Progress Report: the Diamond Sūtra

The past two weeks, I’ve been working on my new edition of Kumārajīva’s Diamond Sūtra. This critical translation will be as accurate and readable as I can make it. My concerns as a translator of a text like this are twofold:

  1. It needs to readable, modern English.
  2. It needs to represent as closely as possible what Kumārajīva wrote.

These two concerns clash somewhat, but they aren’t impossible to accomplish. It means that the prose adheres to generally accepted standards of modern English grammar and style. Contractions are fine, sentences should not be complex or long-winded, and clauses should not be convoluted or awkward in order.

One difficulty of goal #2, however, is the need to preserve some of Kumārajīva’s choices as a translator, such as when he chose to transliterate Sanskrit words rather than render them to Chinese. Another is the fact that some of his word choices are ambiguous. He uses the Chinese word 相 in a couple different ways, as an example. Comparing his Chinese to Sanskrit and later translations to Chinese makes these ambiguities easier to manage, even as I attempt to keep the English a translation of his voice and not what I speculate was what he was translating.

Such are the puzzles of translating translations of ancient documents. They guarantee that there will always be judgement calls that others will nitpick, but careful readings and flexible use of modern English idioms can at least ensure that the reader isn’t misled.

As I review and edit my old version of this sūtra, many topics of interpretation have occurred to me. One is Subhūti himself. He’s quite a character: An obscurity in the Pali Canon, yet an imposing standard-bearer in the Prajñā-pāramitā literature. How or why did he get drafted for the role? Another is the role of the Diamond Sūtra in relation to the Aṣṭasāhasrikā, in which Subhūti teaches the bodhisattvas how to practice the prajñā-pāramitā rather than asking the Buddha about it. And, of course, there’s the task of deciphering a text that doesn’t appear to have any rational organization to it as it rambles along reiterating several points in different ways.

I’ll try to take some time in the next week or two to outline some of these topics here on the blog, and I will also expand on them in an introduction to the new translation. Currently, I’ve completed the first pass on the manuscript and have begun the second pass to resolve the more thorny issues of translating this classic of Buddhist literature.

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