Heat Waves, Data Entry, and Meta-Editing

This summer has been quite an experience for much of the world. Floods, droughts, and a creeping suspicion turned sudden realization: The World is changing, and humans are but bits of flotsam when the raging currents of that change arrive. Yes, it’s true: We aren’t as collectively invulnerable and omnipotent as we imagined a couple generations ago. There’s a whole wide world outside of our human society that doesn’t exist simply to provide raw materials for our economic and recreational lives. It actually makes being alive possible, and that aspect of it can change.

Here in Los Angeles, I’ve been in a sheltered little crevice of mild climate. Close enough to the biggest free air conditioner in the world (the Pacific Ocean) to avoid the worst of the summer heat. But—I don’t have any other air conditioning. Occasionally, the winds decide to give us a dose of what people are feeling inland. And the heat wave, although moderated a bit (we’re staying under 100F), has caught up to us here where we live. Thankfully, it’s not the Midwest where the humidity would make 95-100F weather nearly unlivable without A/C. The wind here is also like clockwork every day, cooling us off as the sun goes down, and desert nights are a relief after the day’s oppression. Between that and the water shortage warnings, it’s a clear clue to even to those insulated from weather in sunny Southern California that All Is Not Well.

As to Buddhist translations, I’m happy to report that the entire Dīrgha Āgama has been released at the Dharma Pearls website with the posting of DĀ 30 The Great Congregation at the end of July. As I’d mentioned in my last post, I’m now on a hiatus. I had planned a summer hiatus from translation work but getting the last of DĀ released took a month or two longer than planned. So, now, it’s a late-summer-autumn hiatus. Ah, well! Deadlines are for journalists, I guess.

At the moment, I’m working on a new system that will help me manage my translations going forward. They’ve reached a volume (nearly 400,000 words in English) that it’s getting hard to maintain them. I have bilingual Word documents that I used to compose and initially edit the translations sitting on my laptop, then the published translations are sitting in my Dharma Pearls Github repo, and then other versions of a few sutras are sitting in SuttaCentral’s Github repo. It’s becoming a mess to maintain them because editing and corrections are ongoing. Living digital documents are great in terms of continual improvement, but once copies are made, maintenance becomes a problem. I eventually lose track of which version is the most up to date.

My solution for this will be to create a bilingual master that lives in a database. It’s a fair amount of data entry work, of course, and catching up completely will likely take the rest of the year. Once it’s in place, though, I’ll be able to transform the master into html pages for Dharma Pearls and data that SuttaCentral can import into their Bilara system. I’m also thinking about future eBooks and PDFs. Once the Dīrgha Āgama translation is mature and polished, there’s no reason not to publish a physical copy, either. All of this requires a more robust way to maintain these different publications. This was the main reason for the hiatus in new translation work.

A second reason is that I need some time to think about other writing projects. Translating ancient texts like the Chinese Āgamas is time-consuming, and I’ve found it difficult to multitask and still get translations released in a timely manner. So, I’ve devoted some time to writing Things Other Than Translations.

The trouble with the Āgamas is that they are big semi-randomized collections of texts. There’s a need for a more holistic approach that can draw out the overall message and import that these many texts contain. I’ve long envisioned a series of writings that take certain strands or concepts and study them across the entire corpus of the Āgamas. On one hand, it’s a way to detect overall differences that existed between Āgama traditions and the Pali Nikāyas. On the other hand, it’ll be more practical for readers who want to gist of what these texts say without the need to read 100,000s of words.

Another potential writing project is to create detailed parallel studies. Parallels are sometimes challenging to even present on a two-dimensional page when there’s a half-dozen or more texts that are closely related to each other. The Parinirvāṇa Sūtra is a good example. I’ve created tables on oversized 11×18″ pages in Word that set its different versions side-by-side, but a person would need a dual-monitor desktop to see it all at once on a screen. Still, there’s plenty of insight that can be found in more modest projects. At the very least, we can learn the importance Buddhists placed on meaning rather than wording. So, that’s another type of writing project I’ve been thinking about.

A third reason for taking a breather is the need to sit down and bring over two years’ worth of translations up to speed with the way I’m translating today. In an ideal universe, a translator could theoretically learn exactly how to translate every word or expression found in ancient texts before they began, and they would never need to change over time as they translate more and more material. Or, conversely, they might be able to sit and polish an entire corpus of translations for years, and then release a perfect work that would need no more corrections.

Sadly, neither of these things are how this universe works. The truth is that a translator who translates a few independent texts is a dilettante compared to someone who embarks on a translation project of a large corpus of ancient texts like the Chinese Āgamas. I had judged myself competent when I began this project because I had already worked for several years with the Chinese Commentary on the Great Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra (T1509). Ah, such innocent times! I had only gotten to the point that I could begin to tackle something like the Āgamas. In a business like this, that has so few people who even attempt it, it’s difficult to judge such things. But I can report that I person does evolve in how they read and understand Buddhist texts after translating several hundred thousand words of them. And I am at best only 25% through this project.

The result is that I have a long list of little items that need to be changed or reviewed across all my translations. Sometimes, it’s a matter of better word choice. I notice from time to time that there’s a better word in English for a Chinese word that just didn’t occur to me before. I can’t understand it myself sometimes, but there it is. Sometimes, I had purposely settled on a placeholder when the original intent wasn’t clear to me, planning to reconsider it “sometime in the future.” Well, the future is here. Sometimes, I’ve had the habit of translating a word the way most other translators have done, or the way a certain translator I’ve read in the past did, and then I realize that I don’t agree with the groupthink anymore. This “meta-editing” is a major task, and also an inevitable one, at least for me. So, I’ll be devoting at least a solid month to whittling down the “to do” list that now runs for pages and pages.

All this aside, I’ll be back to translating in earnest this November. The next Āgama collection that I’ll be focusing on is the Ekottarika Āgama, which is a wonderfully mysterious collection of EBTs and avadāna stories. Scholars have spent time scratching their heads over it, but it’s largely been overlooked aside from a few parallel studies recently by Analayo. It does contain a large amount of EBT parallels that hail from a branch of Buddhist somewhat different from those we are most familiar, so it should prove quite interesting at times.

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