Translating Pāli Canonical Texts

The focus of the course was selected passages mostly from the Khandha-saṃyutta of the Saṃyutta Nikāya and the Catukka-nipāta of the Anguttara Nikāya . When appropriate, we consulted and compared Chinese translations and Central Asian and Gāndhāri fragments.

Across the Generations 1: Translating Pāli Canonical Texts: Details

Luis Gómez

The Pāli tradition represents one of the earliest strata of Buddhist literature, preserving in extenso the canonical literature that is only preserved in fragmentary form in other languages of India . At one time the primary focus of Western interest in Buddhism, Pāli literature may have been neglected for a number of years. Western enthusiasm for traditions of Mahāyāna inspiration has arguably distracted our attention from a full appreciation of the richness and complexity of the Pāli texts and their Theravāda interpreters. Knowledge of the canonical literature and its doctrinal categories, at one time required in many academic courses in the Academy, is now less common, even among advanced students. However, there has been a recent resurgence in interest in these texts for their doctrinal wealth as well as their historical value, a situation that demands further reflection on how the Pāli tradition has been understood and translated, together with a revaluation of Western translations of Pāli texts.

The focus of our course will be selected passages mostly from the Khandha-saṃyutta of the Saṃyutta Nikāya and the Catukka-nipāta of the Anguttara Nikāya . When appropriate, we will consult and compare Chinese translations and Central Asian and Gāndhāri fragments.

Using these extracts and contemporary and historic English translations as concrete examples, we will examine how one can or should translate canonical Buddhist texts. Discussion will focus on issues of linguistic, stylistic, and technical accuracy, traditional and contemporary understandings of the language and the doctrine, and the production of readable English translations, as well as the history, science and art of translation.

Course Objectives:

1) To familiarize the students with a) the tools of the trade, b) previous English translations of the Pāli texts, and c) critical tools for judging the quality of translations. Additionally, depending on students’ ability and based on the instructors’ explanations we shall also consider translations into other contemporary languages (German and Japanese).

2) To introduce the students to the practice of translating Buddhist canonical texts with concrete examples practice in and reflection on a) theories of translation, b) the art of translation, c) the best options (best practices) for a translator dealing with a text of this genre and date.

3) To reflect on the links between text criticism (so-called lower and higher) and translation.

Prerequisites and course requirements:

1) language competence: Pāli (good working knowledge required), Chinese (optional, not required). Students with a solid knowledge of Sanskrit and beginning knowledge of Pāli will be considered on a case by case basis.

2) Before the beginning of the course students should read the primary text in one of its modern translations , and begin the study of the Pāli text. 3) Each participants will be asked to prepare a translation of a short portion of text that has not been discussed in class, present the translation to class, explain the problems in the selected passage, and discuss the strategies he or she used to produce a satisfactory translation.

All participants will read and participate in the translation and discussion of the passages indicated in the list below (the list as originally posted may be changed slightly, so please check back). This is an ambitious list; we will proceed only as far as time permits. The instructors may also change the order of the readings.

Required reading

By the first day of class, students should have read at least one existing translation of the passage selections listed below.

Texts for study and translation (in order of class discussion):

1. Nakulapitā, SN, III.1-6 (Saṃyutta-nikāya, abbreviated SN and referenced to PTS ed. vol. and pp.).
2. Being Devoured, SN, III.86-91.
3. Yourselves as an Island, SN, III.42-43.
4. The Raft, Majjhima-nikāya, I. 134-135 (PTS ed. vol. and pp.)
5. Fire Sermon and Jātaka-nidāna fragmentary echo in Andersen, §35 (p. 64, lines 19-24) and §39 (pp. 70-71), respectively (see bibliography). Canonical sources are, for Jātaka-nidāna (ó Nidāna-kathā), 000-000, for the Fire Sermon, Vinaya I.34-35 {see also Warren’s translation, p. 531}
6. The Adze Handle, SN, III.152-155.
7. Viparyāsa Aṅguttara-nikāya, II.52 (abbreviated AN and referenced to PTS ed. vol. and pp.)
8. Phases of the Aggregates, SN, III.58-61.
9. A Ball of Foam. SN, III.140-143.
10. Not Yours, SN, III.33-34, IV,81-82.
11. Brahmin Truths. AN, II.176-177
12. The Iron Ball, SN V.282-284.
13. Baveru Jātaka. In Andersen, §13 (= Jātaka 000).
14. Full-Moon Night, SN, III.100-104
15. The Murder of the Beautiful (Sundarī), Maṇisūkara-jātaka, Fausbøll, Jātaka, 1879, vol. II, págs. 415-417, also in Andersen §41 (pp. 72-74).
16. Siddhattha’s “Great Departure” (Jātaka-nidāna), in Andersen, §35 (pp. 64-65).

Specific translations available to seminar participants

1. Bodhi (trans). (2000). “Being Devoured.” [SN III]. The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: A New Translation of the Saṃyuttanikāya.
2. Bodhi (trans). (2000). “Yourselves as an Island.” [SN III]. The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: A New Translation of the SaṃyuttanikāyaIII.
3. Bodhi (trans). (2000). “Nakulapita.” [SN III]. The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: A New Translation of the Saṃyuttanikāya
4. Woodward (trans). “Being Devoured.” [SN III]. Book of Kindred Sayings.
5. Woodward (trans). “On Being an Island to Self.” [SN III]. Book of Kindred Sayings.
6. Woodward (trans). “Nukulapitar.” [SN III]. Book of Kindred Sayings.


1. The Samyuktāgama manuscript is available online in the Catalog
2. Definitions from the glossary can be accessed online through the Dictionary

Bibliography (.pdf-232k)

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