Nicky Harman on “Buddhism” a wonderful exhibition in London’s British Library displaying Buddhist art and literature from all over East Asia.
All pictures are my own from the exhibition,
unless otherwise captioned
As a translator, I have what you could call a professional interest in Buddhist texts translated into Chinese. This may sound odd, because I can’t understand their meaning, let alone critique them as translations. But I am always moved when I see the crystal-clear calligraphy of the sutras, first written down in Chinese fifteen hundred years ago or more, and yet completely familiar today. So I visited the exhibition hoping to find out more about some of my favourite translators.
Translation played a huge role in the spread of Buddhism; the sutras would never have become an integral part of Chinese, Japanese and Korean culture without the efforts of those early translators. And their translations also preserved texts that have since disappeared in the original languages, Sanskrit and Pali.
Let me recommend here the hugely important English-language reference book, The Anthology of Chinese Discourse on Translation, by the late Martha Cheung. The numbers in square brackets below are the page references for Cheung’s book, a good part of which is available free to view on Google Books.
What particularly interested me, reading Cheung’s anthology, was that so many of the preoccupations of the early monk-translators will sound very familiar to any translator nowadays: how to translate new religious concepts for which the language of the time had no words, how to deal with stylistic features that did not translate easily into Chinese (the Sanskrit writers apparently loved lengthy, flowery digressions, and much repetition); more prosaically, whether to translate or to transliterate lengthy Sanskrit names into Chinese. In Cheung’s anthology, and thanks to some excellent translations into English, these Buddhist scholars come to life in their own words.
Buddhism was introduced into China around the turn of the Christian era (CE). And so the first great project of religious translation began. Martha Cheung describes the translators as “powered by a pioneering spirit”,  and says: “…Translators, as well as monk-scholars who wrote about translation, were moving in terra incognita. The kind of translation carried out by the monks in those days was unprecedented, for no one had any clearly defined idea as to how exactly the job was to be done.” 
The best-known of the early translators, Zhi Qian (flourished 233-253 CE), was a member of the Yuezhi, a non-Han tribe; he was educated in Chinese, as well as a number of other languages, and began to translate the sutras using a strategy that we might describe as “domestication” (making the text conform to the target readers’ expectations). He omitted frequent repetition and minimized the use of transliteration.  Faced with the problem of finding Chinese words for new Buddhist concepts, he and his successors adopted Taoist (Daoist) terms. For example: the word Tao/Dao 道was used for “Wisdom” in the Perfection of Wisdom Sutra . Another example of what we would call “domestication”. Zhi Qian was notable for translating with the refinement of style that Chinese scholars expected and found easy to read. He also wrote a preface to his translation, in which he introduced the three key concepts that are still talked about in the world of Chinese translation today: 信达雅, faithful, comprehensible, elegant . (I have actually had a translation contract for a contemporary novel which required me to abide by these principles!)
Two hundred years later, we have another eminent Chinese translators, Dao An 道安 (312–385 CE), a monk from Hebei province. Dao An actually did not know Sanskrit so he could not refer back to the original texts, but he worked by comparing the large quantity of Chinese translations already in existence. By this time, Buddhism was well established in China, and from 379 to 385CE, Dao An was president of Translation Assembly, an official government department. Dao An was also eloquent on translation theory. He talks, for instance, of the five instances of losing the source and the three difficulties , differentiates between translation at word and sentence level, and emphasizes the need to transmit the substance of the text as a whole. All preoccupations which are completely recognizable to modern translators working in any language.
Dao An’s near contemporary, Kumarajiva 鸠摩罗什 (344–409 AD) had an Indian father and a mother who was from Kucha, a Buddhist kingdom on the Silk Road in what is now Xinjiang. Immersed in Buddhism from an early age (his mother became a nun when he was seven), he was an eminent scholar with a thorough grasp both of both source and target languages, unlike Dao An. This does not seem to have improved his view of translation, which he describes as “… like giving someone rice that you have chewed; they will find it not just tasteless but downright disgusting” . An early articulation of the idea that much is “lost in translation” or that the translator is a traitor (“traduttore/traditore”, as the Italian phrase has it). All the same, Kumarajiva’s translations were so beautiful and so appropriate to the purpose of religious chanting that they are still popular today. A copy of his Diamond Sutra in Chinese is one of the treasures of the British Library’s collection. In the illustration above, Kumarajiva is shown carrying a large wooden frame packed with sutra scrolls on his back, while the Buddha teaches him.
|A still from the cartoon film Monkey King Conquers the Demon (金猴降妖) 1985|
Another two hundred years later, Buddhism was in its heyday in China under the Tang dynasty. Its most respected scholar-monk was Xuan Zang (玄奘, also known as Tripitaka, 600–664CE), a Henanese who revitalized Buddhist studies. By this time, there was an enormous body of sacred texts available in Chinese and Xuan Zang, having realized that they were full of discrepancies and contradictions, decided to go back to the source of the scriptures. He spent seventeen years travelling in India, debating with eminent Buddhist scholars there, transporting hundreds of sutras to China and translating them. The British Library has a copy of one of his translations, the Heart Sutra, completed in 649CE. Most readers will recognize Xuan Zang/Tripitaka as the companion of Monkey, immortalized by the sixteenth-century writer Wu Cheng’en, in “Journey to the West” 《西游记》. He must be the first monk to become a much-loved cartoon figure.
Back to the British Library exhibition which, sad to say, will be over by the time you read this post. I was unprepared for the sheer beauty of the exhibition displays, the brilliant colours of the paintings, and the soothing effect of the background sounds – bird song, sacred chanting and the tinkling of flowing water. Quite enchanting. However, I confess to feeling disappointed that there was scarcely a mention of the translators’ names or their contributions to the spread of Buddhism through East Asia. I have devoted this post to them (and to Martha Cheung) because they had so many interesting things to say about the process and ethics of translation. For anyone who is interested, the excellent British Library website has digitized material and some fascinating articles, for instance this one: https://www.bl.uk/sacred-texts/articles/translation-and-transmission-of-buddhism