Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Best Dhammapada

Just the other day  someone gave me a book that proved to be yet another   translation of the Dhammapada. On seeing it my  first thought was: “Here we go! Probably another rehash of an earlier rehash.” I was  tempted to put it aside and not even bother flicking through it. But the blurb  on the back about the translator (Ph.D in Sanskrit from Harvard, associate professor of religion, and meditation teacher at the Won Institute of Graduate Studies) made me think that it might be worth at least a quick look. Recently I wrote a review of the truly awful - one couldn’t in all honestly call it a translation or even a rendering – a massacre might be a better description, by Tai Sheridan  which is everything a Dhammapada shouldn’t be. See http://sdhammika.blogspot.sg/search?updated-max=2013-09-07T01:25:00-07:00&max-results=7&start=21&by-date=false
Glen Wallis’ Dhammapada; Verses on the Way, is not only everything this little Buddhist classic should be, I would go so far as to say it is the best Dhammapada presently available.
Someone once said poetry translated from another language is like a desired woman; if its beautiful its not faithful and if its faithful its not beautiful. Well, Wallis seems to have managed to achieve both. His translation has a cadence that reads exceptionally well, and given Pali’s stylistic and grammatical particularities this is quite an achievement. And just as important, it is as faithful to the original as you could want.  At the end of the translation Wallis has just over 100 pages of notes, but don’t let this put you off. These notes  include a learned  but accessible account of  the history, grammar and meaning of the Dhammapada and its place in Indian Buddhist literature. His comments on some of the similes and his numerous quotes from the suttas illuminate the verses in a way that really gives them depth and increased understanding.  Of course one could quibble (and so I will). “Unbinding” seems to be a rather odd translation/rendering of nibbana. But such minor things are more than made up for his truly informative comments on other technical terms. See what he says about bodhi on page 135.  From now on I  think I will stop using the terms “enlightened” and “enlightened one” and switch to “awakened” and “awakened one” instead. If you want a 100% word-for-word accurate translation of the Dhammapada get K. R. Norman’s The Words of the Doctrine with its 174 pages of notes on grammar, syntax, consonant groups, variant readings,  the eastern form of am, etc, and do your best to keep awake. If you want an accurate, readable translation with helpful notes that is true to the Buddha’s Dhamma get Wallis’ The Dhammapada; Verses on the Way. I couldn’t recommend it higher. 

7 comments:

brahmavihara said...

I have always found that the Dhammapada should be the first recommendation for newcomers to Buddhism, but as you say, some of the translations have been truly unhelpful and so it has been difficult to find that one "go to" source that would not have the prospective Buddhist either baffled or running away in fright. So news of a new and more helpfully translated Dhammapada comes as a great relief. I must say that recently I have found myself wincing when I use the term enlightenment also, and after all enlightenment refers to the 18th century development of science, literature and the arts in Europe. Awakening is probably closest to the Pali or Sanskrit meaning of the word. I must say unbound has a certain elegance to it, but not a word you could use in everyday conversation and after all good communication about The Dharma is paramount, it may just be life changing.

Jayarava Attwood said...

thanks for this review - which Dhammapada is a dilemma. I have no fixed preference but might give this one a try. I wonder what Glenn will make of this endorsement by a leading X-Buddhist? :-)

speculative non-buddhism said...

Thank you for this review, Shrvasti Dhammika. I appreciate it. The Dhammapada was my introduction into Buddhism, nearly forty years ago now. Although I derived benefit from Mascaro's rendering, I was always bothered by what I later understood was the Perennialist spirit pervading the book. So, I promised my first Buddhist teacher, the one who gave me the book and taught me to meditate, that I would try my own translation some day.

Jayarava, it's true: this book belongs to an earlier phase of my work. In that phase, my aim was to help tradition speak to 21st-century westerners. At first I thought that I was thus more aligned with the secular Buddhists, but soon realized that I wasn't. I am now up to something completely different in relation to Buddhism, as you know.

Thanks again, Shravasti Dhammika!

Russell Smith said...

I really love the Gil Fronsdal translation. Crystal clear and poetic. I'm no Pali scholar, but many dharma teachers endorse this translation.

Shravasti Dhammika said...

Dear Russell,
I was unaware of Gil Fronsdal's Dhammapada. As I said, some are so bad or just ordinary that I rarely bother to give them a glance. However, on your recommendation I looked up Gil's on Amazon and read all the verses that are available and it certainly looks to be accurate, although perhaps with not as much literary polish as Wallis'. Anyway, thanks for drawing my attention to it.

Caldorian said...

Bhante, thank you for your recommendation. Personally, I always used the German translation by Ven. Ñāṇatiloka (written in a slightly antiquated style) and the Pali-English version by J. Carter and M. Palihawadana, which are both good books. Nevertheless, I'm still looking for an authentic and elegant translation, so I will give Mr. Wallis' version a try.

Shravasti Dhammika said...

Dear Caldorian, not knowing German I am unfamiliar with Nyanatiloka’s translation but I do know Carter and Palihawadana’s. It is amongst several authentic scholarly versions well worth having but perhaps not quite as lyrical as Wallis’. The ones that are still in circulation and which are either inaccurate or reflect the translator/renderer’s opinion rather than the Buddha’s are Muller’s (an important pioneering work but now very dated), Radhakrishna’s (Hinduized), Easwaran (I don’t know what one would call it), Mascaro’s (very poetic but not very accurate, probably not a translation but based on other people’s translations). Avoid these and most of the other translations range from adequate to excellent. But seeing how many Dhps are available makes me ask myself why it is given so much attention and other examples of early Buddhist literature are given so little. The Dhp is actually not a very good introduction to the Buddha’s teachings. It was probably compiled for the use of novice monks and much of what it says is mainly of use to monks, saying little that would be relevant to the average lay person. The word love (metta) does not occur once in the Dhp, compassion (karuna) only occurs once. Why for example, aren’t there more translations of the Sutta Nipata? It is small like the Dhp, it has a good balance between material for monastics and laity, it has more profundity than the Dhp and the original is certainly far more lyrical. To the best of my knowledge there are only three translations of the Sutta Nipata in circulation – Fausboll’s pioneering 1881 translation which is now only of historical interest, Saddhatissa’s poetic but lose translation that nonetheless captures the ‘feel’ of the work quite well, and Norman’s accurate but dry translation. Why haven’t all those Pali scholars turned their skills to the Sutta Nipata?