How did Buddhist sutras get translated into Chinese? I hadn't really given much thought to this question before, unconsciously attributing it to an array of faceless, more-or-less bilingual monks working alone or at best in parallel. It turns out that the process was much more involved. In Kanbun to Higashi Ajia 漢文と東アジア ("Kanbun and East Asia"), Kin Bunkyō 金文京 gives an account of the 982 C.E. translation of the Heart Sutra into Chinese by a team centered on an Indian monk named Devaṣanti 天息災:

A large number of monks and officials (官吏) gathered ... and performed the translation via the following division of labor:

  1. 訳主 ("Lead Translator"): Read the Sanskrit original aloud. Devasanti performed this task.
  2. 証義 ("Meaning Certifier"): Sat to the left of the Lead Translator and discussed the meaning of the Sanskrit original.
  3. 証文 ("Text Certifier"): Sat to the right of the Lead Translator and confirmed that the text had been read aloud without error.
  4. 書字の梵学僧 ("Scribe Learned in Sanskrit"): Recorded in Chinese characters the Sanskrit that was read aloud. [...] For example, the Sanskrit word hṛdaya was written 紇哩第野, and sūtra was written 素怛羅. [...]
  5. 筆受 ("Receiver via Brush"): Translated the Sanskrit written in Chinese characters into Chinese. For example, 紇哩第野 would become 心, and 素怛羅 would become 経, combining to form 心経, "Heart Sutra."
  6. 綴文 ("Text Composer"): Rearranged the individually translated words into the correct Chinese word order; which is to say, into kanbun.
  7. 参訳 ("Translation Barger-into"): Checked the translated text against the original Sanskrit, and corrected any errors.
  8. 刊定 ("Trimmer/Finalizer"): Edited cumbersome or long-winded expressions down to size. Sanskrit texts had a tendency to be detailed and lengthy, but in Chinese texts brevity was prized.
  9. 潤文官 ("Text-Juicing Official"): Determined whether the translation was appropriate as Chinese text, and added rhetorical flourish as necessary. For example, the "度一切苦厄" ("he crossed beyond all suffering and difficulty") of "照見五蘊皆空 度一切苦厄" ("he illuminated the five skandhas and saw that they were all empty, and he crossed beyond all suffering and difficulty") was not in the original; it was added at this stage. The previous eight steps were performed by monks, but this step was performed by a lay official.

I'm not sure about the correct etymological interpretation of some of those Chinese terms, but man... that is a translation team. (Also kind of reminds me of the intro to "7th Chamber Part II" by the Wu-Tang Clan.)

Anyway, Kin notes that not every translation into Chinese of a Buddhist sutra was done in such an elaborate way, and indeed the above has no small element of ritual to it over and above what is necessary to get a translation done. Still, the basic division of labor seems to have been pretty common, in particular the dictate/transcribe/translate/trim/touch-up cycle.

Popularity factor: 8


That's pretty fancy. I just do a triple finger click on words with my MacBook Air, and then a little dictionary window pops up. But maybe my translations could be improved by adding another 8 people to my team?


...and then they realised that the Translation Barger-into obviated the need for all the stages before him, and with an audible sucking sound the translation industry was drawn bodily into the modern age.

Speaking as someone who does a lot of stages 7-9 on a daily basis, I intend to petition my employer to add "Text-Juicing Official" to my job title at the earliest opportunity.


My editor's role seems to be "text de-juicer." He likes to cut all my juiciest bits, he wants to economize since I'm paid by the word. Usually I throw in something extra juicy that I know he will cut, in an attempt to distract him from making other cuts.
But sometimes he just goes too far. I once wrote a complex sentence with paired alliterations, like "a and a, b and b, c and c.." and he edited it down to "a, a, b, b, c, and c.." That saved two whole words. Jeez, it's lucky I don't get paid for punctuation, or he'd probably cut that all out too.


One billion+ NE Asians can't be wrong! (Except about pizza toppings.)

I forgot to put this in the post, but this explicitly and minutely subdivided process strongly reminded me of the fan translation world -- in particular the way it is set up so that people who don't even speak the source language can contribute. And the results are kind of similar, too, particularly the development of in-group jargon based on borrowings and calques.


The fan-sub analogy has ruined East Asian Buddhism for me forever. Thanks Matt!


Man the Juicer and the trimmer hold the real power. Snip off the "long winded stuff" and add in flourish. Compared to the Text certifier who is clearly just sittin there chewing on his fingernails goin "Yeah you read that right"

L.N. Hammer:

Barger-into, hee.



Coincidentally, I just came across a quotation in an article by Cristina Scherrer-Schaub, from a study by Jean Dantinne, which probably goes back to the same source as your classification here:

Dantinne, J. La splendeur de l'Inébranlable (Aksobhyavyûha). Louvain-La-Neuve: Université Catholique de Louvain, 1983, 51 et n. 4:

« 1) Le traducteur en chef. C'est le personnage central; il lit le sûtra original et en explique le sens. 2) Le scribe ou celui qui prend note au pinceau. Il doit connaître le chinois et le sanscrit. Il fait la synthèse, pose des questions et ensuite, consigne le texte par écrit. C'est ce qu'on appelle le travail de composition. C'est lui qui transcrit en chinois le texte sanscrit. Il est désigné sous des noms différents. 3) L'interprète, appelé aussi celui qui transmet la parole. Parfois, le traducteur en chef ne comprend pas le chinois; alors c'est à l'interprète qu'il appartient de traduire en chinois les explications données en langue étrangère. Cependant, si le traducteur en chef est un Chinois ou bien un étranger qui comprend le chinois, alors on n'a pas besoin d'interprète. 4) Le réviseur de l'original sanscrit. Sa tâche consiste à vérifier si la phraséologie de la traduction est conforme au sens de l'original sanscrit. Il doit posséder une maîtrise parfaite du sanscrit et du chinois. 5) Le polisseur de style ou styliste. Son rôle consiste à orner le style de la traduction. Il importe que le style de la traduction soit beau et riche pour plaire au lecteur. C'est un lettré versé en stylistique. 6) Le réviseur du sens. Il vérifie le contenu du texte. Sa tâche consiste à examiner si le sens est correct. 7) Le chantre du texte sanscrit. Dès que le travail de traduction a débuté, son rôle consiste à psalmodier le texte sanscrit, à débiter des louanges sur le Triple Joyau. Il contribue à créer la bonne ambiance dans laquelle s'effectue la traduction. 8) Le vérificateur. Il examine le texte de la traduction. Son travail consiste en une sorte de supervision. 9) Le commissaire à la vérification et à la préservation. C'est un fonctionnaire chargé de soumettre la traduction au contrôle impérial. On peut adjoindre à ces neuf fonctionnaires un correcteur de termes. La tâche consiste à s'assurer de l'exactitude des transcriptions phonétiques des termes sanscrits. Il doit être versé dans la phonétique chinoise et sanscrite.»

And then there's also the thorny issue of whether translations are just that - there are cases where translations were produced in front of a public to which the texts were explained, and the resulting "translation" is filled with explanations added on the fly. Funayama Toru discussed this in his "Masquerading as Translation: Examples of Chinese Lectures by Indian Scholar-Monks in the Six Dynasties Period" (Asia Major 19/1-2, 2006).

Comment season is closed.