Seven Reflections On Translation Of Sūtras And Treatises 翻译经论七省思 Verses On Direct Meaning 直意偈

Seven Reflections On Translation Of Sūtras (And Treatises)

[1] What Is An Accurate Translation?

To translate accurately is not to modernise (现代化) or simplify (白话) in language. Doing so is to unwittingly distort, to not adequately respect truth and tradition. (There can be simplified and explanatory texts to facilitate basic understanding, but these are not actual ‘translations’ at all.)

Good translations are therefore never arbitrary in nature, and should have high ‘re-translatablity’, back into the original language, with this passing the litmus test for accuracy. Thus, there is only one single most uncompromisingly accurate translation of any text. All diligent translators should work towards zeroing in, to arrive at it, even if this takes much time and efforts, for further and final refinement.

[2] What Are The Types Of Translation?

There are two main types of translation.

[i] The first type is word-for-word translation, also called literal translation, or direct translation (直译). This is considered the most technically faithful translation style, accounting for each and every word, in its right place, retaining the original language’s structure wherever linguistically possible (in grammar and punctuation), only with minor adjustments when absolutely necessary. This is often said to be represented by the style of Great Master Xuánzàng (玄奘大师):

[ii] The second type is sense-for-sense translation, also called meaning’s translation (意译). To use this style and still have translation as accurate as direct translation, this is considered extremely difficult, as it requires crystal clear comprehension of the text, before representing its essence accurately and fully, with some extent of purposeful creativity, that must not go against the spirit of the teachings, even if it does not adhere to them with every letter. This is often said to be represented by the style of Great Master Kumārajīva (鸠摩罗什大师):

[3] Why Not Have Meaning’s Translation Now?

As there are none as skilful as Great Master Kumārajīva in our world today, there should only be translation emulating the style of Great Master Xuánzàng, to avoid imposing unenlightened personally preferred styles, that can prove biased and thus misrepresentative of the teachings to be conveyed.

Therefore, it is better to be more conservative and less liberal when translating. This is especially important, when it comes to translation of Buddhist texts, that are meant to be understood for practice, thus requiring great accuracy. (Detailed footnotes can be added where needed.)

[4] Why Only Have Direct Translation Now?

The best translations are accurate reflections, not merely approximate representations. Consider this… What kind of English should the Buddha ‘speak’ in a translation? Should it be Singapore’s style (with modern Singlish) or Shakespeare’s style (with more ‘ancient’ English)?

With neither of course. It should only be in the Buddha’s unique style, already present in the original text, without his words altered in sequence or manner, to reflect his true character. It is the single timelessly valid style to use, instead of countless contemporarily limited styles, that will quickly expire in relevance.

[5] What If Direct Translation Seems ‘Awkward’?

If a direct translation that indeed reflects the original text seems ‘awkward’, this is an illusion, arising from differences with personally preferred styles of the language translated into, which are not the Buddha’s style at all. Ironically, the structurally same original text might not seem ‘awkward’, if already used to it.

Consider this too… No one should ‘corrupt’ Shakespeare’s English (even if it seems ‘awkward’ to some today), by changing or rearranging his original words – or they will lose his style and substance, then losing their essence. Thus, for proper sūtra study and recitation, only valid translations with the original texts’ flavour and ‘nutrition’ fully retained should be used.

[6] Why Continue (Re)translation?

Ongoing (re)translation work is done by individuals and groups, precisely when existing translations are considered to be not precise enough. They are at times with missing or even added words, thus distorting actual meanings to some or even great extents.

Whether a translation is accurate or not can be known by accounting for each word meant to be translated, to determine if it is properly represented and in the right place. This requires meticulous work and sound knowledge of the original language and the language to translate into, including their Dharma terminologies in Sanskrit, Chinese and English. (Diligent translators are also continual learners.)

[7] How To Present And Improve Translation?

Not many translators openly place their translations next to the original texts. This does not allow ease of reference for the community of sincere readers to assess accuracy, to offer meaningful enquiries and constructive feedback for improvement (instead of useless negative criticism). All should be welcomed to collaborate, to create the best translations possible to benefit all.

Without openly expressed respect for the original text, by themselves, faulty translations might be mistaken as accurate and mislead readers indefinitely. For presentation examples, see, and for more detailed translation guidelines, see

Related Articles:

Considerations On Sūtra And Śāstra Translation

Verses [On] Direct Meaning


Great Master Kumārajīva, [was] skilful [with] meaning’s translation [of sūtras]. Great Master Xuánzàng, [was] skilful [with] direct translation [of sūtras].


Currently [in this] Dharma-Ending [Age, thus] without such Great Masters. Therefore, only able [to], do [our] best [to have] direct translations.


[With] meanings if translated wrongly, [the] Dharma will [be] cultivated wrongly. [As] direct texts [already] contain [the] meanings, [they will] not lose [their] original meanings.

Please be mindful of your speech, Amituofo!

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