Why Translate Sūtras And Study Translated Sūtras Too?
When we recite or study a sūtra, for example, in Chinese, due to it being in ancient classical Chinese (古汉语) or literary Chinese (文言文) with technical terminology, vocabulary and grammar, that we might not be totally familiar with, we might only have guessed, vague or abstract ideas of its teachings. This can be so even if the sūtra is already memorised fully and chanted in Chinese regularly.
This is where (translating and/or) studying a clear translation (e.g. in English, as one’s first and/or second language) in parallel is useful, to clarify and crystallise the actual meanings completely, that might otherwise be missed or misunderstood. ‘To translate is to “decode” what seems difficult. To study the translated is to easier understand what was “encoded”.’
However, many skills are needed for good translation. There has to be clear understanding of both languages’ linguistic usage, in both the worldly and Dharma sense. Mastery might even need lifelong learning to continually improve skills. Thus, it is best to allow open collaboration, by placing original and translated texts together, for suggestions of better word choices.
After translating even just a single sūtra passage or line, its messages always ‘become’ much ‘sharper’, more directly understood. There is Dharma joy (法喜), pleasant surprise and awe at what the Buddha was really conveying. Thus, ‘To translate properly is to understand fully.’ (Where there are possible nuanced meanings of that translated, detailed notes can be added.)
Now imagine… the multiplied purifying effects of translating an entire sūtra, of studying an entire translated sūtra. It will be life-changing. If not, one has simply yet to grasp its true meanings (真实义) and implications. When in doubt of a translated text, always research on its original text. It is best to study original and translated texts together, for cross-referencing.
True meanings are not always ‘lost in translation’, especially if translation was properly done. In fact, true meanings will be ‘found in translation’ instead. Rather than harbouring superiority complex of a preferred language while insisting that some texts ‘cannot’ be translated properly, to reach out with the Dharma, it is better to seek good translations, or to create better ones.
It should be remembered too, that the sūtras were first recorded in languages such as Sanskrit and Gāndhārī; neither Chinese nor English, while the Buddha did instruct that the Dharma should be taught in languages of its audience, which is surely a sensible skilful means. This is further reason to translate the sūtras into other languages well, and not disparage any of them.
Many primary sūtras are now lost. However, if the ancient great monastic practitioner-scholar translators’ translations of them into Chinese are truly trustworthy works, translations of them into other languages with ample efforts can be trusted too. It was exactly with perpetuation of the sūtras via other languages that they still survive, despite the loss of their primary sources.
Why are there often multiple translations of the same sūtras? Perhaps because each subsequent translator decided that existing translations do not meet expectations of accuracy. If so, translate on, with better skills. May the best translations reach more, and prevail for the longest time. ‘To truly learn for oneself, translate well. To truly share with others, translate well.’
Once again, even those used to Chinese sūtras, who can understand English, should also study clear translations available, to more ‘deeply enter the sūtra treasury’ (深入经藏). This can help check personal understanding, and even lead to double (i.e. bilingual) mastery of the sutras’ essence, making it easier to articulate, for sharing the Dharma more effectively with others.
Considerations On Sūtra And Śāstra Translation
Chinese And English Buddhist Scriptures And Commentaries
The unsurpassable, extremely profound,
subtle and wonderful Dharma,
in thousands of millions of kalpas,
is difficult to encounter.
Now that I see and hear it,
I must accept and uphold it,
and vow to understand
the Thus Come One’s true meaning.