Historical and Contextual Perspectives
- ISBN: 9781438482934
- Published By: State University of New York Press
- Published: April 2021
Translating Buddhism: Historical and Contextual Perspectives, a volume edited by Alice Collett, contributes to translation studies, a nascent subfield in Buddhist studies. In the introduction Collett notes that within Western academia, translation studies has broadened out from its originally Eurocentric scope (1–2). Collett provides evidence of this broadening by discussing the existing literature, including recent Buddhist Studies contributions to Translation Studies, such as Cross-Cultural Transmission of Buddhist Texts: theories and Practices of Translation, edited by Dorji Wangchuk (Department of Indian and Tibetan Studies, Universität Hamburg, 2016). Wangchuk’s volume, as Collett explains, provides no introduction to the essays included therein: “This presentation betrays the state-of-play of the subdiscipline of translation studies within the field of Buddhist studies. It is, as yet, undefined” (2). Rather than provide a singular definition of the subdiscipline, Collet writes that Translating Buddhism aims to present “question after question about what the subdiscipline is, about how we define it, how we shape it, and how we want it to be constituted” (2). To this end, the volume is organized in three parts. While space limitations prohibit a detailed discussion of each of the book’s three parts, it will be useful to discuss part one in detail as this sets the tone for the volume as a whole.
Part 1 is constituted by three chapters which focus on texts. In the first chapter, Collett Cox reflects on her experience not only as a translator, but also as an “editor who establishes the text[,]” working as a part of the Early Buddhist Manuscripts Project to restore damaged texts (20). As a result of this experience, Cox asks two questions in her chapter: “what precisely is the text that we are translating, and what is our role in this translation process?” Her answer contains an insight central to all three chapters in this first part of the book: we “may discover that there is no stable text to be found” (21). Centering her work on the Suvarṇa(pra)bhāsottama (hereafter Suvarṇa), Natalie Gummer’s chapter puts forth one answer to Cox’s questions when she states that the Suvarṇa describes itself as “the real, eternal body of the Buddha” (49). Gummer’s chapter both describes the performative strategies that the Suvarṇa uses to advance its claim and pays careful attention to how one might translate the text to reveal these performative strategies. Gummer concludes with a statement that seemingly all the contributors to Translating Buddhism would affirm: “The translator conveys more than the mere meaning of the words in the text: deliberately or no [sic], she also conveys to the reader a set of implicit instructions on how to read the text” (66).
The final chapter in part 1 is Amy Paris Langenberg’s “On Reading Vinaya: Feminist History, Hermeneutics, and Translating the Female Body.” The vinaya is the body of Buddhist literature concerned with monastic codes and lore. While hermeneutic concerns are central to all contributions in this volume, Langenberg’s chapter explicitly takes up the question of hermeneutics. Langenberg cites and concurs with Stephanie Jamison’s claim that philology can be “a potentially powerful methodology for illuminating the lives of the ancient ‘subaltern,’ especially women” (71). Langenberg’s chapter then is devoted to demonstrating how philology may be used to develop a “careful and savvy strategy for reading vinaya” in a way that focuses on gender, particularly by raising “the possibility that the ancient Buddhist nunnery was a place where monastic women exercised certain types of agency as practitioners, interpreters, and even authors of monastic discipline, despite their oft-mentioned subordination to the male community” (72). Taken together, the three chapters that form part 1 establish the theoretical and methodological tone for the remainder of the volume.
Part 2, which also contains three chapters, turns attention away from texts to focus on translators. Oskar von Hinüber interrogates commentaries translated into Pāli—who did this, and who are the translations for? Elizabeth Harris takes up the work of “nineteenth-century missionary translators working in Sri Lanka” to argue that their lives and works have been insufficiently attended to in debates about colonialism and orientalism (9). Ligeia Lugli’s chapter closes this part of the volume by centering the Sanskrit word saṃjñā (often translated as “perception,” but Lugli problematizes this) to ask questions of how translators of Buddhist texts might draw upon debates in the field of linguistics—such as the distinction between words and terms—and what impact this would have on their translations (169–70). Finally, across four chapters, part 3 aims to take the theoretical and methodical insights brought forth in the preceding chapters and apply them to the issues that arise in translating specific words or phrases. In her own contribution to the volume, Alice Collett examines the word antevāsinī in vinaya literature and in inscriptions to complicate the term’s exact meaning. C. V. Jones’ chapter addresses the complexities and controversies involved in translating tīrthika as “heresy.” Divan Thomas Jones’ chapter discusses the term paṭicca-samuppāda (“dependent origination”), and Aruna Gamage analyzes the word desanāsīsa (“headword”) in the tenth and final chapter. In short, parts 2 and 3 provide illustrative examples of the complex theoretical and methodological issues that arise in translation and the consequences of the choices made by translators.
With these chapters, Collet has brought together an illuminating collection that advances the subfield of translation studies within Buddhist studies. Collet has compiled an accessible volume that, as a whole, would be a useful addition to any courses which reflect on theory and method in the practice of translation. While the volume focuses specifically on South Asian Buddhism and English-language translations of Old and Middle Indo-Aryan, it nonetheless offers insights that are applicable to the entire field of translation studies (1). To the wider field of religious studies, Translating Buddhism: Historical and Contextual Perspectives offers both an immensely generative reflection on working with primary source material in classical languages and the complex hermeneutical choices that arise in translation.
Ralph H. Craig III is a PhD candidate in Buddhist Studies and American Religions at Stanford University.Ralph CraigDate Of Review:July 6, 2022