46.   Translation of Buddhist Scriptures in Ancient China

46.   Translation of Buddhist Scriptures in Ancient China

46.1   Five Losses and Three Difficulties

The difficulties inherent in translating the sutras and Buddhist scriptures in Chinese can be summarized as follows:

  1. the difference in philosophical and culture background between India and China,
  2. the difference in language stock, thus it is difficult to find equivalent words or concepts in Chinese,
  3. the difference between the ways of thinking and expressing views.

The great Master Tao-an who actively furthered translation before Kumarajiva came to China, conceived the concept of Five Losses and Three Difficulties.

For the Five Losses, it means that there are five points in which the meaning of the original lost through translation:

  1. Sanskrit and Chinese were in reversing word order in sentence structure, as far as the grammar was concerned.
  2. Sanskrit preferred to be simple and straight forward, while Chinese preferred to be complex, polished in writing.
  3. Sanskrit tended to be repetitive for important points while Chinese did not.
  4. Sanskrit always contained sentences within sentences, while Chinese did not.
  5. Sanskrit writing was repetitive in subsequent passage, while the repetitions were deleted in Chinese translations.

For the Three Difficulties, there were three things that were difficult to accomplish in translating:

  1. To translate the graceful and highly inflected ancient Sanskrit into plain comprehensive Chinese.
  2. To translate the Sanskrit expressions to the Indians into contemporary readers in China.
  3. To translate the sutras with accurate and genuine interpretation.

46.2   Five Kinds of Terms not Translated

Hsuan-tsang another great translator in Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.) stipulated the rules in translating the Buddhist scriptures, which was known as "Five Kinds of Terms not Translated."

  1. terms which are secret with profound meaning, such as dharani which is a kind of magical incantation thus it is simply transliterated, rather than translated,
  2. terms which have many meanings, such as Bhagavat which has six meanings,
  3. terms which refer to something not existing in the translator's country, such as the names of plant, animal, precious stones that were unknown to the Chinese.
  4. terms that traditionally have not been translated, such as anuttarasanyaksambodhi, which can be translated as "the supreme enlightenment" but it was transliterated in Sanskrit, sodoes the Chinese.
  5. terms which are honorifics with special meanings, such as prajna. It does mean wisdom, but it has more profound meaning in Sanskrit words.

It is very important to ensure consistency in translation that all translators can follow in translating Buddhist scriptures in foreign language.