How to Translate a Buddhist Scripture in the Song Dynasty

I recently came across a passage describing what must be the strangest translation system I’ve ever seen. It relates the 9-part method used to translate Buddhist scriptures at a translation center in Biànjīng 汴京 (present-day Kāifēng 開封) around the year 1000 CE, overseen by a Kaśmīri monk named Tiānxīzaī 天息災. Like many of the more elaborate systems of imperial China, it reads like something out of Borges:

1. The Chief Translator (yìzhǔ 譯主), sitting on the head-seat and facing outwards, expounds the Sanskrit text.
2. The Philological Assistant (zhèngyì 正義), sitting on the left of the head-seat, reviews and evaluates the Sanskrit text with the Chief Translator.
3. The Text Appraiser (zhèngwen 證文), sitting on the right of the head-seat, listens to the oral reading of the Sanskrit text by the Chief Translator in order to check for defects and errors.
4. The  Transcriber-monk-student of Sanskrit (shūzì fànxuésēng 書字梵學僧) carefully listens to the Sanskrit text recited by the Chief Translator and transcribes it into Chinese characters. [That is, he transliterates it.]
5. The Translator-scribe (bǐshòu 筆受) translates Sanskrit sounds into Chinese language.
6. The Text-stitcher (zhuìwén 綴文) links up the characters and turns them into meaningful sentences. (Generally, in Sanskrit phrases nouns are followed by verbs. For instance, “contemplating the name of the Buddha” 念佛, in Sanskrit, is “Buddha-name contemplating” 佛念 [=Skt. buddhānusmṛti]. Therefore, it is necessary to edit words and phrases in order to follow the literary style of this land.)
7. The Proofreader (cānyì 參譯) proofreads the words of the two lands so that there are no errors.
8. The Editor (kāndìng 刊定) edits and deletes unnecessarily long expressions and fixes the meaning of phrases.
9. The Stylist (rùnwén 潤文) administers the monks and occupies the seat facing south. He also participates in giving style to the translations.

(Adapted, with modifications, from Tansen Sen, “The Revival and Failure of Buddhist Translations during the Song.” T’oung Pao 88 (2002): 35-36.)

3 thoughts on “How to Translate a Buddhist Scripture in the Song Dynasty

  1. Hello Tom — found your blog from Language Log — I wrote a post about this exact topic not long ago which may interest you: Teamwork. It looks like our sources differ on the precise name of step 2, although I may just have typed it in incorrectly. Does Tansen Sen give a primary source for this? (IIRC Kin did not, or at least not one that I could track down.)

    Incidentally, I’m very interested in the paper on gatha mentioned in your most recent post, if you’d be willing to share it with an unaffiliated dilettante such as myself.

  2. Thanks! Looks like it really is 證義 and 證文 in this source. I was thinking that 正義 seemed more likely, to avoid the repetition, but I guess actually the parallelism is intentional since they sit at the right and left hand of the 譯主:

    … 第一譯主。正坐面外宣傳梵文。第二證義坐其左。與譯主評量梵文。第三證文坐其右。聽譯主高讀梵文。以驗差誤。 第四書字梵學僧。…

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