Lost in Translation 1

[Photo Copyright by Jacob Botter via Flickr under Creative Commons Licence]

In the Dhammapada verse 183 we find one of the shortest definitions of the Buddha’s teachings ever:

Sabbapāpassa akaraṇaṃ
Kusalassa upasampadā
Etaṃ buddhāna sāsanaṃ.

Avoid what is evil,
Engage in what is skillful,
Purify the mind;
This is the teaching of the Buddha;

[Translated by Gil Fronsdal]

It is a wonderful little verse which I love dearly.
It also quite useful, because it very nicely demonstrates a problem we have with the old teachings from the Pali Canon. Let us have a closer look at the translation.

The first and last line are pretty straightforward. For the third line we could kind of get away with understanding >purifying< as an insinuation for moral behavior and cultivation including meditation. I think it is the second line where we run into trouble. This is the crucial part where we are actually told what exactly it is we should do. In this line everything boils down to one word: kusalassa. Kusalassa is the Gen. Sg. of kusala. Kusala can be differently rendered as:
Good, wholesome, skillful, a good thing, good deed, merit, intelligent, expert, right, virtuous, meritorious, beneficial, lucky, happy, healthy and prosperous, … as the context demands (!).

So, basically as long as it is positive it seems that kusala can more or less mean everything.
Hence, a small variety of possible translations for line two would be:

“Learn to do good.”
“Do cultivate merit.”
“Engage in what is skillful.”
“Increase your wholesomeness.”
“Become an expert.”
“Be virtuous.”
… and so on.

If you are lucky enough to know the Dhamma already, you also know that the translation should imply at least two major aspects of the Dhamma. It should have a strong implication of virtuous moral behavior and it should reflect the practical aspect that all of the Buddha’s teachings have. >Skillful< does indeed cover the practical aspect very nicely, but sadly has no strong ethical implication as the word has in Pali. Vice versa there is no word that has the strong ethical aspect while making it clear that it is a practical engagement, not a philosophical one.

This makes it basically impossible to translate the term at all without at least one page of additional information for the reader. You could go for an extended translation like: >ethically skillful<, but that would put a word in the text that the original doesn’t have and also: What the heck is ethically skillful supposed to mean anyway? You would end up with what is called >Buddhist Hybrid English<, which sounds like you are translating, but you are really just making it worse by creating a new language, specially made for the initiates of the Buddhological community.

Btw, a case like this is by no means an exception, it is more or less the rule.
The longer you engage in the study of the old Buddhist texts, the more translation problems like this you will keep running into. At the end you will probably decide that it is just easier to use the pali term. So just be kusala, ok?

This leaves us with what I call the fundamental Theravada conundrum.
You have to be an advanced meditator with a lot of acquired wisdom to understand the meaning of the term well enough to be able to translate it into a different language. At the same time you need to understand the language very well to be able to become an advanced meditator who acquires wisdom in the first place.

And there I was thinking everything will be fine once I study Pali.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s