Translations that annihilate

In the Sutta Central discussion forum, Ayya Sudhamma (who goes by the handle “@Charlotteannun” there), posted an interesting analysis of a supposed translation of the Therigatha. The title literally means “Poems of the elder nuns,” and it’s an ancient Buddhist compilation of poems or songs composed by enlightened female disciples of the Buddha. It, and its counterpart the Theragatha (“Poems of the elder monks”), are among my favorite texts, since they directly and vividly present the voices of practitioners two and a half millennia ago, giving insight into their outer and inner lives.

I’ll quote, with Ayya Suddhamma’s permission, the entire post, and then make a few comments.

@Charlotteannun

We gained a new Therigatha (elder nuns’ poems) translation in 2020, The First Free Women by Matty Weingast.

Or at least we gained something that is lovely and inspiring, involving bhikkhunis, and generally relating in some way to the original poems. But is the book really a translation? And if not, does that matter?

While studying the Therigatha with a group throughout this past year, we compare up to half a dozen translations and often delve into Pāli phrasing. Several months ago a student began adding Weingast’s poems to the mix, and his were jarringly different. One poem that specially caught my attention when read aloud to us was Thig 4.1, the poem of Bhadda Kapilani.

Bhadda Kapilani’s poem is the only Therigatha poem of four verses, hence the sole poem in Chapter 4. Her four stanzas in Pāli, below, are each followed by an English translation by Ken Norman. I’ve come to rely upon Norman’s work, though not the most uplifting, for straightforward, literal translations easy to compare with the Pali. (He has passed away since I first drafted this sentence. May he enjoy all the karmic benefits of bringing true Dhamma to many people!)

(Additional translations by Bhante Sujato and Helmouth Becker/Ayya Khema are here )

# Bhaddākāpilānītherīgāthā
Bhaddā Kāpilānī

Putto buddhassa dāyādo,
kassapo susamāhito;
Pubbenivāsaṃ yovedi,
saggāpāyañca passati.

Kassapa, the son, the heir of the Buddha, well-concentrated, who knows that he has lived before, and sees heaven and hell,

Atho jātikkhayaṃ patto,
abhiññāvosito muni;
Etāhi tīhi vijjāhi,
tevijjo hoti brāhmaṇo.

and has attained the destruction of rebirth, is a sage perfected in supernormal knowledge. Because of these three knowledges he is a Brahmin with triple knowledge.

Tatheva bhaddā kāpilānī,
tevijjā maccuhāyinī;
Dhāreti antimaṃ dehaṃ,
jetvā māraṃ savāhiniṃ.

in just the same way Bhaddā Kāpilānī, with triple knowledge, having left death behind, bears her last body, having conquered Māra and his mount.

Disva ādīnavaṃ loke,
ubho pabbajitā mayaṃ;
Tyamha khīṇāsavā dantā,
sītibhūtamha nibbutā”ti.

Having seen the peril in the world, we both went forth; with āsavas annihilated, tamed, we have become cool, quenched.

In the first two verses of her poem, BK described extraordinary powers of her former husband, the revered elder Mahā Kassapa (“MK”), one of the greatest and most famous of the arahants. She poetically listed the “three knowledges” possessed by MK:

  1. knowledge of past lives
  2. seeing heaven & hell (which I infer to mean the power to see beings reborn according to their kamma), and
  3. destruction of the taints.

She further affirmed MK’s position as one who has attained the “Triple Knowledge” (a phrase borrowed from Brahmins’ different idea of the highest state) of these psychic powers.

In the 3rd verse BK declared that she herself matches MK’s powers – a shrewd approach to making controversial claims of greatness in a society reluctant to recognize spiritual might among women. She then further clarified her qualities of full enlightenment.

The 4th and final verse summarized her and MK’s shared history of urgently going forth, annihilating the taints, and becoming free.

This poem is a bold lion’s roar! It probably would have stunned her listeners.

Norman didn’t translate her name, but Bhaddā Kāpilānī means “Fortunate Kapilan Lady”.
Bhaddā = lucky or auspicious
Kāpilānī = lady of the Kapilas (a wealthy clan)

Matty Weingast’s poem:

Bhadda Kapilani ~ Red Hair

After our wedding,
my husband and I put on robes together
and soon went our separate ways.

Not exactly what most would call
a honeymoon.

Is that what love looks like?

Maybe –
when you see what love is
and what it isn’t.

Marriage is hard.
The good times come and go.

True love doesn’t throw a curtain
over the whole world
and imprison whoever it cares about the most
on an empty stage.

When the mind is free,
it’s free of expecting
more than is reasonable
from any one person.

Yes, this purports to be the same poem, I didn’t make a mistake!

Weingast’s version apparently incorporated parts of the commentarial background story. In brief, BK and her husband, both from wealthy prominent families, had both been reluctant to wed anyone, and maintained a celibate marriage. They left their great wealth and home to seek an end to suffering, and after joining the Buddha, each attained enlightenment. The Buddha declared BK foremost in the ability to recall past lives. Many of her past lives were shared with the future Mahā Kassapa; several of their shared past lives were detailed in the Apadana.

It’s a mystery where the name “Red Hair” came from; neither bhaddā nor kāpilānī have any secondary meaning related to hair or any color. Red hair did not appear among people of India in ancient times, unless perhaps colored by henna. (The detailed commentarial account of her life made no mention of her hair.)

Only the idea of their going forth together is preserved in Weingast’s version. Incorporation of parts of the poet’s legend arguably may be okay – but certainly not if nearly the entire original poem gets left out!

Descriptions of this amazing bhikkhuni’s full awakening and her delight in it – gone! Every reference to her superpowers – gone!

Gone too are her multiple direct and indirect references to rebirth – “knows that he has lived before”, “sees heaven and hell” – ie, sees rebirth according to kamma, “has attained the destruction of rebirth”, “these three knowledges”/“triple knowledge” – two of which involve recalling or observing rebirths, “having left death behind”, “bears her last body”.

A couple of my students affirm that Weingast consistently left out references to rebirth. This seems particularly hurtful when done to the words of the bhikkhuni named by the Buddha as foremost in the power to recollect past lives.

From this and numerous other poems shared with me from his book, Weingast appears to me to offer a collection of consoling, sweet poetry with little in common with the powerful original text. And also little in common with the ideals of early Buddhism, seeming more in tune with Western feel-good spirituality and secular sensibilities.

As a book of modern poetry that’s generally inspired by stories of the elder nuns, it stands up well and is worth reading. Yet it is sold as a translation of scripture.

The book’s subtitle calls it “Poems of the Early Buddhist Nuns”. The copyright page gives the LCSH (Library of Congress Subject Heading) as “Buddhist Poetry – Translations into English | Pali Poetry – Translations into English”. In his preface the author acknowledges that “these are not literal translations,” but this sounds like humble self-effacement, not a contradiction to all the signs that you’ve been sold a translation.

Amazon describes the book:

A radical and vivid rendering of poetry from the first Buddhist nuns that brings a new immediacy to their voices.

The Therigatha (“Verses of the Elder Nuns”) is the oldest collection of known writings from Buddhist women and one of the earliest collections of women’s literature in India. Composed during the life of the Buddha, the collection contains verses by early Buddhist nuns detailing everything from their disenchantment with their prescribed roles in society to their struggles on the path to enlightenment to their spiritual realizations…

In The First Free Women, Matty Weingast revives this ancient collection with a contemporary and radical adaptation. In this poetic re-envisioning that remains true to the original essence of each poem, he infuses each verse with vivid language that is not found in other translations. (emphases added)

This book is indeed poetic, it is quite a bold re-envisioning, and indeed you won’t find Weingast’s language in other translations! But perhaps so much originality should be a red flag.

My expectation of a translation is that if all copies of the text were lost except this translation, the text would be saved by it. Plenty of ancient texts have come down to us only in translation. To connect with the ancient wisdom in those otherwise lost texts, we depend upon the translators’ skill and their allegiance to the original lost documents.

My understanding of translation work has evolved, thanks to Bhante Sujato’s guidance, to accept that it doesn’t have to be true to the original word for word. Strict literal adherence often misleads, widening the gap of understanding instead of bridging it. Different phrasing may work just so long as the translation conveys the essence of the original – which the Amazon description claims Weingast has accomplished.

Has he? How does Weingast’s book stack up to this standard: if his were the only extant version of the elder bhikkhunis’ ancient poems, would their words be preserved or lost?

These ancient poems would be utterly lost. Given that one translation of various texts has, at times, actually become a community’s only copy, or even the whole world’s last copy of a precious text, this matters, and now more than ever. The world – and the West – seems to be in for a hard ride from climate change. In our future of predicted disruption there will be few books of Therigatha translations to be found, whereas many thousands of copies of Weingast’s replacement poems are already in people’s hands all across the West.

A few earnest students of Buddhism told me that they read Weingast’s translation believing they were reading a true translation of the Therigatha, and felt shocked to encounter the original Pāli poetry to which his book bears only a superficial connection. The likelihood of Weingast’s book being mistaken for a translation makes it hazardous for the long-term preservation of this scripture – a blow against the generations of monks who diligently labored across 2500 years to recall or write carefully every word of scripture with absolute precision, trying not to corrupt a single phrase.

Further, Weingast’s poems may mislead readers into a soft feel-good version of early Buddhism, without rebirth, without psychic powers, and, it seems to me from what I’ve read of it, without celebrating the promise of complete liberation.

In Weingast’s version the lioness’ roars of the ancient nuns have been muffled into a sweet new-agey purring.

By the way, a beautiful yet unfortunately obscure actual translation that’s available in free pdf is Anagarika Mahindra’s Therīgāthāpāli Book of Verses of Elder Bhikkhunis, a Contemporary Translation .

The phenomenon of original poetry passed off as translation and artfully described as a “rendering” also applies to Thomas Byrom’s “Dhammapada,” which is more Byrom than it is Buddha, and which is responsible for a good many of the Fake Buddha Quotes found on this site.

Both Byrom’s and Weingast’s books are published by Shambhala. I believe journalists go by the rule that you have to have three instances of something before you can call it a trend, but I’m wondering if there might be a trend with this particular publisher. It seems to me irresponsible to imply that a book is a translation when it’s in fact original poetry somewhat inspired by the text supposedly being translated.

As another commenter on Sutta Central pointed out, the Buddhist teachers who wrote blurbs for Weingast’s book appeared unaware that they were promoting original poems written by a man rather than ancient poems written by women. The examples given were:

  • the words of these liberated women are transmitted
  • These are fresh, powerful, poetic translations that bring our ancient wise women to life
  • inspiringly poetic translation
  • renditions of the enlightenment songs of the early Buddhist nuns
  • rarely heard female voices
  • the voices are distinctly female
  • beautifully translated collection of po­ems
  • voices of the first bhikkhunis in this contemporary rendering of the Therigatha
  • voices of these awakened Buddhist women can be heard
  • Hearing the awakened heart expressed in such distinctive strong, clear, fem­inine voices
  • fresh rendering of these ancient words will be of interest to anyone looking for feminine Buddhist voice

In fact these ancient women’s voices were obliterated rather than heard. This is sad.

I’ll end simply by following up on a promise I made to Ayya Sudhamma, which is to direct you toward Anagarika Mahendra’s free translation of the Therigatha. Although it’s free, please leave a donation to help support the publisher if you can.

8 thoughts on “Translations that annihilate”

  1. Oh my, women’s voices replaced and erased for poetic effect? Rebirth left out to increase appeal to those who don’t believe in it? It does remind me of some popular modern poetic renditions of Rumi, where Islam and Quranic references get erased in the interest of emphasizing the universal appeal (that is undeniably there, by the way). If anyone is interested in what I mean, look here:
    https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/the-erasure-of-islam-from-the-poetry-of-rumi.

    1. Of course if you want to hear genuine women’s voices you need to read poetry written by a man 🙄

      For another, similar, erasure, see Christopher Wallis’s takedown of Lorin Roche’s “rendering” of the Vijñāna-bhairava-tantra. There are parts of the article I skipped, but he paints a shocking picture of how Roche believes he can simply “intuit” his way to an understanding of the author’s intended meanings, despite knowing no Sanskrit and despite having no understanding of the philosophy the author was explicating. The article, as it happens, opens with a discussion of “translations” of Rumi and Hafiz.

      I’m grateful to Wallis for having framed this phenomenon as cultural appropriation.

      Many thanks for the link to the Rosina Ali article. It’ll make for good reading on this rainy Christmas afternoon…

  2. Thanks for the article.
    Regarding the “red hair” mystery, I’m not good with pali and just know a bit of Sanskrit where you got the word ‘kapila’ which means literally ‘ape coloured’ . What is the color of a monkey? Checking Sanskrit dictionaries you’ll find that the color vary between brown to ‘reddish’. In fact one of the entries for ‘kapila’ is ‘red-haired’…

    1. Yes, kapila in Pali can mean tawny or red hair, but as Ayya Sudhamma said, here the word refers to the tribe the (original) poem’s author was a member of (or the city named . It says nothing about her hair color.

      It’s as if I’d written a poem about, and named after, the British singer Cilla Black, and someone translated the poem’s title as “Cilla With the Black Hair.” Such a translation would be ridiculous, especially given that Cilla was a redhead.

  3. Hi,
    I just wanted to compliment you on some work you did in 2018 that I just came across on a quote from Witter Bynner’s translation of Laotzu which somehow got changed considerably and passed off as a quote from Buddha — “She who knows life flows…” You included the quote from Bynner that this misquote must have come from: “Those who flow as life flows know/They need no other force/They feel no wear, they fell no tear/They need no mending, no repair.” I appreciated your scholarship in going a step further and including some more literal translations of the Laotzu line! Good work! (Even though I discovered a long time ago that Bynner’s translation was pretty fanciful, I have to confess I’ve never stopped loving love it!) Thanks again for your good work — it’s really needed!

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