DISCUSSION> Ethics of Translation

Matthew Kapstein's picture

Dear friends,

The following has been making the rounds lately in many discussion groups, though not yet H-Buddhism:


It raises some severe questions concerning a recent popular "translation" of the Therigatha.

Besides the interest it may have in relation to the specific work in question, it seems to me to open the much broader issue of what we may think of as the ethics of translation. I would be grateful for suggestions you may have regarding pertinent writing abouit this broader question, whether specifically in connection with Buddhist materials or not.

To my mind, the translator has a paramount responsibility to her source text, but just how best to characterize this responsibility and sort out its ramifications is not so easy. Of course, one has a responsibility to one's readership as well, but how is that to be defined and can it be allowed to impinge upon one's debt to the source?


best regards to all,



Matthew Kapstein

Professor emeritus, EPHE, Paris

Dear Dr. Kapstein,

Thank you for sharing this interesting piece. I am reminded somewhat of the phenomenon of non-Chinese speakers producing “translations” of the Daode jing (one of which is also published by the press in question), which Paul Goldin has written about:
Paul R. Goldin, “Those Who Don't Know Speak: Translations of the Daode jing by people who do not know Chinese,” Asian Philosophy 12, no. 3(2002), 183-195.

Josh Capitanio
East Asia Library, Stanford University

Thank you for raising this, Dr Kapstein. It does seem a good time to explore this. There is some tradition in English literature of 'translations' that are more retellings or reimaginings. So Dryden's Virgil, and perhaps Seumus Heaney's Beowulf or Iliad, would not make it to a good scholarly translation site, and would not be aimed in that way: they are doing something else, which is of a different kind: 'translating' the spirit and texture of the original and creating something. (The Latin word transfero, from which the word translation is derived, is the verb meaning to 'bring across'). I really enjoyed the poems in the new book on the nuns' verses. They seemed like segues playing around the original. Sometimes there are some genuinely literal 'translations' in the linguistic sense, sometimes material from the commentarial stories woven in, and sometimes personal reinterpretation. They feel to me like re-envisagings. I thought the first verse (Thī 1) worked beautifully, in a linguistic sense and in a more modern sense, of re-imagining. Some I was not so taken with. But the exercise felt worthwhile - I do not think the author uses the word translation for what has been done in the book. So it is not necessarily a 'translation' in a linguistic sense. It reminds me of all the re-envisaging of Greek myths we are seeing so successfully done in theatre and novels today. It keeps traditions alive. Am I right in thinking that it is also the kind of thing that has happened historically fairly frequently, with Sinhala and Thai retellings, for instance, of jātakas?
The problem seems to lie in whether and how we use the word 'translation'. I don't know the answer to that one, but I enjoyed the poems as they do 'bring across' something, and clearly many people have enjoyed them on those grounds too.
With best wishes,
Sarah Shaw
University of Oxford and University of South Wales, UK.

I should also stress that from a scholarly point of view, translation to me means a faithful linguistic rendering! That is the ethics of a scholar, but does not to my mind exclude other forms of reimagining, for poets and practitioners.
Sarah Shaw

For a poet's perspective, W.S. Merwin comes to mind, who translated from dozens of languages including Chinese and Sanskrit. He gives some reflections on his own practice in the foreword to his "Selected Translations 1968-1978." I'm sorry I cannot find an easy internet link to this book, although I was able to use university credentials to access a copy on HathiTrust through their "emergency temporary access" service.

Among other things he makes some passing comments about his own standards that could suggest something in the direction of an alternative perspective: "When I tried to formulate practically what I wanted of a translation, whether by someone else or by me, it was something like this: without deliberately altering the overt meaning of the original poem, I wanted the translation to represent, with as much life as possible, some aspect, some quality of the poem which made the translator think it was worth translating in the first place. I know I arrived at this apparently simple criterion by a process of elimination, remembering all the translations -- whatever their other virtues -- that I had read, or read at, and set down, thinking 'if the original is really *like* that, what could have been the point of translating it?'"

Merwin often writes of how he was inspired to take up translation by Ezra Pound. I don't know anything on this subject but a search on Google Books turns up quite a bit of critical scholarship on Pound's Confucianism that could be relevant here, too.

Ian MacCormack
UC Berkeley