Ancient Translation Methods: Dynamism and Debate

Ancient Translation Methods: Dynamism and Debate

Kagyu Gunchoe Winter Teachings 2023 • Day 2

16 January, 2023

Today we have easy access to copious Buddhist texts that have been translated into our own native languages.  However, this fortunate situation could not have arisen without the hard work of translators, both modern and ancient.  His Holiness began today’s teaching by paying homage to the panditas of the past, whose many skills and supporting abilities—including great diligence and care—are important to appreciate.  His Holiness remarked that he has tried to translate a few texts on his own over the past few years.  Yet when he reads the translations by ancient masters, he feels amazed at their accomplishments and personally humbled by his own efforts to translate scriptures.

Ancient Tibetan and Chinese translation efforts share some similarities, despite their differences.  Chinese Buddhist scriptures were translated very early, beginning in the 1st century CE, a few hundred years earlier than the Tibetan translations.  The most reliable sources say that the Buddhadharma spread to Tibet during the time of Songtsen Gampo, based on evidence such as the pillar at Samye. The history of Tibetan translation is described in the Tang Dynasty histories and other texts, which state that Tonmi Sambhota developed a writing system for Tibetan (and other Himalayan languages) so that Buddhist scriptures could be translated. In the 8th century, during the reign of Trisong Detsen, Santarakshita came from India as did Padmasambhava. Hashing Mahayana came from China at this time, and they built Samye. The first Tibetans went forth as monks during this period. A translation centre was established at Samye and the work of translating dharma into Tibetan began in earnest.

At that time, an Indian pandita and a Tibetan translator would work together, then the translation would be read aloud by an editor-translator to check its completeness. These translation activities were looked upon with great interest and were highly-regarded.  There was a great connection between the Tang Dynasty and Tibet, so Tibetans likely adopted established methods from the Chinese system —developed when Buddhist texts were translated from Sanskrit and other Indic languages into Chinese —when they translated from Sanskrit into Tibetan, His Holiness speculated.

Among the first translations, Indian panditas and Tibetan translators produced the Tibetan dictionary (Skt. Mahāvyutpatti) found within the Tibetan Tengyur, two texts on grammar, and a text on dharma terminology. As different rules had been established for translating into Tibetan from Sanskrit, an edict from the king finally settled the matter as to which method would be used.  This occurred during the time of Tride Songtsen, the son of Trisong Detsen. We know this because the texts on grammar state, “previously during the reign of the father”, referring to king Tride Songtsen’s father, Trisong Detsen.  The two grammar texts were translated in the 9th century, as explained in the Deu Dharma History.  ThePangtangma catalogue lists all Tibetan texts that could be found within the Pangtang Palace, while the Denkarma catalogue lists the texts within the Denkarma palace. The “three catalogues” comprise those two catalogues plus the lost Chimpu catalogue. However these do not list all scriptures that could be found in Tibetan, rather they represent the texts at a particular place, according to modern scholars.

After summarizing ancient Tibetan translation, His Holiness continued by speaking about ancient Chinese translation methods in detail, because this was the context in which Xuanzang translated Vasubandhu’s Thirty Verses and associated commentaries into Chinese.  When we speak about translators and translation, these days translators mostly work alone and there are few situations where they work in groups. However, this was not the case in China. The translation of Buddhist scriptures began during the Han dynasty at the end of the 2nd century CE and continued into the 11th century during the Sung dynasty, a period of approximately 900 years. During this period, both sutras and tantras were translated into Chinese in the context of a “translation school”: a place and a method to engage in translation.  To work on translations, a large group of people were gathered and the work was divided strictly. There were very few instances where a single person or two people worked on a translation, unlike today.

I. Early translation schools were established during the Han dynasty

As Buddhism spread into China during the 900 years of translation, most of the leaders, or “main translators”, were panditas and acharyas, both monastics and laypeople from India and the “western regions”. Few native Chinese, such as Xuanzang and Yijing, were main translators. Most of these people came from abroad and did not speak any Chinese. While serving as main translators, a different person would be appointed as their “interpreter” (Chinese: Chuányǔ) to translate everything they said from Sanskrit or their vernaculars into Chinese. 

In ancient times, it was not enough for a translator to merely know a foreign language; the translator was required to have a deep understanding of the meaning of the text to be translated. They must be learned in the three baskets of scriptures — the vinaya, the sutras, and the abhidharma — and know both sutra and tantra. This is because the main translator and interpreter did not merely have to translate the original text into a different language. In addition, they also needed to explain the meaning of the text to all of their helpers. These activities happened at a translation school.  The Chinese word for “translation school” is yì chǎng. The second syllable chǎng means a school, or monastery, where the dharma is taught and dharma activities are performed. Thus a “translation school” is a “school where translation is done.” In other words, it is a dharma college where one engages in translation.

The practice of teaming translation and teaching began during the time of the Han emperor Huandi (146–168 CE) when Ān Shìgāo, a master from the western region of Parthia (in present-day Iran), translated the Sutra on the Aggregates, Elements, and Sense Bases (Yīn chí rù jīng).  While the main translator explained the meaning of the text, the assistant translators could ask many questions or raise any doubts that they might have. The assistant translators were allowed to give the main translators a hard time and disagree with their interpretations, through debate and refutation. For example, when the great translator Kumārajīva from the west [meaning the direction from China and not the West as we understand it today] was translating the Prajnaparamita in 100,000 Lines and the Treatise Proving the Truth (Satyasiddhi-śāstra), there were several times when he had discussions and debates with his assistants. Likewise, when the translator Dharmaraka was translating the Parinirvāṇa Sūtra, he said “over one hundred monks and laypeople gave me a hard time.” Dharmaraka was unable to continue translating and had to stop. That is both an example and evidence that if the main translator did not completely understand the meaning of the text or lacked confidence, he would be unable to resolve everyone’s doubts, and would have a difficult time during the debates.

As another example, during the 5th century CE, a monk named Dàotài from Hashi had translated the Treatise of the Great Being and Introduction to the Mahayana, but did not dare to translate the Great Exposition of Abhidharma (Abhidharma-mahāvibhāṣā-śāstra). And so Buddhavarman was invited from India to China by Dàotài to serve as the main translator of the Great Exposition, while Dàotài and 300 other helpers were the assistants. Buddhavarman was invited because although Dàotài was thoroughly familiar with the former two treatises, he had not completely mastered the meaning of the third.

Why is it necessary to teach dharma while working on a translation? For a dharma practitioner, teaching dharma is a responsibility that cannot be refused, and when one teaches the nature of the dharma from the texts, it dispels people’s internal sufferings. Why is it also necessary to debate? In the ancient Indian tradition, dharma was taught by listeners posing questions to the teacher. For example, when the Buddha taught the Great Sutra on Mindfulness of Inhalation and Exhalation, no one asked him any questions at all.  Therefore he emanated a second body from his own so that one body could ask questions while the other answered. By having this mutual discussion and debate, it is said that the students could gain an even better understanding of the scriptures than before. Question and answer and debate are very ancient traditions within Buddhism.

As Buddhism spread from India and the western regions into China, the ancestral teaching style travelled too. When translating the Sutra on the Aggregates, Elements, and Sense Bases  (Yīn chí rù jīng) Ān Shìgāo used the traditional Indian teaching style. The Buddhist scriptures were written in Sanskrit or other Indo-European languages and there were very few Chinese people who could read them.  Ān Shìgāo knew Chinese well, so he was able to explain in Chinese and people could gain understanding. Some listeners copied down each and every word of the scriptures that were taught orally, and in this way they were able to compile a translation into Chinese. The text became the foundation for the spread of the dharma: after a text had been translated, Chinese people could read, study, and become able to teach the dharma.

During the reign of the Han emperor Lingdi, Lokakṣema and An Xuan arrived from Western India and Parthia, respectively. Both knew Chinese well, so they engaged in translation work and gradually their methods of translating and teaching the dharma spread. If another master from abroad did not speak Chinese, these two would teach the scriptures as interpreters. For example, when the Pratyutpanna-buddha-saṃmukhâvasthita-samādhi-sūtra was translated by Shuòfú, Lokakṣema served as the oral interpreter. That is the earliest text to have been translated by an Indian master explaining through an interpreter. From that day forward, even if a master did not speak Chinese, the dharma could be taught in China. The Chinese would continue translating scriptures through this method, with each and every syllable explained, teaching and translating the dharma together, establishing a tradition over the course of 900 years.

What are the benefits of combining teaching and translating?

  1. Sanskrit uses an alphabet that can be pronounced by reading, however Chinese does not. This introduced two difficulties when translating Buddhist philosophy into Chinese: translation of the terminology and explanation of the subtle points. To overcome these two difficulties, teachings and debate would precede the translation, so that understandings could be compared and discussed, and the subtle points made clear. Consequently, the translated scriptures would mirror the original, being precise and detailed with regard to both terminology and meaning.
  2. By combining teachings from a master with translation, the students of the translation school became well-trained, so that they could explain each and every word of a given text. This can be contrasted with present-day Tibetan teachings, where if the teacher doesn’t understand the meaning of a particular word, it can be skipped.  However, through the detailed teachings, discussions and debate of the translation school, the students became qualified teachers, able to explain the dharma. After the foreign masters had taught and translated the dharma, the first students would use the new Chinese translations to teach others. For example, the monk Fǎ chéng was an assistant to the Indian pandita Dharmarakṣa who later taught the Sūtra of the Wheel of No Reversions.  Zhìsōng, who had once been an assistant to the main translator Buddhavarman, later taught the Mahaparinirvana Sutra. Therefore, the methods of the translation school served two functions: translating scriptures into Chinese, and producing qualified dharma teachers who realized the meaning of the scriptures.

II. Translation schools flourished prior to the Sui dynasty

Many Chinese, both lay people and monastics, wanted to study the true dharma, which was newly spreading in China. However, China was fragmented during the period of the Northern and Southern dynasties—the three hundred years prior to the Sui dynasty. Throughout that time, different areas of the north and south had their own translation schools, in which a few hundred to a thousand people participated. When Kumārajīva was living in Guanzhong, his school was the most well-known, with 3000 students coming from different smaller kingdoms within fragmented China. Because Kumārajīva was famous and learned in all three baskets of scripture, people would cross borders, determined to listen to the dharma. Students also flocked to other schools, in relation to how well-known the main translator was:  Dharmaraka had 500 students, Guṇabhadra in Jiāngdōng had 700, and Bodhiruci  in Luòyáng had over one thousand students. Translation schools flourished throughout Northern and Southern China at that time.

When translating a text into Chinese, several hundred people would participate in both the dharma teaching and the translation.  Were such numbers genuinely helpful for translating texts and what benefit did they have? The students asked the main translators about the meaning of the text and clarified doubts, but they also had other responsibilities which included taking notes.

Within the translation schools, Chinese students who did not know any foreign languages would study dharma texts written in Sanskrit or other languages. First, the main translator would read the text in the original language once. After that, the text would be translated orally into Chinese. If the main translator did not know Chinese, then an interpreter would orally translate. Then a particular student would be appointed the scribe (bǐ shòu), with the responsibility of documenting the oral Chinese in written notes. The scribe would transcribe each and every syllable that the main translator or the interpreter translated orally.

This transcription by the scribe was just the first step. The main translator would also explain each word that the scribe had transcribed, and the listeners would question or debate each word. Finally, once everyone present resolved all doubts, the translation would be finalized. For example, when Paramārtha translated various Mind Only texts during the Chén dynasty, it was said, “we debated each word repeatedly as we translated.” In the end, both the meaning and the words were excellent. In addition to asking questions and clarifying doubts the hundreds of other participants also took notes, which were extremely helpful in finalizing the translation. Finalizing the translation was the scribe’s responsibility, but as Sanskrit and the other Indic languages work very differently than Chinese, after the text had been translated into a written form, the terminology needed to be verified for appropriateness.  If the main translator did not know Chinese logograms, he could not make corrections. Even if the main translator knew Chinese, it was not certain that they would know the best usage. Only after the translation was deemed perfect by the participants was it finally complete.

Even the famous Kumārajīva, who had mastered Chinese, took translation advice from his assistants. When Kumārajīva translated the White Lotus of True Dharma Sutra (Saddharmapuṇḍarīka-sūtra), the Lotus Sutra, translated by the Indian master Dharmarakṣa was available for reference.  In the fifth fascicle there was a term which Dharmarakṣa translated in a certain way. Kumārajīva thought that the translation matched the meaning of the original, however the style was not agreeable in Chinese. One of the assistants, a Chinese monk, suggested an alternate translation with the same meaning, but in a more pleasing style. This satisfied Kumārajīva, who accepted the assistant’s suggestion.

Buddhist philosophical terminology can be the most difficult to translate and exacting rules were followed. Each word has a main meaning that could not be lost. In ancient times, one had to search for a single Chinese character that matched the Sanskrit—whether the Sanskrit word had one syllable or many. For example, the two-syllable bodhi (enlightenment) was translated by the one character jué and the two-syllable dharma as the one character . If it was absolutely impossible to translate into a single character, only then could the translators use two or more characters. For example, guṇa (qualities) was translated as gōngdé and śrī (glorious) as jíxiáng.

Additionally, the Chinese terms used in translations were chosen to match grammatical usage and meaning in Chinese literature. This terminology had to communicate subtle meanings through the words of the text alone. For example, the word wú lòu (undefiled) must be understood as “having no afflictions and no desire”. During the Tang dynasty, an unnamed monk was called “Undefiled” because people never saw him going to the bathroom, even after eating.  In Chinese “undefiled” means “not dripping” — the monk was “drinking in” but he was “not dripping out”.  And so he was named by the Buddhist term “Undefiled.” His name didn’t match the actual deeper meaning of the term, despite matching the surface meaning.  This is an amusing instance of misunderstanding a term.

In addition to these types of translation difficulties, scribes had to completely understand the meaning of the text as explained by the main translator. Therefore they needed to compile and examine the notes taken by everyone present, in addition to their own. The assistants may have had different styles and methods, and these needed to be considered.  As a result, the most appropriate Chinese words were used to translate the text.

Following this, the translated text would be proofread against the original manuscript. Only then would it be considered finalized. They were extremely careful with proofreading. For example, Master Buddhabadra completed the translation of the Avatamsaka Sutra in the sixth month of the second year of the reign of Eastern Qin emperor Yuan Chi (420 CE), but the work of proofreading was only completed in the twelfth month of the second year of Yongchu of the Liu Song dynasty—it took a year and a half.  It took even longer for Kumārajīva to finalize the translation of the Dhyana Sutra; it was translated in 402 CE and for six years it was scrutinized. This level of care was taken because the foundation for studying and practicing the dharma is the text.  Paramārtha translated the Treasury of Abhidharma in 463 CE.  However, the next year the students asked to revise the translation because there were passages that they could not explain while teaching the dharma with the old translation. Realizing that the old translation was not perfect, it was proofread carefully and corrected so that such a situation would not occur again.

III. Contracted translation schools of elite dharma scholars during the Sui and Tang Dynasties

Before the Sui dynasty, the translation schools had from hundreds to thousands of students, however once the Sui dynasty was established, there were usually no more than twenty people in a given translation school, including the school led by Xuanzang. From the Continued Biographies of Eminent Monks:

In the past during the time of the Fu and Yao, there were 3000 bright people translating scriptures. Now during the Great Tang, there are no more than twenty translators.

China was once again unified during the Sui and Tang dynasties and, with no borders between regions, the restrictions on travel were abolished. Though it should have been easier for more people to enter the translation schools, in actuality there were usually no more than twenty people in a translation school during this period.  Given that the great translator Kumārajīva translated around three hundred volumes of scripture and had 3000 assistants before the Sui Dynasty, why did Xuanzang, who translated over one thousand volumes of scripture have so few? Why did the number of translators decline?

Assistants formed an elite gathering of scholars from across the empire during the Sui Dynasty, with no more than 23 people working on a given translation.  As explained in the Life of Cí En, guards were stationed at the translation schools so that there was limited contact between the translators and those outside. 

Before the Sui dynasty several thousand people, who knew little to no Sanskrit, would gather and take notes together, perfecting the terminology. However, as the translation of scriptures gathered momentum, knowledge of Sanskrit increased and became more widespread among the Chinese, so that there was less need for the older methods. Moreover, in the older translation schools, everyone present could ask questions of the main translator. In this respect, the translation schools were democratic gatherings.  Yet, as there were people with various levels of education and understanding within the public, not all questions were necessarily crucial. The main translator perhaps had to spend a lot of time dealing with pointless debate. If the main translator did not know Chinese, the responsibilities of the interpreter became more difficult.

The Chinese emperors and princes viewed supporting the translation schools as a way to gather the accumulation of merit and gave offerings to those in the translation schools. Though everyone went for the sake of receiving dharma teachings, there was a fear that some people might take advantage. In the Lives of Eminent Monks, when a great master named Sēng yìn taught dharma, the listeners used the question-and-answer session as a pretext for being critical and saying disrespectful things. Teaching dharma and translating are similar, so even though there are no stories of such disrespectful people in the translation schools, that does not mean that it never happened, His Holiness opined.

For these reasons, during the Sui dynasty, the “gathering for teaching and discussing the dharma” format was gradually discarded, and the method of “choosing the best assistants” began to spread. What was the method for choosing the best assistants? Who made the choice?  After the Eastern Qin dynasty, the tradition of “everyone under the heavens”—appointing a leader of all the monastics in the empire—began. They were initially called the “Leader of the Sangha” (sengzheng) and it was their responsibility to choose the best assistants. The basic qualifications sought were knowledge and practice from both Buddhist and Confucian perspectives—both a transcendent and worldly education. 

Although there were few people in the translation schools, each had their own special area of expertise, and was among the most learned of scholars. For example, at the beginning of the Tang dynasty, the venerable Prabhākaramitra from the west had an assistant who was well-known for his good writing style. He also knew the treatises very well, so at that time he was appointed as the scribe. One of Xuanzangs proofreader assistants had mastered the meaning of the scriptures before entering the translation school and was very skilled at teaching dharma. Similarly, among Xuanzang’s editorial assistants for style and clarity, was the well-known author of the Continued  Biographies of Eminent Monks, the Dianlu Catalog of the Great Tang, and Guang hongming ji. This editor was also a member of the lineage of the vinaya transmission. Another assistant was Xuan Ying, the author of the Yiqiejing yin yi dictionary, who was a famous master of Chinese grammar and archaic language. In this period the translation schools had evolved into places were great scholars gathered.

His Holiness concluded by expressing the hope that today’s teaching had been beneficial, despite being somewhat complicated.