Guidelines for Translation

Collaborative Translation 

Translations from the Buddhist Text Translation Society are products of a collaborative process in which translators and volunteers follow the Eight Guidelines outlined by Venerable Master Hsuan Hua. All translations pass through the Four Committees before publication. 

The Eight Guidelines for Translators and Volunteers:

  1. Translators and volunteers must free themselves from the motives of personal fame and reputation.
  2. Translators and volunteers must cultivate an attitude free from arrogance and conceit.
  3. Translators and volunteers must refrain from aggrandizing themselves and denigrating others.
  4. Translators and volunteers must not establish themselves as the standard of correctness and suppress the work of others with their fault-finding.
  5. Translators and volunteers must take the Buddha-mind as their own mind.
  6. Translators and volunteers must use the wisdom of the Selective Dharma Eye to determine true principles.
  7. Translators and volunteers must request the Elder Virtuous Ones of the ten directions to certify their translations.
  8. Translators and volunteers must endeavor to propagate the teachings by printing sutras (scriptures of what was spoken by the Buddha), shastras (commentarial texts written by masters of the teachings), and vinaya texts (all the precept teachings for monastics and laypeople) when the translations are certified as being correct.

Those who take part in translation work must be broad-minded and of integrity. Only then will they be able to take on this sacred work. 

The Four Committees

When the Buddhist Text Translation Society was established, the Venerable Master set up the Four Committees to govern the translation process: Primary Translation, Review, Editorial, and Certification. Each committee consists of one or more individuals. 

Primary Translation Committee

The principal responsibility of translators is to render the source material into the target language as accurately as possible. Upon completing this, the translators sign and date their translation and pass it on to the Review Committee.

Review Committee

Reviewers go over the entire translation in full, checking it against the source audio or the written Chinese. Reviewers make necessary corrections that improve the accuracy of the translation. The work done by the Primary Translation Committee is not erased so that those who review and edit the work at a later time are able to clearly see the original and alternate translations. Reviewers date the documents to note when the drafts were received and to indicate how much work they did each day. When the reviewing process is complete, the reviewers sign and date the copy. They retain one copy in the Review Committee and hand another copy to the Editorial Committee.

Editorial Committee 

Editors ensure that the translation represents the principles of the Dharma in a comprehensible manner. If editors are bilingual, they also reference the source audio or written Chinese, comparing the rough draft and revisions to decide upon a correct version. When finished, the Editorial Committee members sign and date the work, retain one copy, and hand two copies onto the Certification Committee.

Certification Committee

Certifiers confirm that the translation reflects the true Dharma and is in line with the mind of all Buddhas. Certifiers must be fluent in the source language (typically Chinese) and target language of the translation, as well as have a considerable amount of experience in the study and practice of the Dharma. When necessary, two people are paired together to certify a translation, one fluent in the source language and the other in the target language.

The Four Committees provide an excellent structure to train newcomers in the translation process. As translators and volunteers practice taking the Buddha-mind as their own mind while translating, they immerse themselves in the Venerable Master's words of Dharma. Their minds are able to expand and mature, advancing them more resolutely upon the path to bodhi.



Guidelines for Translation

The Venerable Master Hsuan Hua frequently reminded his disciples to use their true wisdom to translate the sutras. He also said that if they felt something had been translated inappropriately, they could bring it up at any time and everyone could study it and discuss it together. Such open and democratic discussions allowed for more accurate translations, similar to the translations methods of the past.  Master Hsuan Hua exhorted those doing the translation work with the following words:

Expand your mind and investigate together.

The measure of our minds should encompass all of space and pervade worlds as numerous as grains of sand, excluding nothing and including everything. If you have doubts, bring them up. If you feel that a certain point is correct, you can explain your reason. Everyone is here to discuss and investigate together. We don't need to argue. It's not a case of one person winning and another losing. No one wins and no one loses. At all times, everyone is level and equal. United and equal, we advance together.

Translation should be done through consensus.

Before a nation's constitution is formally ratified, it must be read three times. Each time, people are asked if they have objections. We should adopt this method in the translation of sutras. After the translation process is complete, everyone should study it and see if there are problems. Everyone's wisdom should be used in translating the sutras. 

All opinions can be brought up. When we ask for opinions, we should follow the procedure for holding karmavachanas (formal Sangha meetings). That is, after the translation is read once through, everyone is asked to give their opinions and the translation is revised. After that, it is read another time and people are asked again. Then, it is read once more and people are asked for a final time. There must be three readings, and people must be asked three times. The text should be read slowly so that it can be heard clearly and distinctly. When the three readings are done in accord with the karmavachana procedure, those who have opinions should bring them up.

If there are no opinions, that means everyone is in agreement. In the future, no one can say, "This part is not translated well. It was done wrong at the time." None of us can object then. Everyone has to be responsible. Only when everyone is unanimously in agreement can the translation pass. As we do our translations here, we want to set a precedent for the people of the future. They will have to follow our method. It won't do for one person to come out with his own translation. We are using everyone's strength to carry out this work.

Accuracy is the most important.

In translating the sutras, nothing is more important than accuracy, or correctness. The translation cannot be at odds with the original text. When translating someone else's work, you must translate that person's words faithfully. You cannot add your own ideas. If the grammar is awkward, you may smooth it out, but there is no need to add your own interpretations.

Translation should be understandable.

Sutra translations should be simple and clear. You don't necessarily have to use Sanskrit. If the term doesn't exist in English, then use the Sanskrit word if you must. If it does exist in English, we should use words that people in this country can understand with ease. If we use Sanskrit words everywhere, then there's no need to translate the sutra into Chinese, and then into English. You might as well use the Sanskrit version! 

The purpose of translating a work is to popularize it, making it so that people can understand it as soon as they read it. It's enough if we can do that. It should be very ordinary. If you deliberately find a very difficult word to use in the translation, people will be mystified when they read it. We should use our wisdom to investigate the matter. If a word is fitting, we can use it. That's enough. The evolution of language takes place bit by bit. People may not understand something for the time being, but gradually, after they look at it a few more times, they will come to understand. As long as the meaning is felt to be sufficient and complete, that's good enough.

Translations should encompass many interpretations.

In translating the text of the sutra, you cannot translate according to the meaning of the commentary. The text of the sutra is like the ocean, while the commentaries are like rivers that can flow into the ocean in any way they please. You shouldn't treat the rivers as the ocean. The sutra is alive, not dead. It is perfectly fused and unobstructed. It is not restricted to a single meaning. Any interpretation is acceptable as long as it is logical and makes sense. Don't make it so rigid and insist that it has to be a certain way. As long as the meaning is conveyed, that's enough. Don't spend too much effort on this aspect. If you spend all your time quibbling over the words themselves, you'll get farther and farther away from the meaning and you'll never come up with a good translation. In translating sutras, you have to be very flexible and dynamic. You can't always be so obstinate and fixed in your ideas. As long as the meaning is there, it's enough.

Translating develops wisdom.

If you use your wisdom to translate sutras, no matter who you are, your wisdom will become greater day by day. The growth of wisdom takes place day after day. If you concentrate your mind and devote yourself to studying every day, your wisdom will open up.

Use the mind of the Buddhas that is impartial and objective.

We must have proper views and proper knowledge when we translate sutras, and must maintain a sense of righteousness. You can't be partial or speak nice words to please people. You have to make quick decisions and speak with determination and courage, like a judge. We should have the spirit of a judge deciding court cases. We have to bring forth sincerity, use correct and penetrating views (views of insightful clarity), and be decisive. We should translate in an objective manner and not get caught up in the language. 

We have to use wisdom when we translate sutras, without harboring the least bit of emotion. No matter whose words they are, if you think they're wrong, then at that point you have to be inflexibly just and impartial. You have to be cold and emotionless when you translate. If you listen to your emotions, you'll go wrong. Why did Shakyamuni Buddha speak this sutra? When we translate, we have to imagine Shakyamuni Buddha's frame of mind. What was he thinking? What were his intentions at the time? We have to use our own thoughts to comprehend the principles that the Buddha expounded in the sutras. In doing so, we will attain the wonderfully subtle meaning.

Experience the joy of translation.

When we translate sutras, our hearts should be filled with the joy of the Dharma. You shouldn't have thoughts of fighting. Use wisdom. Don't be indecisive. Don't use stupidity. We should think of how rare this opportunity is, thinking, “I can take part in this Sutra Translation Assembly. It is truly a fortunate event that is hard to encounter even in ten thousand eons. It's impossible to describe my happiness." Each time we translate a sutra here, everyone should first very quietly recite, "Homage to the eternally dwelling Buddhas of the ten directions. Homage to the eternally dwelling Dharma of the ten directions. Homage to the eternally dwelling Sangha of the ten directions." That doesn't mean reciting it verbally. 

You should have this thought in your minds, "I take refuge with the limitlessly limitless, infinitely infinite, eternally dwelling Three Jewels (the Buddha, the Dharma, the Sangha) of the ten directions to the exhaustion of empty space throughout the Dharma realm. We hope that the Three Jewels will aid us, enabling us to have proper knowledge and proper views, and open great wisdom so that we can translate sutras." Every time we do the work of translating sutras, each person should first request the aid of the Buddhas. Don't use the human mind to translate sutras. You should use the true intention of the Buddhas. When you translate, ask yourself, "Is this meaning in accord with what the Buddha meant, or is it in opposition to what the Buddha meant? At the time when the Buddha spoke this sutra, what was his intention?” That's what you should pay attention to. Although you could say this is a false thought, what you do will be genuine if your mind is true. If your contemplation is true, you will unite with the substance of the Three Jewels.

Devoting their lives to translation.

The work we do is not like the work of worldly people. Don't ask, "What kind of compensation will I get for doing this work? What will I gain from it in the future?” The translation work we are doing offers no worldly gains whatsoever. We are working for Buddhism entirely on a volunteer basis. We are devoting our entire lives to work for Buddhism. Therefore, we want neither money nor reputation. We're not greedy for wealth, nor are we greedy for sex, food, or sleep. In our work, we must accord with the six great principles of not fighting, not being greedy, not seeking, not being selfish, not pursuing personal advantage, and not lying. When we carry out this work, we don't ask for a reward, or for anything at all. We simply want to translate the Buddhist sutras and that is enough.