Buddhist Translators Workbench

Buddhist Translators Workbench (BTW)



  • Luis Gómez, Ph.D., Project Co-Director
  • Ligeia Lugli, Ph.D., Project Co-Director
  • Louis-Dominique Dubeau, Ph.D., Technology Director
  • Jack Petranker, M.A, J.D, Project Coordinator
  • Bruno Galasek, Ph.D., Postdoctoral Fellow
  • Siglinde Dietz, Ph.D., Senior Editor
  • Hodo Nakamura, Ph.D., Adjunct Researcher
  • Bennett Buchanan, B.A., Project Assistant
  • Alexandra Ciolac, B.A., Research Assistant
  • Charlotte Gorant, B.A., Research Assistant

Advisory Board

  • Jonathan Gold, Associate Professor of Religion at Princeton University.
  • Christian Kay, Emeritus Professor of English Language and Honorary Professorial Research Fellow at the University of Glasgow.
  • Kurt Keutzer, Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at the University of California, Berkeley.
  • Karen Lang, Professor of Religious Studies and Director of the Center for South Asian Studies at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville.
  • Jan Nattier, Emeritus Professor of Buddhist Studies, Indiana University.

Project Description

As Buddhism attracts increasingly more attention from various academic fields and disciplines, the need to produce reliable and accessible translations of classical Buddhist texts is becoming more urgent.

The idea for the Buddhist Translators Workbench (henceforth, BTW) developed gradually from two concerns expressed by a group of scholars meeting at Mangalam Research Center: the need to improve the translation tools available for translating classical Buddhist text, and the lack of a set of standards of best practices and didactic models for translating such texts. These concerns soon met yet another weakness in our field: the insufficient use of digital capabilities in lexicographic and translation practices.

The historical importance of translation is widely recognized by all humanists, and translation has been a tool for the preservation, transmission and reception of Buddhist texts in ways that parallel processes known to Westerners familiar with the history of the Bible. But when students of Buddhist literature try to follow classical models of translation in Buddhism, they overlook two facts of our age. First, our understanding of translation has changed rapidly since the middle of the 20th century. Second, the expectations of readers have changed radically, and historical models of authority, meaning, and translation methods are not always the best for the 21st century. These changes render several traditional models problematic, insofar as they no longer serve the functions of transmission that they had in some classical contexts. The assumption that translation is some sort of term matching, that words in religious texts are only terms or codes for ahistorical concepts, so that their cultural context and historical dynamics can be ignored, is no longer followed by translators of Western sacred texts; but it is still common among translators of classical Sanskrit Buddhist texts.

Responding to a need to bring the study and translation of classical Sanskrit texts into the 21st century, the BTW team moved further away from the idea of producing a lexicon as we went through the initial stages of conceptualizing and testing various models and is now positioned to successfully introduce a significant shift in Buddhist studies and in the philology of Buddhist texts. Its main expected impact consists in revolutionizing translators’ approach to the Buddhist Sanskrit lexicon, helping them to shift from deducted to integrated meaning, and to reconciliate accuracy with idiomaticity. However, BTW is also gradually growing into a tool with a much wider application for the Humanities. It is proving to be a unique way of testing, operationalizing and demonstrating important principles of bilingual lexicography, historical semantics and translation theory.

During the start-up phase, BTW has focused on developing a new model of bilingual historical lexicography that would successfully guide the translation of culturally specific Sanskrit Buddhist words into English. To this end, BTW has created an innovative template for bilingual digital lexicography that takes full advantage of the digital nature of BTW to introduce (a) comprehensive citations that illustrates the different uses of Sanskrit lemmata and (b) an interactive contrastive section that encourages translators to explore the semantic neighbors of Sanskrit lemmata. The contrastive section of BTW represents a huge improvement on existing lexicographic resources for Sanskrit and other classical Buddhist languages. It encourages Sanskritists to move away from the lists of equivalents and scholastic definitions traditionally used as touchstones in the translation of Buddhist texts and to conceive of the Buddhist lexicon as a part of a network of signification. Through BTW’s contrastive section, users can shift from the limiting practice of looking up a single term and start investigating the lexical clusters of semantically and etymologically related words. Another important innovative aspect of BTW is the integration of the conceptual structure of the Historical Thesaurus of English (http://historicalthesaurus.arts.gla.ac.uk/); originally published in print as Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford University Press, 2009) in the lexicographic template. During the second half of the start-up phase we have developed a rudimentary system of semantic tracking that allows BTW team members to assign a clear semantic value to each occurrence of a Sanskrit word in our corpus. The semantic value is assigned by indexing each occurrence of a Sanskrit word to one or more of the categories of Historical Thesaurus. The Historical Thesaurus has labeled each of its 236,400 semantic categories with a unique identifier number that locate them in a fine-grained conceptual taxonomy. By using the pre-existing conceptual structure of the Historical Thesaurus, BTW is able to sort all the occurrences of Sanskrit words in our corpus in a structured semantic map. Moreover, since the Historical Thesaurus contains the entire English lexicon as recorded in the Oxford Dictionary of English, BTW is potentially able to compare the semantic range of Sanskrit lemmata with that of any English word. Currently however, BTW’s prototype only offers bilingual comparison of a selected number of English words.

During the implementation phase the core of BTW’s innovation will lie in achieving full-scale integration with the Historical Thesaurus and in developing software for multilingual semantic mapping and tracking. We plan to achieve this through the implementation of four new features.

1. Historical Thesaurus integration
BTW will soon be able to query the Historical Thesaurus of English through an API. This will facilitate simultaneous perusal of BTW and the Historical Thesaurus of English. Translators will be able to switch seamlessly from looking up the senses of Sanskrit words to searching for English equivalents that match the relevant semantic categories. The integration will also enable BTW to display the name of the semantic categories, while presently only their number is visible (e.g. the semantic categories that now appears as ‘03.08’ will appear as ‘faith’). The lists of semantic categories in our entries will be easier to read and use.

BTW is the first resource to use the Historical Thesaurus for inter- and intra-lingual semantic comparisons, and the implementation of full-scale integration between these two projects will have significant implication in the field of applied linguistics.

2. Bilingual onomasiological search
Once the Thesaurus integration is implemented, BTW will allow users to search by semantic categories (onomasiological search). The search will be bidirectional. Translators will be able to retrieve all the Sanskrit lemmata and citations linked to a chosen semantic category. This will make it easy to explore how a semantic category is lexicalized in our corpus, as well as to investigate the possible rationale for different lexical choices in various texts. Conversely, by querying the Historical Thesaurus via BTW, users will also be able to retrieve all the English words that match the semantic spectrum of the tracked Sanskrit word. Our software will indicate the percentage of the semantic overlap between the Sanskrit and its rendition, thus guiding the increasing number of non-native English translators in their lexical choices.

This is a great desideratum in Sanskrit and Buddhist studies, where the most popular lexicographic resources typically list cognitive equivalents in English, which are all too often adopted as ready-made renditions in actual translations, despite being neither suitable nor meant to be used in such a way.

3. Data-visualization
To facilitate perusal of the semantic data contained in BTW, we are planning to develop a number of infographic tools. BTW will chart the semantic spectrum of a lemma on the conceptual structure of the HT and compare it with any chosen English rendition or with near-synonyms in Sanskrit. It will also be possible to generate charts that compare the semantic spectra of near-synonyms and cognates within a single text, or in a certain genre. For translators interested in a broader picture of a lemma’s semantic profile, or wishing to chart the lemma’s position in the semantic space relative to other Sanskrit words, BTW will generate semantic maps based on the entirety of its database.

BTW is a pioneering project in the application of data-visualization techniques to translation and historical semantics.

4. Semantic tracker
To implement the workbench aspect of BTW we plan to develop a suite of tools designed to help translators interpret and translate their source texts. BTW will allow them to track the semantic value of any Sanskrit word in any text, and assist their choice of a suitable English rendition. To this end, an adapted version of the current BTW editor will be made available to translators. The adapted editor will help users to select semantic categories from the Historical Thesaurus of English and to assign them to a chosen word-citation. After tracking the word in all the desired citations, translators will be able to generate infographics that contrast the semantic spectrum of the word with that of a possible English equivalent, or with that of other tracked Sanskrit lemmata. It will be possible to share the tracked data within translation teams to facilitate agreement on interpretation and rendition.

BTW is aimed at translators of Buddhist Sanskrit texts, but the semantic tracker can theoretically be applied to any language and literature. With a view to maximize our impact across the Humanities, we are planning on testing the viability of using the conceptual structure of the Historical Thesaurus of English as tertium comparationis in cross-lingual comparison—a great desideratum in ethnolinguistics.

Symposium on BTW (March 8–10, 2013)

Digital Data group at Tilden 3-10-13Mangalam 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. You can download the program and schedule here.

Videos of several presentations are available on the following page.