical reexamination of traditional practices employed in the field. In our work till now, we have chosen to work with  semantic criteria that have the potential to supersede the traditional philosophical or etymological translation criteria largely relied on until now. While we continue to design BTW to allow for the eventual inclusion of multilanguage cross-referencing, we are focusing initially on Sanskrit as the source language and English as the target language, postponing language-agnostic features for the later implementation phase.

BTW is currently working toward a proof-of-concept implementation scheduled to go online early in 2015. In its final form, BTW aims to deliver to the scholar’s desktop a coordinated system of tools modeled on traditional translation resources: manuscripts, critical editions, previous translations, published and unpublished articles, contemporaneous and thematically related works, discussion notes, library collections, etc. Users will be able to enjoy convenient access to the full range of digital texts relevant to translation; conduct language agnostic and proximate searches for Buddhist terminology in three Indic languages (Sanskrit, Pāli and Gāndhārī), as well as Tibetan and (later) Chinese; and collaborate with other experts, working toward consensus regarding terminology. BTW will let translators preserve a record of their work for future reference and digital footnoting, and will allow team members to work collaboratively in real time or by posting their work for others to comment on or use later.

BTW’s core philosophy is that meaning develops through relationships: both among texts and among people. To give context to translation issues, it includes in its scope: 1) regional histories, philosophical schools, usage in context; 2) grammar, etymology, and philology; 3) transmission across Buddhist cultures; 4) reception and interpretation within target cultures; 5) hermeneutics and translation theory (classical and contemporary); and 6) conventions of Western languages and philosophies. One of BTW’s chief innovations is thus the implementation of translation philosophy in digital methodology.


Symposium on BTW, held March 8–10, 2013

Digital Data group at Tilden 3-10-13

Mangalam Research Center hosted a symposium titled “Advances in Digital Humanities for Buddhist Studies” for researchers, scholars, and collaborators on the BTW project on March 8–10, 2013, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities .  It was featured in a blog post here.  You can view the program and schedule for the weekend here [PDF].

Videos of several presentations are available on the following page.