Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Translating the sutras: a warning for the 33rd century

No-sword is the personal website of Matt Treyvaud, a writer, translator, and linguist who lives in a seaside town near Kamakura, Japan. He has posted about the process by which Buddhist sutras were first translated into Chinese in the tenth century, and under the heading "Teamwork" outlines the nine-step process.

How difficult could it be, one might ask. Well, consider the hurdles of meaning, understanding, and the relative flexibility of each language itself. Today, of course, the Google Translator slice-and-dice method suffices for most of us on our electronic devices with the click of an "enter" button. A warning: the mind-blowing, word soup of Google Translator is something no one who loves reading and language should look into too closely, and use with an extreme caution.

Google Translator's resulting vertigo-inducing cliffs of non-meaning are steep. Put Whitman's I loafe and invite my soul, / I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass into the Google masher, select Arabic, for example, and you get

أنا loafe ودعوة نفسي
والحقيقة أنني أميل loafe في سهولة مراقبة بلدي الرمح من العشب في الصيف.

Put that translliteration back into the wringer, ask for English, and the result is:

I call myself and loafe
In fact, I tend to easily monitor loafe in my spear of grass in the summer.

You can alternately select an even more tortured word taffy as the Translator asks in a motherly fashion, Did you mean أنا love ودعوة نفسي والحقيقة أنني أميل loaf في سهولة مراقبة بلدي الرمح من العشب في الصيف ?:

I love and call myself and I lean loaf at my ease of control of the spear of grass in the summer.

To get the meaning of the sutras right, tenth-century Chinese had a committee of translators to buff the texts to a high gloss -- working in tandem to get the Buddha's thoughts more exactly correct. Treyvaud reveals in his post the division of labor nearly replicates the Google Translator somersault: as he writes in his post, it had been previously thought that the assembled were "an array of faceless, more-or-less bilingual monks working alone or at best in parallel. It turns out that the process was much more involved. In Kanbun to Higashi Ajia 漢文と東アジア (Kanbun and East Asia), Kin Bunkyō 金文京 gives an account of the 982 C.E. translation of the Heart Sutra into Chinese by a team centered on an Indian monk named Devaṣanti 天息災":

A large number of monks and officials (官吏) gathered ... and performed the translation via the following division of labor:

1. 訳主 ("Lead Translator"): Read the Sanskrit original aloud. Devasanti performed this task.
2. 証義 ("Meaning Certifier"): Sat to the left of the Lead Translator and discussed the meaning of the Sanskrit original.
3. 証文 ("Text Certifier"): Sat to the right of the Lead Translator and confirmed that the text had been read aloud without error.
4. 書字の梵学僧 ("Scribe Learned in Sanskrit"): Recorded in Chinese characters the Sanskrit that was read aloud. [...] For example, the Sanskrit word hṛdaya was written 紇哩第野, and sūtra was written 素怛羅. [...]
5. 筆受 ("Receiver via Brush"): Translated the Sanskrit written in Chinese characters into Chinese. For example, 紇哩第野 would become , and 素怛羅 would become , combining to form 心経"Heart Sutra."

"Bhagavatī Heart of Perfect Wisdom" by Zhao Meng Fu,
main part 1254–1322 A.D.

6. 綴文 ("Text Composer"): Rearranged the individually translated words into the correct Chinese word order; which is to say, into kanbun.
7. 参訳 ("Translation Barger-into"): Checked the translated text against the original Sanskrit, and corrected any errors.
8. 刊定 ("Trimmer/Finalizer"): Edited cumbersome or long-winded expressions down to size. Sanskrit texts had a tendency to be detailed and lengthy, but in Chinese texts brevity was prized.
9. 潤文官 ("Text-Juicing Official"): Determined whether the translation was appropriate as Chinese text, and added rhetorical flourish as necessary. For example, the "度一切苦厄" ("he crossed beyond all suffering and difficulty") of "照見五蘊皆空 度一切苦厄" ("he illuminated the five skandhas and saw that they were all empty, and he crossed beyond all suffering and difficulty") was not in the original; it was added at this stage. The previous eight steps were performed by monks, but this step was performed by a lay official.

Consider the Engliish-language simplicity of the title Heart Sutra, which is itself an approximation of the original Sanskrit (Roman alphabet: Bhagavatīprajñāpāramitāhṛdaya) into Tibetan (Roman: bcom ldan 'das ma shes rab kyi pha rol tu phyin pa'i snying po), through the Chinese (Roman: Bhagavatī Heart of Perfect Wisdom).

Tibetan editions add bhagavatī, meaning "Victorious One" or "Conqueror", an epithet of Prajnaparamita as goddess. And, compounding the matter even further, despite the common name Heart Sūtra, the word sūtra is not present in known Sanskrit manuscripts.

Treyvard does point out in closing that "the above has no small element of ritual to it over and above what is necessary to get a translation done." Still, the process raises the fascinating specter of all the English language "text-juicing" that lays ahead when everything is pushed through the latest version of ancient and revered Google Translator results -- some time in the 33rd century.

1 comment:

steve said...

Hi its amazing how simple to communicate with people and have them understand a certain topic of translation the sutras, you made my day.

Marathi Translation | Bengali Translation