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Translation, Transliteration, and Transcription from a Buddhist Perspective


February 19, 2015
5:15 pm - 6:45 pm
Event Category:


Building 240, room 101

Lecture by Trent Walker (Berkeley). Co-sponsored by the Division of Literatures, Cultures, and Languages and the Department of Religious Studies. For more information contact csantana@stanford.edu.

There is some productive confusion between what linguists distinguish as translation, transliteration, and transcription. In rough terms, we might differentiate between taking a text from one language to another (translation), taking a text from one script to another (transliteration), and taking a text from one graphical representation of its sounds to another (transcription). But the boundaries are often blurred. A translation may contain many transliterated or transcribed words. Transcription is possible within a single script or language, or across scripts and languages. A transliteration of a text may sometimes be isometric with its transcription.

This talk explores the consequences of the blurred distinctions between these three modes of transforming texts from a Buddhist studies perspective. By all accounts, Buddhism began as an oral tradition in perhaps the fifth century BC, with the earliest layers of textual transformation taking place it spread beyond the dialects of the Gangetic plain and across the subcontinent by the third century BC. This roughly coincides with the earliest writing in India, and over the next few centuries the first canons were put into local scripts and languages.

Perhaps the two largest translation endeavors in the premodern world were the translation of the Buddhist canon into Chinese (2nd – 10th centuries AD) and Tibetan (8th – 14th centuries AD), which involved complex processes of transcription and transliteration as well. The last millennium of Buddhist history featured the development of a breathtaking variety of writing systems used to inscribe Buddhist texts, dramatic changes in the phonology of the languages spoken in Buddhist cultures, and the completion of many more massive translation projects into Manchu, Mongolian, Southeast Asian vernaculars, and, more recently, modern Asian and European languages.

By highlighting a few key Buddhist examples of the complex interrelationship between translation, transliteration, and transcription, this talk explores the creative productivity of the blurred lines between these three modes. It will conclude with some examples drawn from the speaker’s own translation work of sung Buddhist poetry from Southeast Asia.