Traditional Guidelines for Translating Buddhist Texts

Long before translators began to render Tibetan Buddhist texts into Western languages, the Mongols had successfully undertaken this task. The first Buddhist text translated from Tibetan into Mongolian was Shantideva’s Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior (Byang-chub sems-dpa’i spyod-pa-la ‘jug-pa, Skt. Bodhisattvacaryavatara). It was prepared by the Uighur translator Chokyi-ozer (Chos-kyi ‘od-zer), during the reign of the Mongol Yuan Emperor Khaisan Külüg (Chin. Wuzong, Wu-tsung, 1308–1311).

The Mongols translated most of the Tibetan Kangyur (bKa’-gyur) – the collected translations of Buddha’s words – during the time of Altan Khan (1507–1582). The work was finished in 1628–1629 under the patronage of the last Great Mongol Khan, Ligdan Khan (ruled 1603–1629). The Second Manchu Qing Emperor, Kangxi (K’ang-hsi, ruled 1661–1722) sponsored the slight editorial revision and block printing of the Mongolian Kangyur between 1718 and 1720.

The Mongolian translation of the Tibetan Tengyur (bsTan-‘gyur) – the collected translations of the Indian treatises – was completed between 1742 and 1749. This was done under the patronage of the Fourth Manchu Qing Emperor, Qianlong (Ch’ien-lung, ruled 1735–1796) and the supervision of his Tibetanized Mongolian tutor from Amdo, the Second Changkya Khutukhtu, Rolpay-dorjey (lCang-skya Rol-pa’i rdo-rje, 1717–1786). Changkya later went on to supervise the compilation of the Manchu Kangyur from the Chinese Tripitaka, started in 1772 and completed in 1790.

As part of the translation project, Changkya supervised the compilation of a large Tibetan-Mongolian lexicon, A Lexicon Resource for the Learned (Dag-yig mkhas-pa’i ‘byung-gnas), completed in 1741–1742. The lexicon is actually two separate parallel word lists, one in Tibetan and one in Mongolian. Thus, it differs from its predecessor, the early 9th-century Grand (Lexicon) for Understanding Specific (Terms) (Bye-brag-tu rtogs-pa chen-po, Skt. Mahavyutpatti), which places side by side Sanskrit terms and their Tibetan equivalents, and later the Chinese equivalents as well.

The Tibetan-Mongolian lexicon has eleven chapters, listing technical terms used in texts concerning (1) prajnaparamita, (2)madhyamaka, (3) abhidharma, (4) vinaya, (5) Indian tenet systems, (6) tantra, (7) logic, (8) Sanskrit grammar, (9) architecture and artisanship, (10) medicine, and (11) archaicisms and their modern equivalents (brda’ gsar-rnying) – changes from the old to the new Tibetan spelling or improved terminology.

In his introduction to the lexicon, Changkya gave guidelines for the good qualities a translator of Buddhist texts must have, as well as for how to translate Tibetan texts. These guidelines are still relevant today when the Buddhist literature is being translated from Tibetan into Western languages. What follows is a translation of some of the more important passages.