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James Lougheed

James Lougheed
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Translation Theory and Buddhist Scriptures

Published by jloug099@uottawa.ca on 2012-05-08

              Although stating that the use of new technology is becoming increasingly ubiquitous in almost all aspects of the present world would be beating a dead horse, I cannot help but raise the topic again. Ironic as it is to say (as this appears on a website dedicated to translation technologies), it is phenomenal to see the extent to which we rely on computer-based technology to translate efficiently and effectively. And even if the majority of these technologies fail, the existence of Google on its own would facilitate easier translation methods. Now let us take a moment to think about translation in earlier days when we did not have access to any such tools; how would one translate without using a computer?



                A lot of work, isn’t it? It’s scary, really, to think of the amount of research and long hours that one would require to translate even a short memo. Successful translators would most likely have to have a larger knowledge base; a good memory; an overwhelming quantity of notes, books, and paper resources; and a strong idea of the principles of translation. As a community that relies heavily on the availability of resources and transmission of information, we translate using a great deal more aids in comparison with the olden days where we would have had to do more snooping on our own.


              I was reminded of how great a change the translation industry has undergone when browsing an article concerning Xuan Zang (玄奘), a renowned Chinese Buddhist monk and scholar from the seventh century. Given my interest in the Chinese language and language theories, I was quite intrigued to read that he is accredited with being one of the first and most significant translators in the East. Xuan Zang was known primarily for his 17-year search for Buddhist scriptures in India and his translations of them from the Sanskrit originals. During his lifetime (602-664), he translated 1335 volumes of scriptures, amounting to 130 million words. The standard translator who goes through 3000 words a day would take over 118 years to translate just as many! In addition to his impressive rate of translating with next to none of the resources we have today, his translations are often seen as “exact, fluent and consummately skillful.”1


             One of his most famous theories caught my eye in both its simplicity and its value to translation: the Five Untranslatables (or the five instances in which one should transliterate). While translating scripture, Xuan Zang had listed a series of cases when one should not translate into Chinese. They are as follows:


1.       Secret information – the material is understood by few (mostly for nouns and arcane language)

2.       Word ambiguity and polysemy

3.       Lack of equivalents in the target language

4.       Existence of already accepted transliterations – perhaps there already exists traditional translations

5.       Lack of stylistic equivalents – although B is often translated as A, A cannot convey the deeper meaning of B


             Nowadays, it may be a little farfetched to use this as a template for transliterating since people are generally more knowledgeable than those of that time and access to further information is readily available. But I think it does give a really good guideline as to when one should be careful during the process, especially given the period in which it was written. In essence, when one comes across with “mystical” terms, one should not simply translate them non-contextually.  


Take, for instance, the following examples:


1.       Secret information: When translating an article on Icelandic traditions for a Canadian general interest magazine, one should explain terms, such as activities, garments and food, by either finding Canadian equivalents or adding footnotes.

2.       Ambiguity: When the end translation may conceal more than one possible meaning, whether in its words or its syntax, one should reword what is written so that it can only mean what is meant in the source text. A sample translation of “Les produits de nettoyage peuvent être dangereux“ could be “Cleaning products can be dangerous,“ though it should be revised as it is structurally ambiguous. Do cleaning products have the potential to be dangerous, or is it the cleaning of products that does?  

3.       No direct equivalents: One of the few that should be considered for true transliteration; after not finding an English equivalent for Schadenfreude, one could leave it as a German loanword as the concept does not exist as a single term in English.

4.       Already accepted transliterations: Although a traditional Chinese dress (Mandarin: qípáo 旗袍) could be easily translated as its Mandarin romanization, qipao, one might opt for its more common name from Cantonese roots, the cheongsam.

5.       No stylistic/conceptual equivalents: As is the case with many words in French, global has a much wider range in meaning compared to its frequent English equivalent. It may also be translated as “comprehensive,” “cumulative,” and “worldwide.” One should keep the proper context in mind when coming across terms with a broader or narrower definition than its typical translation.


              This list is by no means complete. As the world becomes increasingly globalized, translation itself becomes more and more muddled with new concepts and terms that pose difficulties to translators; with each new one, we have yet another decision on how to translate it into any language. Nowadays, we often look to the internet for a variety of resources that guide us to how to translate a term. Subconsciously, we are taught to take into account the cases Xuan Zang outlines.


              Since his time, he has been remarked as being a great contributor to modern translation theory and also as a frontrunner in many other common translation devices we use today: omission, shifting, borrowing, restoration of pronouns, etc. As much as we depend on new technology and cutting-edge software to get our work done, it is really thanks to these fundamentals that we can create effective translations. If only Xuan Zang knew that bringing the Buddhist scriptures to the Chinese would pave the road for such an essential method of communication…

1 http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/0907676X.2003.9961462#preview(external link)