Buddhist ideas on Sanskrit-Chinese translation

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[This is a guest post by Max Deeg.  Although the following text has profound implications for anyone who is seriously interested in the actualities of translation between two very different kinds of languages from antiquity, it is fundamentally a task for specialists to render this type of Middle Buddhist Hybrid Sinitic into English.  This is both because of the nature of the language itself and due to the fact that it is fairly lengthy.  Consequently, I will not provide phonetic annotations of the entire text, as is my usual practice for shorter passages on Language Log.]


Bianji on Sanskrit and Xuanzang as a translator.[1]


The following passage is found in the twelfth chapter or fascicle (juan) of Xuanzang’s 玄奘 Datang Xiyu ji 大唐西域記 (Record of the Western Regions of the Great Tang) and is part of what I think is Bianji’s 辯機 (619-?) “Eulogy of the Record” (Jizan 記讚) added to the Record.[2]

The Datang Xiyu ji (Record of the Western Regions of the Great Tang) by the Chinese monk-pilgrim and translator Xuanzang (600?-664; travelled 629-645), arguably is one of the earliest Buddhist Chinese texts translated into a Western language and had an enormous impact on the historical research on Buddhism.[3] Originally written for the second Tang emperor Taizong 太宗 (598-649; ruled from 626) in less than one year after Xuanzang’s return from India in 645, the text gives information about the Central Asian regions Xuanzang travelled through on his journey to India (and back), about India and her different regions, with a focus on the state of Buddhism and its sacred places linked to the life of the Buddha and his disciples. Although the Record has mainly been used in a historicist-positivist fashion in modern scholarship, the text is a multifaceted complex work which contains several layers of “intentionality” that need to be taken into account carefully when reading and interpreting (hence also translating) the text. One of these intentional aspects is to “sell” Buddhism and the ideal of a Buddhist ruler to the Tang emperor.[4]

According to tradition, the Record was edited by Xuanzang’s student Bianji, but it is quite unclear what role and participation in the compilation of the Record Bianji really played. There is indication that he might just have done some editorial final brushing up to Xuanzang’s material and draft of the text. The received knowledge that it was Bianji who compiled (zhuan 撰 at the beginning of each juan) the Record probably originated from a time when it was known or, at least, assumed that the Eulogy was authored by him and concluded that he was also the compilator.

The passage is interesting insofar as it reflects what Chinese Buddhists – and probably other educated Chinese – knew and thought about Sanskrit, the ‘Brahma-language’ (fan 梵), and how it should be translated into Chinese. The reference to translation stays rather vague and unspecific compared, for instance, with what is said about Sanskrit in the Xuanzang biography or in Yijing’s 義淨 (635-713) Nanhai jigui neifa zhuan 南海寄歸內法傳 (Account of Buddhism sent from the South Seas ).[5] The text also uses Chinese terminology which does not always and easily reveal to what kind of linguistic phenomenon of the Sanskrit language it refers.

The other point of interest is the critique which is aimed at the earlier translator Kumārajīva (344-413) and his team. This is remarkable since some of the texts translated by (or attributed to) Kumārajīva (K.) were translated again by Xuanzang (X.) (different versions of the Mahāprajñāpāramitāsūtra: K.: T.223 / X.: T.202.2, etc.; Sukhāvatīvyūha: K.: T.366 / X.: T.367; Vimalakīrtinirdeśa: K.: T.475 / X.: T.476). It looks as if Bianji attempted to discredit Kumārajīva’s overall-used translations of some of Chinese Mahāyāna Buddhism’s main texts as faulty and defective, thereby indirectly recommending his own master’s forthcoming –- assuming that the Eulogy was part of the original Record submitted to the throne in 646 -– “new” translations.[6] To achieve this, Bianji invests quite some “quotational” energy to prepare his criticism by referring –- though not always correctly –- to authorities from Chinese antiquity (Laozi, Kongzi, Hanfeizi). Bianji here stands in the tradition of Chinese discourse about the right way of rendering the sacred Buddhist texts in Chinese which can be traced back to the scholar monk Shi Daoan 釋道安 (312-385).[7] Indirectly and very loosely, he seems to allude to the Chinese principle of “rectifying names” (zhengming 正名), although editing a text is, of course, a completely different matter than translating a text.


Notes to the Introduction

  1. The passage below is an excerpt of my translation of and commentary on the Record which will be published in installments (one volume per juan). The first three volumes are being edited for publication at the moment, three more volumes (4, 8 and 9) have been fully translated and commented. The commentary for the rest of the fascicles is work in progress. I thank Victor Mair for posting this short note and for improving my translation.
  2. This part is not translated or commented on by the older Western translations (Julien, Beal, Watters), but by Mizutani and Li. Julien 1858: 249f., thought that the author of this eulogy was identical with the one of the preface. It is most likely, however, that this eulogy is Bianji’s work, not only suggested by the language but also by the position: Eulogy of the Buddha (945c.23ff.) – Eulogy of the Tang dynasty (946a.17ff.) – Eulogy of Xuanzang (946a.25ff.) – Bianji about himself and his work (947a.23ff.).
  3. See Deeg 2012 & 2018.
  4. See Deeg 2009, 2016 & 2021.
  5. For a discussion of the relevant passages from an Indological standpoint see Staal 1972.
  6. See Lusthaus 2020.
  7. For a recent discussion and translation of the relevant text passages see Mak 2022.



The master of the dharma was wonderfully exhaustive in Sanskrit (Brahma-language) learning, formally approved the profound sūtras, looked at the text as [it] was, and rendered the syllables as [they] sounded. [He] respectfully followed the meaning of the Saints and did not embellish the texts. [When] the regional language was not understood, or [when] the Sanskrit [could] not be translated, [he] strove to preserve the mould[1], used the canon as model and method, and selected and examined [the sacred texts], [because he] was afraid that [otherwise] the truth [would] be corrupted.

There were high officials[2] [who], emotionally moved, spurred each other on, and solemnly averred: “As far as the kingdom of India is concerned, it is [a place] where many spiritual saints congregated,[3] it is [a country] where those who are outstanding predominate[4], [and therefore] the writing is called heavenly writing[5], and the language is the heavenly language[6]. [Its] words are gentle and fine, [its] sounds are recurrent, and [it] either expresses many meanings with one word, or one meaning is expressed by many words; [its] sound has modulation[7], and [its] tones are divided into voiced and voiceless[8]. [Since] Sanskrit is [so] profound, [its] translation is dependent on intelligent men; [since] the essence of the sūtras is deep and mysterious, [the understanding of its] correct meaning relies on [those] of high virtue. If [one] reduces [this] into writing, [and if one] adjusts [this] to the [different] tones, truth [cannot] be stable, and the reality is not expressed straightforwardly. In order to transmit the profound essence of the sutras, [one must] strive to follow plainness and clarity. If [this] does not violate the original [meaning], then it is well achieved. If there is too much refinement, [it] will be ornate; if there is extreme simplicity[9], [it] will be vulgar. If [it] is direct but not [too] refined, [if it] is eloquent but not [too] simple, then [it] can be without major flaws, only then can [it] be called a translation! Li the Elder[10] said: “If [it] is elegant words, [one] cannot trust [them]; if [it] is trustful words, [they] are not elegant.” Master Han[11] said: “If the principle is correct, [it] will straighten one’s words; if the words are embellished, [they] will obscure its principle.” Through this it is known [how] to teach and form the people, [that] the basis of the meaning is ultimately the same[12], [so] that the obscure and hindering [points] hopefully are removed, and benefit and happiness will be preserved. To violate the original [meaning] and to pursue refinement worsens the harm inflicted. To follow the ancient [established] rules[13] is the highest probity of the dharma-king.” The monks and laypeople agreed saying: “Indeed, these words are true.[14] Formerly, [when] Kongzi (Confucius) was in office and presided over lawsuits, [his] diction was like [that] of the common people, and not only for himself[15]. As for [his] revision of the Spring and Autumn [Annals], [he] composed and deleted [as appropriate]. The followers of You[zi] and Xia[zi], [although they had] the literary learning of disciples of Kong[zi], could not even appreciate one word in it.[16] The sūtras translated by the master of the dharma are also like that. [It is] not like [in the case of] the collected texts of Kumārajīva[17] in the Xiaoyao[-park][18], [who] left [this] to the brushes of [Dao]sheng, [Seng]zhao, [Dao]rong, and [Seng]rui[19]. How could they, in a period [in which] the rectangular is shaped into [something] round[20], and in an age [in which things] are hacked and carved out of a plain block[21], add and subtract from the meaning [of the teaching] of the Saint, and lavishly embellish the texts of the sūtras?”


Notes to the Translation

  1. taoye 陶冶: see Yiqie jing yinyi (T.2128.599c4.), where this is explained as taohua 陶化.
  2. jinshen xiansheng 搢紳先生: originally an official or scholar wearing a tablet of status in his sash. It is not clear who these individuals were and in which relation they had with Xuanzang. It seems to be clear to me that it is a group of officials and not a single one – as it is mostly the case when the term is used in Buddhist literature, e.g., in the stock phrase jinshen xiansheng gaowei chongming 搢紳先生高位崇名 as in Fozu tongji 佛祖統記 (T.2035.189b.8, 327a.11), etc., and as is indicated by the term xiangqu 相趣, “spurred each other on”.
  3. jiangji 降集, lit.: “descended and came together”. See Qian Hanshu (Jiaosi zhi 郊祀志 [Imperial suburban sacrifices to Heaven and Earth] ): 鳳皇神爵甘露降集京師,赦天下。 (“The sweet dew of the phoenix emperor and divine nobles came down, accumulated in the capital and brought amnesty to the realm.”)
  4. This whole passage is almost verbatim copied from the Xiyu zhuan lun 西域傳論 ("Discussion on the Account of the Western Regions") of the Hou Hanshu: 余聞之後說也,其國則殷乎中土,玉燭和氣,靈聖之所降(集),賢懿之所挺生,神跡詭怪,則理絕人區,感驗明顯,則事出天外。 (“As for myself, here is what I have heard: This kingdom (i.e., India / Shendu) is even more flourishing than China. There is peace and prosperity. Saintly beings descend and congregate there. Great Worthies are there. Strange and extraordinary marvels occur such that human reason is suspended. By examining and exposing the emotions, one can reach beyond the highest heaven.” Translation Hill 2015: 57.)
  5. tianshu 天書: the translated meaning is how a Chinese probably would have understood the term, but from an Indian perspective, tian is rather referring to the gods (deva), and tianshu would be something like Skt. *devalipi.
  6. tianyu 天語: *devabhāṣā?
  7. yiyang 抑揚, “rising and falling”, the prosodic character of chanted Sanskrit as indicated in the Vedic texts (udātta, anudātta)?
  8. qingzhuo 清濁: I take this to stand for Skt. ghoṣa and aghoṣa, but this is, of course, not more than a guess.
  9. The old Chinese literary concepts wen 文 and zhi 質 are opposed to each other.
  10. Li Lao 李老, i.e., Laozi. The “quotation” is a paraphrase of the beginning of the last chapter of the Daode-jing 81: 信言不美,美言不信。 (“Trustable words are not elegant, elegant words are not to be trusted.”).
  11. Hanzi 韓子: Hanfeizi 韓非子. According to Mitzutani, 3, 471, note 19, this quotation is not found in the extant version of the Hanfeizi. There is, however, a phrase in another “legalist” text, the Shangjun-shu 商君書, “Book of Lord Shang”, which contains, more or less, the idea expressed here (chapter Nongzhan 農戰, “Agriculture and War”): 說者成伍,煩言飾辭,而無實用。 (“Persuaders form legions; they multiply words and adorn sayings but are of no real use.”; translation Pines 2017: 139)
  12. xuantong 玄同: in the locus classicus, Laozi 56 (and the Zhuangzi), this means to be identical with the Dao (see HDC, s.v., 1).
  13. shuaiyou jiuzhang 率由舊章: see the locus classicus in the Shijing (Daya 大雅, Jiale 假樂): 不愆不忘,率由舊章。 (“Not committing faults and not being oblivious, [but] to follow the ancient rules.”) This definitely is positively connotated, expressing that what the Buddha did is not deviating from ancient Chinese custom. Li’s translation “… and adherence to obsolete rules is what the Buddha strongly objected to.” turns this upside down.
  14. Mizutani has the answer or the response end here, while Ji continues until the end of the paragraph. I follow Ji because the point seems to be to gain authority by having a group of learned people interact and quote passages from the classics.
  15. This is a direct quote from the Shiji (Kongzi shijia 孔子世家 ["The Hereditary House of Confucius"]).
  16. This again is a direct quote from the Kongzi-passage in the Shiji (except that there, it has Zixia 子夏 instead of You and Xia).
  17. Tongshou 童壽, lit. ‘Boy-Longevity’: Kumārajīva.
  18. 逍遙 = Xiaoyao yuan(tang) 逍遙園(堂)  [“Garden / Hall of Free and Easy Wandering”] where Kumārajīva’s translation “workshop” was located. See, e.g., the foreword to the Mahāprajñāpāramitopadeśa (or -śāstra) / Da zhidu lun 大智度論 by Sengrui (T.1509.57b.5f.). This name originally comes from Zhuangzi (I would like to thank V. Mair for pointing this out).
  19. Kumārajīva’s disciples Daosheng 道生, Sengzhao 僧肇, Daorong 道融, and Sengrui 僧叡.
  20. On yuan 园 in the sense of wan 刓 see Ji, 1047, app.8. The whole phrase is a quote from Chuci 楚辭 4, Jiuzhang (Huaisha 懷沙), traditionally taken to be the suicide note of the famous poet  Qu Yuan (c. 340-278 BC) : 刓方為圜兮,常度未替。 (“They whittle the square to make it round, But eternal laws can’t be ignored.” translation Sukhu 2017: 151) Wang Yi 王逸 comments on this: 言人刓削方木,欲以為圜, … 以言讒人譖逐改已,欲使改行。 (“[This] means (that) people cut rectangular wood and want to make it round, … by this is expressed when cunning people slander and change (their position) and want to have (others) change (their) ways.”) The expression is used for a situation or for people changing their loyalties too easily (see HDC, s.v.), but here the term is rather to be taken in the sense of forcing something natural into another, unnatural shape.
  21. pu 朴: in the sense of the original nature as propagated in the Zhuangzi tradition, but keeping the metaphorical context of the tree, as one of the meanings of the character (read: po; rime phaewk [Baxter]; Middle Sinitic /pʰˠʌk̚/ [Zhengzhang Shangfang]; Old Sinitic /*pʰroːɡ/ [Zhengzhang Shangfang]) is “bark; root, stem” or, as a simplified equivalent of pu 樸, “uncarved block”  (V. Mair).


Chinese text




Textual notes

[1] Instead of T. 治; Ji, 1043, app.32.

[2] Instead of T. 暮.

[3] Instead of T. 渝; Ji, 1047, app.5.



Deeg, Max. 2009. “Writing for the Emperor – Xuanzang Between Piety, Religious Propaganda, Intelligence, and Modern Imagination”. In: Straube, Martin; Steiner, Roland; Soni, Jayandra; Hahn, Michael; Demoto Mitsuyo (eds.). Pāsādikadānaṃ. Festschrift für Bhikkhu Pāsādika. Marburg: Indica et Tibetica Verlag: 30-60.

Deeg, Max. 2012. “‘Show Me the Land Where the Buddha Dwelled …’ – Xuanzang’s ‘Record of the Western Regions’ (Xiyu ji): A Misunderstood Text?”. China Report 48: 89-113.

Deeg, Max. 2016. “The Political Position of Xuanzang: The Didactic Creation of an Indian Dynasty in the Xiyu ji”. In: Jülch, Thomas (ed.). The Middle Kingdom and the Dharma Wheel: Aspects of the Relationship between the Buddhist Saṃgha and the State in Chinese History. Leiden, Boston: Brill: 94-139.

Deeg, Max. 2018. “The historical turn: How Chinese Buddhist travelogues changed Western perception of Buddhism”. Hualin Journal of International Buddhist Studies 1.1: 43-75.

Deeg, Max. 2022. “A Chinese ‘Hitopadeśa’ – Or: A Ruler’s Mirror: The Didactic Aspects of the Da Tang Xiyu ji”. In: Chen Jinhua (ed.). Transmission of Buddhism in Asia and Beyond. Essays in Memory of Antonino Forte (1940-2006). Singapore: World Scholastic Publishers: 111-165.

Hanyu dacidian 漢語大詞典 (HDC)

Hill, John E. 2015. Through the Jade Gate – China to Rome: A Study of the Silk Routes 1st to 2nd Centuries CE. Vol. 1, 2nd edition (print on demand).

Ji Xianlin 季羨林. 1985. Datang xiyu ji jiaozhu 大唐西域記校注. Beijing: Zhonghua shuju.

Julien, Stanislas. 1858. Mémoires sur les contrées occidentales, traduits du Sanscrit en Chinois, en l’an 648, par Hiouen-Thsang, et du Chinois en Français. Tôme second. Paris: Imprimerie impériale.

Li Rongxi. 1996. The Great Tang Dynasty Record of the Western Regions, Translated by the Tripiṭaka-Master Xuanzang under Imperial Order, Composed by Śramaṇa Bianji of the Great Zongchi Monastery (Taisho, Volume 51, Number 2087). Berkeley: Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research.

Lusthaus, Dan. 2020. “What is ‘New’ in Xuanzang’s New Translation Style”. In: Shi Ciguang, Chen Jinhua, Ji Yu, Shi Xingding (eds.). From Chang’an to Nālandā: The Life and Legacy of the Chinese Buddhist Monk Xuanzang (602?–664). Singapore: World Scholastic Publishers: 159-219.

Mak, Bill M. 2022. “A 4th-Century CE Buddhist Note on Sanskrit-Chinese Translation: Dao’an’s Preface to the Abridgement of the Mahāprajñāpāramitā-Sūtra”. In: Glenn W. Most, Dagmar Schäfer, Mårten Söderblom Saarela (eds.). Plurilingualism in Traditional Eurasian Scholarship: Thinking in Many Tongues. Leiden, Boston: Brill: 339-351.

Mizutani Shinjō 水谷真成. 1999. Daitō-saiiki-ki 大唐西域記. 3 vols. Tokyo: Heibonsha 平凡社 (Tōyō-Bunko 東洋文庫 653, 655, 657).

Pines, Yuri. 2017. The Book of Lord Shang: Apologetics of State Power in Early China. New York: Columbia University Press.

Staal, Johan Frederik. 1972. A Reader on the Sanskrit Grammarians. Cambridge, Mass. & London: The MIT Press.

Sukhu, Gopal. 2017. The Songs of Chu: An Anthology of Ancient Chinese Poetry by Qu Yuan and Others. New York: Columbia University Press.

T. = Taishō shinshū daizōkyō (CBETA electronic version)


Selected readings


  1. Kingfisher said,

    July 27, 2023 @ 11:07 am

    The dharma master (Xuanzang) was sublime and exhaustive in his study of Fan (Sanskrit): in assessing and evaluating the profound sutras, he read the texts as though they had been expressed in his own manner and relayed their sounds as though they had been spoken in his own way, and he respected and heeded the ideas which the sages sought to convey without resorting to florid or ornamental language. And where the languages of his own land could not convey some expression or a Fan term had no precise equivalent, he devoted himself to preserving the cast and the mold and to obtaining and clarifying the principle and precept, while shaping and studying his work lest there should be any departure from the truth!

    There once was a certain gentleman in official garb who, spurred on by the movements and expressions of his fellows, solemnly stepped forward to say, "Yindu (India) is the sort of place where saints and spirits gather from on high and worthy and the enlightened and empowered shoot forth out of the ground; their writings are said to be heavenly texts and their language a celestial tongue, and their prose and syntax is exquisite and enigmatic and their sounds and tones are languid and lilting. With them a single word may express many meanings while a single idea may invoke elaborate explanation; there is restraint and exultation in their utterances and clarity and choppiness in their emphases, and their Fan texts are so profound and elaborate that it takes a genius to translate them. Yet their sutras reach to primordial truths and their principles embody the highest virtues.

    "If we were to edit their texts through elaborations or deletions and to arrange them to musical notation, substantiating those places which are not yet defined, we could provide real discourses on truth and falsehood. In conveying the profound ideas of the sutras, let us focus on making them easy to comprehend; so long as we do not deviate from the underlying concepts, the result will be good. Too verbose and the translation will be prosaic while excessively blunt and it will be crude, but if it can be elaborate without excess and straightforward without simplicity, it won't be too far off the mark! Only then can we speak of it being a 'translation'.

    "For as Li Lao (Laozi) said, 'Beautiful words are not believable; believable words are not beautiful'. And so too did Master Han (Han Feizi) say, 'The soundness of the logic clarifies the words; the artfulness of the words obscures the logic'. It is thus that we know how to pass down the teachings and arrange the forms, keeping the meaning consistent with the primordial truths. Wherever we expunge obtuseness or obscurity, there we preserve benefit and goodness; wherever we follow the text at the expense of the meaning, there we make the harm all the greater. To 'guide the people by the ancient rules' would be the sincerest act of a dharma-king."

    And his fellows among the monks and ministers all exclaimed, "Truly indeed has he spoken! For in the ancient days, when Kongzi (Confucius) served in office, his writings and remarks when deciding cases were 'the same as any other man'; never did he intend to be understood only by himself. And even when Kongzi was editing the Spring and Autumn Annals (of the state of Lu), though he added where he added and deleted where he deleted, even as learned of his disciples as Youzi and Xiazi could never contest a single word of it."

    In just such a manner did the dharma master translate the sutras; he did not do as Tongshou (Kumarajiva) did, merely gathering the texts at the Xiaoyao Garden and employing the revisions of such people as Sheng, Zhao, Rong, and Rui (Daosheng, Sengzhao, Daorong, and Sengrui). And especially in an age where the people are cutting a circle from the square and a time when the masses are hacking up the intricate in favor of the plain, is it not feasible to add or subtract from the thoughts of the saints and endow and imbue the sutras and texts?

  2. Phil H said,

    July 28, 2023 @ 11:17 pm

    Sorry to be critical, but I don't see much point in this style of translation. If you want to give a gloss, then give a gloss. If you want to convey meaning, then give a translation. You can do both!
    Phrasing like "…was wonderfully exhaustive in Sanskrit (Brahma-language) learning…" is not ordinary modern English, so it does not succeed as a translation into English. It's also not a gloss, as it intercalates several words that don't directly correspond to characters in the source text. It's just a muddled middle ground that obscures more than it clarifies.
    More importantly, at the end of the passage, I just can't tell from your translation what the passage means. That's fatal! I've read your translation several times, and I'm still unable to tell clearly whether this author approves of what Kumarajiva and his disciples did. The text seems to cite with approval the fact that Confucius "composed and deleted"; then seems to turn and apparently disapprove(?) of some others who "add and subtract".
    I hope you'll reedit and make the translation clearer before publication. In particular, I suggest that you force yourself to translate into standard modern English: real grammatical sentences that can be read and understood without having to navigate brackets or footnotes.

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